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Bus service changes leave villagers in North Devon stranded

Frustrated bus passengers in Witheridge with North Devon councillor Peter Jones (second from left). Image courtesy: Peter Jones

Petition started to reinstate former direct route from Barnstaple to Exeter

Residents in a North Devon village are petitioning to get a former bus service from Barnstaple to Exeter reinstated after claiming they've been cut off.

Stagecoach served Witheridge with its 155 route between Barnstaple and Exeter via South Molton and Tiverton, but the service was scrapped 18 months ago because it was deemed unviable.

Now residents have to catch connecting buses and say the result is students missing lessons, people being late for work, and young and vulnerable people being stranded miles from home.

Emily Gilbert, who lives in the village, said the “replacement” service was “extremely unreliable and unfit for purpose”.

She has set up a petition on change.org to reinstate the old service, with nearly 300 signatures so far.

“Students going to Exeter College or Petroc in Barnstaple from Witheridge have to change buses at Tiverton or South Molton, but the service  (the 346) is frequently late so they miss their connection.”

She said people had to rely on lifts or were spending money on taxis and she and others had missed important health appointments.

“People are left standing at bus stops completely unaware of when or if a bus is coming.”

She said the 155 service was “a lifeline” for young people and the elderly and essential for those with disabilities.

North Devon District Councillor for Witheridge Peter Jones (Ind) said “The situation has become so bad that many have just stopped using buses with some people relocating away from Witheridge.”

He has written letters on behalf of the community to Devon County Council which supports the 346 service, and to Stagecoach which operates it and the connecting services. “We were informed that improvements would be made but that hasn’t happened,” he said.

“We have 155 affordable houses being built in Witheridge over the next two years. Many of those will be cut off from the main hubs of Barnstaple, Exeter and Tiverton. The community should have the bus service they deserve.

Resident Dan Paton said it wasn’t okay that people, especially young women, have to wait for buses at night that might never come.

And Naomi Ainsworth said as someone with mobility problems, changing buses is not easy. “The 346 is much less reliable than the 155 and the buses are smaller, "she said. "So there is not usually room for more than one person using a mobility device. It really feels like Stagecoach don’t care.”

“This is the only bus route around… if you don’t drive or can’t secure a lift you are stranded in this village.”

Devon County Council said no bus operator wanted to operate a commercial service between South Molton and Tiverton, but Stagecoach had tendered to run it with council support.

At the time, the bus company didn't offer a through-service as an option as they wish to maintain them as separate services, and that remained their position,” said a spokesperson.

 “When replacing the previous through service with the new 346, we tried to maintain the previous two-hourly frequency and provide connectivity with the 155 at South Molton and the 55 at Tiverton. This has been largely achieved. Additional morning and afternoon journeys were added to provide a choice of journeys on Exeter College days.”

A spokesperson for Stagecoach South West said changes were made to services between Exeter and Barnstaple to improve punctuality and reliability; tailored to passenger demand and to ensure services remain viable to operate.

“We always welcome feedback from customers on the routes we offer, our network is continuously evaluated so that we can best serve the local community, sustainably. As with many service changes there will be a period of change as it becomes established, and we appreciate this can cause some frustration for service users.

“Our primary focus remains to serve the travel needs of the community, and we are working with our partners at Devon County Council and Exeter College to ensure residents and commuters get where they need to go.”

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