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Public showdown for Cambridgeshire bus operator over number 18 delays

A bus operator has produced a six-point action plan in a bid to improve the service it provides after complaints over unreliability.

Operator Whippet faced members of the public at a meeting at the Belfry Hotel in Cambourne on Monday (October 30).

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson. Picture: Keith Heppell
Mayor Dr Nik Johnson. Picture: Keith Heppell

The meeting was called amid fears that young people’s safety and education is being put at risk due to problems with the number 18 Cambridge to St Neots service, which is run by Whippet.

Students and staff travelling from Cambourne to Comberton Village College use the service, which either fails to turn up or is cancelled at short notice.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority mayor Dr Nik Johnson attended the meeting and has also independently raised concerns with Whippet.

He said: “We have listened carefully to residents’ concerns about the level of service bus operator, Whippet, has been providing. I understand the frustration felt when you are unable to get to where you need to go.

“Absolutely no-one benefits from late services or cancellations. Residents face difficult journeys and Whippet face fines. It is within everyone’s interest to get the current level of service improved.”

Speaking after the meeting, Dr Johnson added: “I was very grateful for the chance to meet in person as it’s clearly the best way to properly understand each other, and I was particularly pleased that the community got to hear first-hand from Whippet about their plans to improve services. As for next steps, we’ll keep a close watch, stay in contact with residents, and continue our efforts to reform bus services region-wide.”

Whippet’s plan includes investing in their fleet, launching a new website and mobile map with a live tracker and continuing to recruit drivers.

One of the key barriers Whippet is facing is a severe driver shortage, so the plan also includes assessing the potential use of agency drivers as a short-term solution.

The number 18 service is the only one available to students and staff travelling from Cambourne and Cambridge to Comberton.

Whippet took over the route in October last year after Stagecoach East withdrew in September. Stagecoach said the route was not viable.

The route is also subsidised by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, who agreed to continue with that support in September.

David Clarke, deputy principal and director of sixth form, who attended the meeting, said: “From the point of view of Comberton Village College and sixth form, the meeting on October 30 was hugely beneficial as it allowed parents and carers (along with ourselves) to raise their concerns regarding the unreliability of the No 18 service.

“In addition to those attending due to concerns relating to education and safeguarding, it was important that those who rely on the service for work, leisure and medical needs were also represented.

“It was of benefit to have various representatives present, including the mayor, district and local councillors which suitably raises the profile of the issue, which remains a significant concern for so many. Reliable, affordable and sustainable public transport is vital for so many. In a village college with a sixth form, the ability of students to travel from the surrounding area is so important for fair and aspirational Post-16 course choices.

“We are grateful to Ed Cameron, the commercial manager at Whippet, for attending and for his pledges and continued engagement. We realise that Whippet has a plan in place for service improvement, working with the Combined Authority.

“We are ultimately grateful to Whippet for stepping in and contractually committing to continue a service that was discontinued at short notice by Stagecoach. Ed’s participation was genuine, and his explanations of the tendering process, vehicle reliability and availability along with driver recruitment and training provided useful context.”

Whippet was contacted for comment.

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