It's not easy to persuade drivers to use rural buses!

Ipswich Bus Station

Eastern Counties buses at Ipswich - rural services are always likely to be seen as the transport of last resort. - Credit: Paul Geater

We've just had the most significant easing of Covid restrictions and people are now starting to think about how they are going to get out and visit family and friends - or just get out to have a good time.

At the same time transport bodies from Suffolk County Council to the rail companies are looking at how they should be providing services in the future.

There are some very interesting ideas starting to emerge - but I'm not at all sure they are all entirely realistic or sensible, however well-meaning they may be.

The one thing the last 15 months has taught us is that for those with access to their own private transport, the car is king - and is likely to remain so.

At a time when most people were told they could not use public transport, and then to only use it as a last resort, the idea of leaving the car in the garage or on the drive and using a bus or train seems like a really daft idea.

As much as rail companies, bus companies and transport planners may try to change that view over the next few months, I'm not convinced that too many people will be listening.

On the rail side, if it is to get its passengers back Greater Anglia really does need to pull its finger out and restore a normal Intercity service if it wants to win back its passengers - in 2021 it isn't acceptable to expect passengers to wait on a near-deserted Ipswich station for 39 minutes if they are travelling from London to Woodbridge.

Intercity Greater Anglia train

Greater Anglia needs to improve connection times at Ipswich for passengers changing trains. - Credit: Greater Anglia/Nick Strugnell

But I do think most train passengers will return - albeit there will continue to be fewer commuters as many office workers will no longer be streaming to their desks five days a week.

The bus question - especially rural bus services - is much more challenging, and when I heard of the county council's "Bus Back Better" campaign I really did feel officers battling against reality in some important respects.

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The fact is that rural buses are always going to be a means of transport of last resort. They are never going to be anyone's first choice mode of transport. If you can afford to buy a house in Eye, Framlingham, Aldeburgh, or Hadleigh you are likely to be able to afford a car. The bus services are really only used by a small minority of those unable to access a private car.

And the Suffolk towns that have had the most significant expansion over the last 20 years are Saxmundham, Stowmarket, and Woodbridge/Melton. Now the large villages of Thurston and Elmswell are growing fast too.

What do they have in common? They have railway stations. If people want to live in them without a car - or if there is only one car for a large household - you can get access to other places at reasonable speed. You can be in Ipswich (or Norwich) in 20 minutes on the train from Diss. The bus from Eye, which is only a few miles away, takes more than an hour!

Of course rural buses are a vital resource for those who do rely on them - and deserve to be supported for their sake. But to imagine that there is a magic wand that can make them a successful money-spinner is wholly unrealistic.

Where buses can be successful is in urban areas - Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds have had successful bus networks for years. But for too long the county council has ignored them - leaving operators to get on with it and doing the bare minimum to support them.

While other nearby counties - Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, and Essex - have worked with bus operators to come up with shared ticketing in major towns and cities, in Suffolk it's always been more trouble than it's worth for the county council.

It is now looking at that and it seems as if joint-ticketing might finally be on the agenda - but only after the boss of Ipswich Buses said the county was 20 years behind the rest of the country when it came to supporting the industry.

It will be interesting to see whether the "Bus Back Better" campaign actually does anything to help passengers - or whether it simply turns out to be a nice-sounding slogan that doesn't really have any impact on bus passengers generally.

A reliable bus service is vital - and in the largest towns it can be profitable. But no one should be under any illusions that rural buses are ever going to big money-spinners!

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