QUESTIONS are mounting over a local authority’s flagship demand-responsive bus strategy to improve access to public transport in rural areas after it emerged the service it is trialling has only attracted about three passengers per hour.

Numerous leading industry figures have called on North Yorkshire County Council to properly assess the YorBus service it launched on July 1 in the Bedale, Masham and Ripon area, which passengers can book using an app.

They have questioned why the authority has heralded the pilot a “success” after just three months and had already announced intention to replicate it elsewhere in the county.

Ahead of a meeting of the council’s executive considering prioritising demand-responsive transport (DRT) as part of its Bus Service Improvement Plan, Hambleton and Richmondshire Bus Users Group said it feared YorBus may lead to fewer scheduled buses on the road, and greater reliance on a commercially unviable service.

 A group spokesman said: “The scheme is being declared a success by those who set it up, based on positive feedback from those who have used the scheme, despite 900 journeys over the month of August equating to only 3.5 journeys per hour.

“In contrast, there is no mechanism to accept negative feedback, and the department running the scheme has dismissed members’ concerns to date.”

Former bus operator managing director Barry Connor said it was of concern that the two-minibus DRT service only attracted 507 passenger trips in July, 914 in August and 1,089 in September.

He said the pilot had needed a budget of about £250,000 for two specialist vehicles and their operating costs including drivers, and there was little chance of revenue offset from fares, bearing in mind the £1.25 single fare.

The executive heard with one leading industry figure had suggested passengers would be better served with a turn up and go service.

Industry figures have suggested while the government’s Bus Back Better funding aims to increase access to public transport in areas where there is little or scan services, by largely restricting the service to existing bus stops the Yorbus-style will not cater for the many villages currently being bypassed.

They have said the lack of demand is partly due to an inability to make advanced bookings, as those wanting to use it to commute did not know if they would be left with a long walk home.

Former Wensleydale Railway chair Ruth Annison told the executive the council’s DRT strategy had “limited but some uses” and was “very heavily weighted towards vehicles and the access of money rather than the outcomes for passengers across the county”. She also questioned the level of the council’s ambition in a number of areas.

She said: “For most passengers DRT is no substitute for scheduled buses running to a fixed route and timetable around which people can plan travel for work, shopping doctor, leisure and cross-boundary journeys.”

In response to the concerns, a council spokesman said traditional buses would not provide the village coverage of YorBus and that passenger numbers were not the sole barometer of success as bus patronage was not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels for three years.

He said: “The success of YorBus will be judged on various factors, including the number of journeys, customer satisfaction, journey availability and punctuality. Industry practice shows that a new bus service takes between two and five years to establish itself, so it is not appropriate to judge performance on only three full months’ data. Potential users need time to adopt the service.

“Advance bookings would significantly reduce the flexibility of the service – research indicates by 20 per cent. They would also risk placing the service in direct competition with taxis.”

The council’s executive member for access, Councillor Don Mackenzie said the council’s £116m bid for Bus Back Better funding over eight years was undeniably ambitious.

He said he would closely monitor the year-long Yorbus pilot and the council would examine “feedback we need to learn from to see if we can make it a better fit for residents in the area”.

However, he said the number of those praising the YorBus service exceeded the number of critics.

In an apparent change of direction to the officers’ recommendation to the executive stating “YorBus will be rolled out across other areas in the county”, Cllr Mackenzie added: “We may or may not introduce it elsewhere, but so far the signs are very good.”