The long campaign to keep the 503, Hambledon’s only bus service, looks to be over as Surrey County Council has confirmed it is to be scrapped at the start of September next year.
The route, which connects the village to shops, surgeries and rail and bus links further afield, is operated by Stagecoach under contract to Surrey County Council which heavily-subsidises the 503 and many other rural routes. The council needs to make savings.
The 503 starts at Lane End, Hambledon, and runs through the village to Hydestile, Milford, Godalming and Guildford.
It has been under threat since 2011, but Hambledon Parish Council campaigned to keep the service going and it survived three successive bus reviews.
On those occasions no alternative was proposed and the village would have been left with no bus. This time, however, it is different.
Stewart Payne, on behalf of the parish council, met with David Ligertwood, the county’s passenger transport projects team manager. The meeting was a response to new proposals to remove the 503 and replace it with a Digital Demand-Responsive Transport (DDRT) service. This is being rolled-out across rural areas in Surrey after a government-funded pilot scheme in the Mole Valley area, centred around Dorking and Leatherhead, was deemed to be a success.
This service was introduced to the Farnham and Cranleigh areas last month and will arrive in the Godalming and Haslemere areas next September.
Instead of a timetabled service, with a prescribed route and stops, DDRT will operate six-days a week between the hours of 7am and 7pm. Passengers can call the DDRT centre by phone, on-line or by a mobile phone app, to request a collection from their home or any other location within the DDRT zone. An all-electric minibus will be despatched and the passenger(s) can be taken to any destination within the same zone.
Currently, the 503 only operates three days a week, twice in each direction, but still provides an important service.
Mr Ligertwood, who will oversee the introduction of DDRT in the Godalming area, visited Hambledon at the invite of the parish council. He took a look around the village and then chatted with Stewart over a cup of coffee at the village community shop.
He said the council had done well to successfully campaign to keep the 503 and he was pleased that, this time, the council had something to put in its place. A pilot DDRT scheme in the Mole Valley area of the county had been well received, he said, and he was confident that more people can benefit from DDRT rather than an infrequent scheduled service.
Details of exactly how it will operate in the Godalming and Haslemere areas are still under consideration, but he assured Stewart that the parish council, on behalf of residents, will be consulted with.
It is expected that a flat-rate fare of £2 for a journey of up to five miles will be charged. It would be best to request your collection with as much advance notice as possible and the minibus may collect other nearby passengers on the same journey.
Guildford will be in a separate zone, but the minibus can take a passenger to Godalming to connect with bus and rail services to Guildford and elsewhere.
Stewart said that some people may be reluctant to request a DDRT or to use the technology involved. Mr Ligertwood said that a phone service would be offered alongside digital options and the call centre would not be out-sourced but operated by SCC.
If demand was sufficient, he said he would even consider the possibility of a regular service once or twice a week, perhaps starting at an agreed time at the village shop, calling at homes around the village and even using the existing bus stops.
Nearer the time he will meet with the parish council again and he also offered to attend a village meeting to outline the service, once an operator is under contract and more details are available.
Clearly there is much to consider and the views of the village will be sought at the appropriate time. If Hambldedon residents choose to embrace the service and help structure it to work to their advantage, it will keep cars off the road, reduce congestion and keep buses running in rural areas, albeit in a different way.