An extension awarded to a subsidised ‘on demand’ bus service which aims to assist isolated rural communities will cost £1.8m in public cash.
Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said he had taken the decision to further extend the Tees Flex service for another 18 months, having looked at the data and the “wider picture”.
It had seemed inevitable that the pilot scheme would end this week with operator Stagecoach previously being told to stop running the service after February 24 and drivers also apparently being given notice.
But in an announcement on Monday, which was welcomed by council leaders in Hartlepool and Darlington, the mayor said the 18-month extension was a “sensible” move.
The Tees Valley Combined Authority, which Mr Houchen leads and which has devolved powers over transport, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that the bill would be £1.8m.
Asked about recent passenger figures, it said there were almost 2,500 ‘unique users’ of the service between July 2021 and April last year.
It described several locations from where more than a thousand return trips were completed using Tees Flex minibuses over the 10-month period, including Stillington, Wynyard and Bishopton, near Stockton, Loftus, east Cleveland, and Sadberge, near Darlington.
A spokesman said the use of the service, which began in February 2020, would continue to be closely monitored, while its operational zones and fares will be unchanged.
He said: “Tees Flex was launched just before the covid pandemic hit and therefore was heavily affected by the virus.
“Extending the project will give the scheme a proper opportunity to see its full potential.”
Passengers who have been in touch with the LDRS previously to air concerns have described Tees Flex as a “lifeline” and as a “vital link”.
But there have also been accounts of the service being unreliable, with some elderly folk unable to use a mobile app used to book trips and claiming they can’t get through on the telephone.
Meanwhile, in October 2021, a scrutiny committee meeting at the combined authority heard that 60% of the mileage buses were undertaking involved just one passenger, leading Stockton councillor Norma Stephenson to muse whether it was a waste of money and if it would “probably be cheaper if we took an account out from a taxi company”.
Last year, Conservative Mr Houchen took aim at fellow ‘metro mayor’, Labour’s Andy Burnham over his involvement in local transport, claiming plans for a London-style bus system with capped fares in Greater Manchester was unaffordable and could require a mass subsidy from the Government.
However, he also did not rule out the introduction of franchised bus services on his own patch – as opposed to the current deregulated system where private operators choose their own routes – in the future “if it’s the right thing to do”.
Reacting to the Tees Flex extension, David Parker, a commercial director with Stagecoach North East said: “We are delighted with the decision to extend Tees Flex for a further 18 months and welcome the opportunity to continue working in partnership with the Tees Valley Mayor and combined authority.
“Our on-demand Tees Flex bus service provides a vital link to healthcare appointments and employment and education opportunities across the Tees Valley and has become invaluable to members of our local communities.
“I’m sure our customers will welcome [this] announcement as much as we do and we look forward to working in close collaboration with our local authority colleagues over the coming months on the continuation of our innovative transport solution.”