The landscapes of Cumbria house communities that have existed on regular and accessible local transport for generations; however, in recent years, declining numbers of users and declining funds to subsidise services in rural areas have begun to bite and the community is now facing a potential spiralling effect from the downturn in travel. The undercurrents of economic constraints and policy decisions have begun to erode this once-reliable network, leaving the rural areas of Cumbria in danger of further economic decline. The 2022 discontinuation of the M1 bus service in Maryport exemplifies a broader systemic issue afflicting the county and rural areas, according to the BBC report on October 22.

The M1 service, once a lifeline for the communities of Ellenborough and Ewanrigg, was ceased last year by its operator, Stagecoach, citing insufficient usage. This isn’t an isolated incident; several parts of Cumbria have seen a similar retraction of bus services post the local authority’s decision to cut subsidies in 2014. These dwindling transport links not only disrupt daily routines but seep into the social fabric, restricting mobility and, by extension, freedom for residents who have no other means of transportation.

The trickle-down effects of these service cuts extend to the local economy as well. Maryport’s town centre, for instance, has witnessed a notable reduction in footfall, with local businesses like Maryport News experiencing a roughly 20% drop in patronage over the past year, the BBC reported. The reduced accessibility to the town centre interrupts the habitual social and economic interactions that once enlivened the community.

The political arena has not been immune to the transport crisis. The Labour-led Cumbria County Council has faced criticism from MPs for the sharp decline in transport subsidies since 2014, a decision propelled by government austerity measures. However, the now-defunct county council has not been the only one to suffer the cuts this way. Rural area transport services across the country are declining, with one local transport official suggesting that “at best, we’re seeing 75-80% usage of bus services compared to pre-pandemic.”

Cuts to public transport budgets are not new, with Cumbria losing its subsidised transport a few years ago.  Bob Cooper, BBC Cumbria political reporter, noted in his report that the Cumbria area has seen 40 examples of cuts to local bus services since subsidies were cut in 2014. Still, successive councils of Cumbria subsidise routes as ringfenced by central government funding on certain routes, with both councils in the country offering concessionary travel at 58% of ticket prices.

The subsequent formation of Westmorland and Furness Council and Cumberland Council, however, hints at a possible change in tide. With newfound funding and a different governance structure, there’s a glimmer of hope for reinvigorating the rural transport network. The allocation of £50,000 from the Local Transport Fund towards community transport initiatives, albeit a modest sum, reflects a potential shift towards more locally tailored solutions. The newly established councils, armed with a nearly £1m grant from the Department for Transport, are at a juncture where strategic investment in rural transport could mend the fragmented connectivity within the county.

Blogging and industry experts

However, as Roger French’s bus and train blog suggests, there is a growing fragmentation within what was Cumbria that the Westmorland is pulling ahead while what is now Cumberland is effectively falling behind.

In one comment from the Improvements to the famous 555 Lancaster to Keswick by a Peter Fox, “Nice to see Westmorland and Furness giving public transport a high priority. I don’t have such high expectations from Cumberland as the history of Stagecoach here is the opposite. Services are cut back, eun at inconvenient times, etc. Take a ride on the 600 from Cockermouth to Carlisle for a day’s shopping. The first bus after 0930 is 1030 so no real chance of a morning in Carlisle. In the past, it used to run at 0930. The problem is that it is operated by Carlisle depot rather than Workington, so the service is run for Carlisle residents. And Workington depot is known by drivers as the bus graveyard! – only other depots castoffs arrive here. Try a day in Workington and Whitehaven but don’t even think about going to Barrow on the bus from Whitehaven!”

As part of a growth, Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) is set to likely become part of the Cumbrian transport landscape as budgets remain tight. DRT, as a supposed low-cost option, is meant to fill the gap by removing bus services in certain areas; however, current urban “Just in Time” transport categories may not trickle down to the rural environment. In an article published by Bosworth, Price, Collinson and Fox, “Unequal futures of rural mobility: Challenges for a “Smart Countryside”, the academics critique the notion of the UK government’s push to use technologies tested in urban environments being used in their rural counterparts. As urban and rural areas differ, the researchers take apart the idea that such services, including app-based services like DRT, are useful in the rural environment . However, in conversations with several groups these ad-hoc services do not always work out cheaper and in some cases, increase strains on the budget. Others have pointed to the fact that a significant number of those using buses are entirely offline and have already been marginalised due to a reduction in public transport and services in rural Cumberland.

In 2017, the Social Mobility Commission highlighted that people in rural England, particularly in northern Cumbria, suffer low levels of social mobility, largely as a result of more limited choice of education (Social Mobility Commission, 2017). The report at the time noted urban areas of the Greater Manchester area perform very well on youth social mobility indicators, but the more isolated areas of Cumbria underperform significantly. Compared with areas including South Lakes, which was in the top percentiles in the region, the image is incredibly stark. Understanding the issue that reduced services or no bus services at all adds to social mobility issues, and central and regional government should step in to alleviate the issue. Only through technology development and increased investment will the economic chances of these areas increase.

Actionable Insights from Abroad

The actionable insights from above study can be grouped into three categories; initially, there’s a call for enhanced planning and governance. Utilising data science and analytics could foster a more integrated approach to transport provision, addressing a broader spectrum of rural necessities — in theory reducing overall costs despite several people suggesting this does the opposite. Secondly, a significant investment in both infrastructure and technology tailored to rural settings is crucial, but this should be heavily vetted as many startups attempt to offer their services despite not being the right solution. Lastly, the report noted that there is an imperative to revamp regulation to ensure an equitable provision for rural areas, and to legally facilitate the introduction of technological advancements for the benefit of rural Cumbria and other rural areas.

In each scenario, drawing from international and cross-regional studies can expedite the learning process, while localised feasibility studies, grounded on an expanding evidence base, are vital to propel local transformations. Harnessing the potential of new mobility technologies in rural areas necessitates a united approach, ideally through a consortium of rural interest groups. This collective action could pave the way for transforming rural living, countering the risk of rural areas falling behind due to urban-centric mobility advancements. The tale of Maryport’s M1 service mirrors a broader narrative of dwindling rural transport in Cumbria, spurred by a cocktail of financial cutbacks and policy shifts. As the new councils navigate the rugged terrains of budgetary allocations, quick fixes including DRT-like services may tick several boxes but could, in fact, be an additional burden to rural communities especially if they do not have internet access to hail services at specific times be it from either age or socio-demographic challenges including poverty.