On Tuesday 2nd May, two new 'pilot' services were launched in North Lincolnshire, operated directly by North Lincolnshire Council - a service 96 between Barton and Brigg, and a service 97 between Garthorpe, Crowle, Epworth and Wroot.
The routes will use funding from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and operate under a Section 22 Community Transport license. Somewhat surprisingly to me, the accompanying decision report refers to "where the market cannot sustain traditional 57 seater busses" - there are plenty of buses operated by commercial bus operators with less than 57 seats! It also states the "two main bus operators" in North Lincolnshire have "no concerns" - I'd have thought both Stagecoach and Hornsby would have been very interested in two new tendered routes, and both have small vehicles in their fleet. In addition the 96 at least could be ideal for both East Yorkshire and PC Coaches, and again both have small vehicles in their fleet. Maybe it's the pilot status of the routes that is off putting, with four weekly updates to be provided to the relevant cabinet member to "determine continuation" - i.e. the routes could be withdrawn at short notice?
Moving onto the specifics of the routes and I will cover the 97 separately - so what is route 96? It's the return of the 450 between Barton Interchange and Brigg Cary Lane via the Low Villages. The 450 ended in August 2020, since when Horkstow, Saxby, Bonby, Worlaby and Elsham have been without a scheduled bus service. The 450 had provided four services per day Monday to Saturday immediately prior to it's withdrawal whereas the 96 will provide four full route services per day Monday to Friday plus a South Ferriby to Brigg 'short' in each direction at peak times (South Ferriby is where the bus starts and ends it's 'in-service' day). Overall the timetable appears designed for one driver all day and provides options for travellers to visit both Barton and Brigg for shopping and leisure purposes. It's not well designed for onward connections to/from Scunthorpe at Brigg but a day out in Hull via Barton is more viable due to the frequency of the Barton to Hull bus service.
The 96 is a very welcome addition to the bus network and I hope it's a success. However my concern is that it could be an over ambitious offering. The harsh reality is that passenger numbers between Barton and Brigg have historically been minimal outside of school times (I've had some experience of travelling myself on this route in the noughties); an evening peak service from Brigg wasn't provided for the final few years of the 450 so that element of the service really is 'starting from scratch'. The South Ferriby (Blacksmiths) to Barton section of the route has the 350 as a half hourly alternative, the Wrawby to Brigg section has the 4 as another option.
If North Lincolnshire Council had decided to provide the 96 Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday and the 97 Monday/Wednesday/Friday I would feel more confident of success. I know that is a lot more restrictive for accessing medical appointments, and would effectively 'kill-off' the attempt at a South Ferriby to Brigg commuting service, but it would provide a service better aligned with likely demand. My fear is that passenger numbers per journey are very low and the whole 'pilot' gets pulled. Consolidate most of those passengers - those who are travelling for discretionary purposes or who can delay their trip for a day - onto fewer journeys.