Bus services could be threatened

Chris Hill Norfolk bus operators last night said they could be forced to axe rural services unless the government relaxed a “farcical” EU directive on drivers' rest times.

Chris Hill

Norfolk bus operators last night said they could be forced to axe rural services unless the government relaxed a “farcical” EU directive on drivers' rest times.

Under the drivers' hours rule, approved by Parliament last year, bus drivers on journeys of more than 50km would be subject to the same regulations as long-distance truckers.

Companies would need to fit costly tachograph monitoring equipment to their vehicles to comply, or break the journey into shorter sections - leaving passengers to change buses or get off half-way while it swapped drivers and service numbers.

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Public transport bosses said the rules on routes over 50km were too costly to implement and they were pressuring the government to re-evaluate the legislation.

They said if it was fully enforced they would need to reassess the less financially-viable services which provide a mobility lifeline for elderly or less affluent travellers between Norfolk's villages.

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The Department of Transport is reviewing how the directive is to be implemented and the danger to rural services was highlighted by North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham in a commons debate with transport minister Rosie Winterton on Tuesday.

Ben Colson, director of the Norfolk Green bus company, has represented the industry in talks with transport ministers and officials in Westminster.

He said: “It has been likened to a farce from a Carry On film, particularly the idea of people getting off a bus and then getting back on again.

“Some people, possibly the old or infirm, may decide they cannot do that and become more socially excluded as a result.

“Whether we fit tachographs or break up routes there will be a cost. For rural services the consequences will, without question, be the loss of some of the weaker services, particularly on Saturdays as the legislation demands two consecutive drivers' rest days per week.”

Norfolk Green's popular Coasthopper service, which has seen a 100pc rise in passengers on the 75km route from Lynn to Cromer in the last year, could also be at risk.

“To accommodate the increase in demand we have put extra buses on,” said Mr Colson. “We might have a driver available to do it legally, but if they don't have the right equipment we can't run it.”

“The government has legislated on something they didn't understand at the time, but now they do we are all trying desperately to find some sort of alleviation to the worst effects.”

Mr Bellingham said: “We are urging the government to look at ways to tone this legislation down because it is not relevant in rural areas.

“One of the problems is that most European countries will implement it with a light hand while Britain will gold-plate it and implement it heavily.”

Colin Booth, operations director at First buses, said: “The bus drivers would have to work on the same regulations as truckers, which is ridiculous.

“Drivers on our X1 route from Lowestoft to Peterborough have to be on separate rotas and take separate breaks and meal times - we're trying to work with two sets of rules.”

Adrian Gunson, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for transportation, said: “I think this is a very retrograde step which is almost certain to have the biggest effect on the marginal and subsidised rural routes.

“These regulations would frustrate our efforts enormously in helping with the accessibility of rural areas to the elderly, the young and the less well-off.”

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