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COSTLY 'GHOST' BUS ROUTE MAY LIVE YET.

Byline: BOB HAYWOOD

A'GHOST' bus service in the Midlands is rising from the dead.

The No 288 route in Stourbridge is one of the least-used routes in the region.

But it continues to trundle along because of a PS30,000 a year public subsidy.

However, it has now emerged that the 288 is speeding up - with a whopping increase in passengers. Three months ago, the Sunday Mercury highlighted the service in a special report on the staggering cost of free bus travel in the West Midlands.

We told how the bill for concessionary passes to the elderly, the blind and the disabled across Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry and Solihull is a whopping PS58 million a year.

But that, we reported, was only part of the sky-high cost falling on the public purse.

Because another PS8 million a year is being paid in subsidies to highly-profitable privately-owned bus companies to encourage them to operate littleused services.

Among the 'ghost' routes we spotlighted was the hourly 288 which was carrying an average of only six passengers per journey - mainly pensioners with free travel passes. The public subsidy on the route is PS29,367 a year - equivalent to PS1.34 per passenger per journey.

The 288 used to be run by big-time operator Arriva Buses but is now being operated by minnow West Midlands Special Needs Transport (WMSNT).

In the first week of the new contract, the number of passengers rose from 340 to 436 - eight passengers per journey - and 30 per up.

In Week 2, a total of 496 passengers were carried - an average of nine per trip - and a 45 per cent increase.

The latest available figure is for Monday, November 11, when there were 108 passengers - and average of 10 per journey - and 64 per cent up.

Des Rogers, operations manager of WMSNT, said: "It is early days yet, but we are confident of increasing passenger numbers significantly on the 288 as we have done with other routes.

"As a relatively small bus operator, we have the advantage of focusing on our passengers' needs.

"We know - especially with an hourly service like the 288 - that punctuality and clean and reliable buses are paramount.

"If we run three minutes early and a passenger is left behind, they have to wait another hour and might, as a result, stop using the service in the future.

"We also try to ensure that the same drivers stay on the same service and they know the habits of their passengers."

Birmingham-based WMSNT - a not-for-profit company - runs Ring and Ride services across the conurbation, plus 49 'ordinary' services. In August, we discovered that nearly 300 routes in the West Midlands conurbation - Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry and Solihull - are receiving subsidies, totalling PS8.02 million.

Centro robustly defends the hefty pay-outs to bus operators saying that the aim of the little-used routes is to ensure that people - mainly the elderly - are not left stranded at home. The body says its total subsidy of PS8.02 million compares favourably with Greater Manchester (PS19.5 million), Merseyside (PS15 million) and West Yorkshire PS17 million).

The West Midlands spends PS3.04 per head of population per year on subsidies - less than half the average PS6.60 spent in Britain's other major conurbations, says Centro.

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The underused No.288 bus runs thanks to a PS30,000-a-year public subsidy
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 17, 2013
Words:561
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