Busing around the Lake District

Published 16 August 2017

Stagecoach Cumbria minibus at the foot at Catbells
At the foot of Catbells, the 77 heads on its way back to Keswick

In 2014 Cumbria County Council took a look at its budget, and thought “crap”. The numbers just didn’t add up. Cuts in its grant from central government in the name of austerity meant something had to give. But what?

One of the things they chose to look at was the money spent subsidising local bus services. And they did. They struck a line through the existing figure and replaced it with a new one. Zero. Not a single pound would be spent providing local bus services by the council. Subsidised services would either have to live on their own, or whither and die.

I’m not saying this to have a go at Cumbria County Council. They made a judgement call. Many other councils have done the same. In recent years, Luton, Darlington and Wrexham all did the same. And they’re not the only ones to think about it either. Several other councils pondered through the options, but stepped back from the abyss.

So Cumbria is by no means unique in having no subsidised bus services. And that means that every bus has to make a profit, or be cross subsidised by the operator’s other services.

Sometimes you just have to wonder which one it was. I certainly did on a recent Friday when travelling on 508. The 0920 bus from Penrith to Windermere was capable of holding 50 people at any one time on its two hour journey. There were less than ten of us on board as the bus huffed and wheezed its way towards Patterdale. And when I got off at Pooley Bridge, it was one person quieter.

Stopping at the King’s Head Hotel, Thirlspot, the 555 bus offers great access to Helvelyn

Thus is the lot of the rural bus service, although it has to be said that much of the Lake District gets a far better bus service than many rural parts of the country. The reason for this are, without any doubt at all, tourists. Stagecoach, the operator who run the vast majority of bus services inside the national park, certainly have the tourist pound firmly in their eyes. Most noticeable are the fleet of open top buses they run throughout the Lakes. It’s hard to think of anywhere else in Britain where so many run on normal services. In fact if I’d arrived at Penrith an hour late, an open top double decker would have been whisking me on to Pooley Bridge instead of the single decker. Such a shame it was raining.

The walker isn’t forgotten either, with specific services like the 516 Langdale Rambler, and the 77/77A that offer access to a variety of fells. Whilst they’re used by many people, there’s no denying that all three services have walkers firmly in their target market.

Of course, not every part of the Lakes is well served by buses. There are plenty of villages (and areas where you can access fells!) that get next to no services at all. Ennerdale, Wastwater and Kentmere are all deprived of public transport. Which, if you’re trying to follow Wainwright’s lead and only bag fells using public transport, makes life rather difficult.

But if you are in the Lakes fellbagging, do try to use the bus. The roads in the Lakes can often be crowded so the more of us who use public transport, the better. Plus you may well just be helping to keep some vital bus services on the road, because if we don’t use it, the council certainly won’t step in.

Since this was written, a local government re-organisation has seen Cumbria Council replaced by two new unitary authorities.

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