Dorset public transport in a ‘spiral of decline’ amid cuts

CAMPAIGNS are calling for action against ‘chaotic’ rail and bus services which they say are discouraging people from using public transport – amid fears the cuts could cause a ‘spiral of decline’.

South Western Railway’s Weymouth-Waterloo services, which ran twice an hour before the pandemic, currently run only once an hour – a service introduced as a result of Covid.

The operator has implemented an emergency schedule to deal with the lack of personnel due to the Omicron variant from January 17 to February 21 which cut direct links to the capital.

These have since been restored – but campaigners say the service is not good enough with fewer trains and no late service. They fear services will not return to their pre-Covid times, even when the summer timetable is introduced in May.

There are also concerns about local bus services, particularly those which are supposed to connect to trains at Dorchester.

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Barry Thompson, chairman of the Dorchester & District Labor Party, said: “The South Western Railways replacement timetable valid from February 21 to May 14 leaves much to be desired.

“The service west of Poole and Bournemouth is chaotic – we always seem to be forgotten. Now we only have one train an hour each way Monday to Friday from Weymouth to London Waterloo.

“People keep saying service is back to normal since Omicron’s schedule ended, but it’s not, there’s no late train from Monday to Friday, and there’s still only one per hour.

“There are people going to football matches and the Mayflower Theater in Southampton who can’t come back now because the last train is running earlier. I’m afraid that in May things will remain as they are.

Weymouth resident Dave Johnston, who has campaigned for better rail services, shares similar sentiments and worries that Weymouth and Dorchester will become ‘a branch line’.

He added: “What irritates me most is that during the SWR reduction of our Weymouth-Waterloo frequency to one per hour, a higher frequency was evident from Poole.

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“There are already more passengers using the trains again, but a restriction of just five cars at Bournemouth is starting to show uncomfortable conditions. This could be counterproductive and therefore it is necessary to double up to two per hour.

“Another problem is that the last train from Waterloo to Weymouth is at 9.30pm while there are two later trains which only go as far as Poole.”

Bob Driscoll of the Western Area Transport Action Group (WATAG) is also unhappy with rail services.

Mr Driscoll said: ‘We were very upset and concerned when they disconnected all direct trains to London, which they did without notice, but we were very happy that it was a short-lived event.

“It’s been difficult for everyone, but there’s no doubt that travel demand has plummeted during Covid.”

With a new summer schedule scheduled for May, Driscoll encourages people to be patient.

Mr Thompson also expressed concerns about bus services in the area which are run by First Wessex.

He said: ‘Dorchester station had a connecting bus every hour which went to Bridport and Lyme Regis. Now there are only five a day, with the last at 6 p.m., so no one can tune in. It’s supposed to encourage people to use public transport instead of the car.

Mr Driscoll admits he shares the same concerns about car use and in an ideal world there would be connecting trains much later in the evening.

The Transport Action Group has asked for money to improve bus services as part of the Bus Service Improvement Plan.

Mr Driscoll added: ‘If we want people to stop using their cars, they need to be driven more frequently and sometimes people actually want to use them. It’s a climate issue.

“It is a slippery and short-sighted slope to continue to cut services in the hope that those who remain will pay.

“If you make services so unattractive that people don’t want to use them anymore, you go into a ‘decline spiral’ where a service is downsized, fewer people use it, and then because fewer people use it, they cut it even further, and finally the inevitable happens.

A spokesperson for South Western Railway said: “The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way people work, travel and play, and it is essential that we adapt to the new normal – especially at a time when the taxpayer subsidizes strongly the railway.

“With our commuter numbers reaching around 50% of pre-pandemic levels and customers telling us they expect to eventually make 60% of the daily journeys they were accustomed to, we are amply meeting demand by delivering 85% of services.

“As we have done throughout the pandemic, we remain committed to continuously monitoring capacity and demand, and to providing excellent customer service across our network.”

A spokesman for bus operator First Wessex said: ‘We currently connect with a good proportion of trains at Axminster and Dorchester and have done so for many years.

“The service, X51, is designed to provide road transport links between Axminster, Lyme Regis, Bridport, Dorchester and Weymouth. The services operate along part of the Jurassic Coast and therefore carry many tourists, particularly in summer.

“Where possible, and where possible, we will try to provide connections for national rail at Axminster or Dorchester station. However, it is not always possible to provide connections for all journey opportunities on the rail network due to the service having other demands.”

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