With rural buses in long-term decline and a funding crisis putting more lines at risk, a surprising service has appeared on the English transport menu: the No 46 bus to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Raymond Blanc’s famous restaurant and hotel in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside might not seem like classic bus territory. The Michelin-starred establishment’s seven-course dinner with matching wines starts at £350 a head, rising to just over £1,000 if you want to drink the good stuff.
The last bus back to town at 1am, however, could save an extra £1,000 on an overnight stay – or at least prevent a row over who the designated driver is, after washing Cornish lobster and lamb from the new season with a last glass of premier cru.
Although the hotel advises that some guests do board, particularly if they come first by train, the bus service is primarily for staff. The hospitality sector, like many others since Brexit and Covid, is struggling to fill vacancies, and the service allows the rural business to tap into a pool of city workers.
Launched earlier this summer, Route 46 is funded roughly equally by celebrity chief, county council and passenger fares. Fares cost £3.50 one way, with discounts bringing the cost down to £2 for staff traveling regularly, and the hourly seven-day bus can be tracked online as it goes from Oxford through neighboring villages to the Manor at Great Milton about 10 miles further.
The partnership not only led to the rebranding and extension of a threadbare route to the luxury hotel, but also enabled Go-Ahead-owned Oxford Bus Company to invest in two new buses at low emissions for the route.
A decade of cuts had reduced the region’s unequal access to the city to just one daily service. Thanks to the grant from Blanc and the contribution of the council, the buses now run every hour. The route, which takes in the less affluent Cowley area of Oxford and the villages of Horspath and Wheatley, which have lost buses over the past decade, partly replaces an earlier Stagecoach route deemed unviable.
The funding deal is expected to guarantee services for at least three years – and enable other rural residents to access jobs in Oxford, as well as bring people in the other direction to work at the hotel . So far, passenger numbers have reportedly been high and exceeded the bus company’s expectations.
Beyond the business case for attracting staff and the welcome addition to community connections, Blanc’s contribution was driven by another pressing need. The Manor intends to expand its premises considerably and must reassure its neighbors in the village that these plans will not lead to more traffic.
A spa is planned, as well as a training academy. Sustainable Transportation helps it complete Section 106 in planning applications – which details the steps a developer must take to reduce their impact on the community.
In these desperate years for buses, every little bit counts. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, more than a quarter of bus services in England have disappeared over the past decade and the rate of attrition has accelerated during the pandemic. From 2011 to 2019, the total mileage of bus services fell by 10%, then by 18% in the following two years.
The downfall was caused initially by the collapse of funding for local authorities by cash-strapped councils, which had supported services seen as socially necessary. Oxfordshire County Council is a prime example: in 2011 it spent just over £4m supporting buses; in 2019, the budget was zero.
Paul Tuohy, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Local buses have seen more than a decade of funding cuts that have left many places, especially rural areas, without usable service.”
Commercial services have since been most at risk. After the pandemic began, government emergency funding kept many routes alive, but operators pulled others. Others could disappear when government stimulus grants expire, after funding was extended until September.
The pandemic has come at a cruel time for a sector which had finally persuaded the government to announce a proper national strategy and £3billion of investment by self-proclaimed bus enthusiast Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, the vast majority was then earmarked as emergency funding as revenues disappeared, and regions were then forced to bid against each other’s improvement plans to win the remainder.
Oxfordshire was one of the relatively lucky regions, with £12.7million. Imaginative partnerships have long existed, however, with Go-Ahead and commercial ventures: its Oxford branch also piloted an on-demand bus service, PickMeUp, which eventually ran out of cash. Oxford Bus Company said the 46 at the Manor “demonstrates what can be achieved when key stakeholders work together”.
Elsewhere the picture has been grimmer – exemplified by the story earlier this year of pensioner Alan Williams, who stepped in with a £3,000 bid to fund the X53 route to his home in Bridport, which was about to be removed by FirstGroup. However, the 78-year-old managed to save the Sunday service after his generosity attracted huge publicity.
Activist Tuohy added: “Raymond Blanc obviously sees the commercial benefits of a good bus service, but there shouldn’t be a need for individuals to fund what should be a public service. The government must do more to support local buses so that all communities and businesses can benefit, no matter where they are.