TAUNTON'S park and ride service will soon be under new management after Buses for Somerset pulled out of its contract.

Buses of Somerset has been operating services from both the Gateway and Silk Mills sites in Taunton since July 2021, when it was awarded a five-year contract by Somerset County Council (with the possibility of a two-year extension).

The operator – which is the trading name of First South West – recently informed Somerset Council (which replaced the county council in April) that it was “no longer viable for them to run the service” – in spite of recent rises in passenger numbers.

The council’s executive committee announced on Wednesday morning (December 6) that a new contractor had been appointed – and that it would work with Musgrove Park Hospital to improve the service to better suit the needs of the hospital’s staff.

Both park and ride sites currently operated from Monday to Saturday, with single-decker vehicles running every 15 minutes between 6:35am and 7:30pm on weekdays, and every 20 minutes between 8:15am and 6:30pm on Saturdays.

Both sites are served in the evenings by other local bus services, including the 1E and the 30, both of which are operated by First.

To encourage use of public transport in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, the council has used money from its £11.9m bus service improvement plan (BSIP – funded by central government) to cap park and ride fares at £1 for a single and £2 for a return – prices which will remain in place until March 31, 2025.

While passenger numbers have risen since the low fares have increased, there have been local reports of passengers being deterred from using the Silk Mills site due a number of recent “traveller incursions”.

The council has declined to publicly name the replacement contractor, citing commercial sensitivity.

Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for transport and digital, announced the new contract on Wednesday morning (December 6) – his final such meeting before he steps down from the executive at Christmas (though he will remain on the council as the Lydeard division member).

He said: “We have had some more recent conversation with Musgrove Park Hospital where parking has become a problem, particularly in the residential streets surrounding the hospital.

“While we previously adjusted the timetable, it didn’t quite fix the problem – so there is an opportunity now to look at that, to ensure the timings of the buses fit better with the shift timings of staff at the hospital.”

Part of the Gateway site will continue to be leased out to EDF Energy, allowing it to operate its own park and ride service for employees travelling to the Hinkley Point C construction site.

As with the regular park and ride fares, the income from this lease will be retained by the council.

Councillor Dave Woan, associate portfolio holder for business partnerships, said: “As a regular user of the park and ride, I’m pleased to hear it’s being maintained.

“Most of the time when I use it from the Gateway site, it is two-thirds full – that’s in the early morning. I haven’t driven into the centre of Taunton since 2018.”

The park and ride was threatened with closure in the 2018 due to the county council’s financial woes, with Taunton Deane Borough Council and its successor Somerset West and Taunton Council stepping in to ensure the services could continue to run.

Councillor Federica Smith-Roberts, portfolio holder for communities, housing, and culture, said: “We’ve seen in our previous Somerset West and Taunton days the positive impact this has on the urban centre of Taunton, helping traffic on the Toneway.

“It’s positive that we continue this, and I wonder what other out-of-the-box was can have – perhaps working with the airport services that run from the Blackbrook Business Park?

“Maybe there is something we can do with the buses in relation to promoting the independent businesses in the centre of the town?”

The new operator will begin operating the park and ride service from February 12, 2024, with the contract being for an initial period of three years.