Coach trip cutbacks

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HOME is more than 277 miles, 14 hours and two coach changes away.

Undaunted, pensioners Lucille and Leslie Roberts make the pilgrimage from Penzance regularly, via National Express. They can visit Blackpool for as little as £36.95 economy return each, depending on when they travel or want to return.

An open return – travelling out today at the time the Roberts left yesterday, 10am – would cost around £69 if a Blackpool pensioner fancied Penzance, with flexibility on return date.

All that could change with the loss of the Government’s support for subsidised travel (up to 50 per cent off) for the over 60s and/or disabled people using coach companies such as National Express, at the end of next month. Last year 2.9 million concessionary journeys were made on National Express coaches alone.

And that could price these Penzance pensioners out of the equation, and out of Blackpool, too. Lucille adds: “We love coming here, we have for years, and we go about as far as you can get by coach, virtually Land’s End, and it’s worth it. But if it goes up we couldn’t afford it.”

The move also affects local pensioners who use the UK’s largest coach network for shopping, holidays or seeing loved ones.

On Monday, October 31, the Government withdraws the concessionary discount which currently allows people over 60 or with a disability to travel by coach for up to half price. The move does not affect statutory concessionary fares, although many fear it could be the first stop en route to ending bus use concessions. What’s cut is the Bus Service Operators’ Grant (BSOG), which allows some operators of coaches to reclaim fuel costs, so they can pass the saving on in the form of long-distance concessionary fares.

Transport Minister Norman Baker says coach firms have had 12 months to prepare for the move prompted by the budget deficit.

“For many older and disabled people a free local bus service can be a lifeline. We have given priority to local concession schemes. Other areas such as support for long-distance coach travel, have had to be cut.”

Michelle Mitchell, charity director at Age UK, fears it will have a “devastating effect”. “This could mean many more grandparents will struggle to afford the journey to see their grandchildren this Christmas.

“Age UK calls on the Government to show some compassion and delay plans to allow time to consult properly with concession pass holders and operators.”

National Express managing director Andrew Cleaves, who’s travelling the network this week to sample the passenger experiences, urges elderly and/or disabled people to book any journeys they plan to make (before August 31 next year) by midnight October 31 this year to get the discount. The company also urges customers to lobby MPs.

Mrs Maureen Barnes, 67, of Bromford, visits Blackpool three times a year, by National Express, and uses the service to visit her son in Newcastle.

“We use it 11 times a year,” she adds. “We’re here for Easter, June, and have just had another week. We need that discount.

“Life’s getting harder, my husband’s lost £100 a month off his pension, savings are suffering. We’ve worked all our lives. I started at 14. For what? Pensioners treated like second class citizens? For many, coaches are the only way we can travel, holiday, see our families. It’s a big market, especially if you take the disabled into account too.”

The cut comes as National Express introduces a new generation of easier-access coaches in much the same way as Blackpool’s more accessible trams debut for testing this week.

Blackpool has been a coach trip mecca since the old charabanc days, but a survey of coach tour operators, parked up at Gynn Square, revealed few would be affected. “This clobbers scheduled coach services, not us,” said one driver. Bispham’s Manxonia Hotel, Queens Promenade, which specialises in “young at heart”, has one solution. “We offer door-to-door pick-up and return in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire,” says owner Lorraine Walker, who’s run the hotel for nine years.

“Some come four times a year. It’s home from home, including after they have lost their partners.

“They make friends in the bus, taxi, coming here, often arrange a return trip, with the same group, before they check out.

“We have our own minibus for trips out, and we have nightly entertainment, with compere Ricky Day.

“It’s all about making it easy and stress-free for people to enjoy a holiday at any time of life. You need a break at any age.”

Great-granddaughter Chelsea, 11, agrees. “I don’t think it’s fair people shouldn’t have a holiday just because they get older.”

The last word goes to Manxonia veterans, Mrs Beryl Roberts, of Basildon, who’s visited for 13 years, and found it a “lifesaver” after becoming widowed, and Mrs Margaret Greenwood, of Bingley, who’s visited for 18 years. “It’s about quality of life,” says Margaret. Beryl admits: “I couldn’t rely on public transport.”

jacqui.morley@blackpoolgazette.co.uk