PENSIONERS fighting to save their once-a-week “lifeline” bus service are prepared to dig into their own pockets to keep it going.
The dozen who use the Dial-a-Ride service between Blanchland and Hexham every Tuesday have been told the service is not paying its way and is in line to be taken off next spring.
But the self-styled ‘bus group’ who use the 12-mile return journey have banded together to fight the council’s plans.
Northumberland County Council pays over £3,500 a year to keep the ADAPT bus on the road – a subsidy equivalent to £7 per passenger.
Local authority guidelines say the subsidy should stand at no more than £5 – and Northumberland Transport Support Manager Ian Coe said: “If the service continues to offer poor value for money it will have to be withdrawn.”
The move has sparked a petition signed by all 12 regulars on the 695 service. Organiser Barbara Simmons, 73, who lives with her daughter near Slaley, said: “We all thought it was fair to offer £5 return to keep the bus on.
“We’re entitled to free travel and at the moment we get free travel, but the 695 bus is a lifeline, and compared to the £30 a taxi would cost it would still be good value.
“It’s not only a bus service for us – it’s a weekly meeting with friends, where we go into Hexham, spend our pennies, have a laugh and a coffee, and come home a couple of hours later.
“Not only that, but the bus comes to our doorsteps, and the kind drivers even carry our things in for us.
“That’s extremely valuable for me. I have breathing problems and cannot walk far – I certainly couldn’t walk into the village, so without this service I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere easily.
“The people who make the decisions should be aware that one day they too will be old and unable to drive.”
The medieval village of Blanchland, on the Northumberland-Durham border, is in danger of becoming further isolated.
The 773 Weardale service through the villages to Consett has been reduced, and the loss of the 695 would be a severe blow.
George Ellison, secretary of the Blanchland Community Development Organisation, said: “Blanchland Parish Council fought very hard to get the funding quite a few years ago, when the service was once a fortnight.
“Then when Tynedale Council disappeared a couple of years ago, Northumberland County Council took over and all of a sudden the bus just stopped.
“Then the ADAPT bus started once a week and the locals are quite willing to pay a little bit towards it.
“The 695 service is essential to these people and they are desperate to keep it.”
The county council wrote to all parish and town councils in April to mark out all bus services exceeding the recommended passenger subsidy level.
Mr Coe said the subsidy for the 695 exceeded even the revised thresholds agreed by its Bus Subsidy Working Group and added: “Annual savings need to be made from the supported services budget.
“As the overall expenditure on this service is relatively low, the service will continue to be supported in its present form until April 2013.
“If by the end of this period no alternative is found and the service continues to offer poor value for money, it will have to be withdrawn.”
However, Mrs Simmons added: “This makes us feel of no value to society when most of us have paid our tax and done voluntary work.
“What is the advantage of being a good, honest, hard-working citizen when you mean so little to society now?”