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End of the road for the Heather Hopper

23rd January 2010

The board of the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) has voted to cease its support for the Heather Hopper cross-Park bus service due to the increasingly high price of keeping it going and following a joint review of transport provision in the Cairngorms National Park.

The CNPA’s transport policy was debated at the organisation’s latest board meeting in Boat of Garten (Friday 22 January). The Heather Hopper was re-introduced in 2006 after an absence of around 10 years. It was well received, contributed to a low carbon National Park and attracted more than a 130 passengers a week.

It was thought this number would increase year on year as the service became established but figures for 2009 show that the bus, which operated May – September, was carrying only 42 passengers a week at a cost of £78.00 per passenger.

Speaking at the meeting, John Thorne, the CNPA’s Economic Development Officer said: “Accessible transport is a key economic driver with the National Park Plan identifying links to tourism and the wider economy, sustainable communities and access to the countryside. There is no doubt that the Heather Hopper will be missed by users and it’s difficult to cut this service but costs are high and demand is low and we can target the funding far more effectively through alternative projects.”

CNPA board member and Aberdeenshire Councillor, Peter Argyle said: “It’s a difficult decision to have to take because it is so popular with those people who are using it but it is not sustainable in these times of restricted budgets.”

The Park Authority, with partners, will be looking at where support for transport provision can be targeted instead. Several ideas have been suggested including diverting the money to a fund for schools or others groups to help them to take part in field trips to and around the National Park, thus continuing to support people getting out and about in the Park in a sustainable way, promoting social inclusion and lessening the impact on the environment.

Board member and Highland Councillor Dave Fallows proposed investigating the opportunities for electric buses at some locations, specifically a link between Broomhill Station (Strathspey Steam Railway) and Grantown-on-Spey and between Braemar and the Linn of Dee in Aberdeenshire. Furthermore, board member Bob Kinnaird suggested further investigation into more community transport projects and demand led services.

CNPA Convener David Green commented: “I think we should put a group together to work up how we can use the available funds to generate some more meaningful transport solutions in the National Park that meet the needs of users whether that might be community or shared transport or electric vehicles.”

Aberdeenshire Council and The Highland Council, who also fund the Heather Hopper, agree in principle with the CNPA’s course of action.

Further measures agreed at Friday’s board meeting were to continue to produce the Cairngorms Explorer leaflet but in a different format to reduce costs. The booklet costs £35,000 a year to produce and provided readers with all the public transport timetables for getting to and around Cairngorms National Park with additional information from CNPA partners such as the Cairngorms Farmers Market, walking festivals, ranger services and so on. Research has shown that the Cairngorms Explorer is a well used and appreciated publication but with timetables liable to change at any time, the danger with the publication in its current format is that it is out-of-date almost as soon as it is published.

A fold-out map is planned to replace it, showing all public transport routes in the Park as well as cycle paths with website addresses so that people can access up-to-date timetables. With access to the internet from mobile phones, libraries, work places and the home there is less need to publish timetables in hard copy. The Cairngorms Explorer will continue to contain useful information about communities, activities, walks and so on.