ADAPTING to changes to the high street and new shopping trends are key challenges facing the man responsible for delivering bus routes across the town.

But Ben Wakerley, managing director of Warrington's Own Buses (WOB), is doing all he can to acclimatise to the evolving environment.

The firm is ready to play its part in ensuring the £142.5 million regeneration of the town centre is a success.

And Mr Wakerley is keen to raise awareness over how a 'clean air corridor' could deliver a step change in congestion and emissions reductions, partly by 'ring-fencing' areas for electric buses, conventional taxis, emergency services, pedestrians and cyclists.

Network Warrington rebranded itself as WOB last year as part of a number of improvements.

The organisation’s operating profit totalled minus £941,000 in 2012-13 but, after getting out of the red, it came to £170,000 in 2018-19.

The firm's revenue reached £11.6 million in 2012-13 and £10.1 million in 2018-19.

Originally from Bolton and now living in North Wales, Mr Wakerley started his career in the industry as a bus driver.

He said: "WOB is municipally owned, so the bus company trades alone and is a public limited company but the main shareholder is the council.

"Several of our routes would be unprofitable but we carry on running them because we are municipally owned and we see this as a dividend to the town.

"We have 230 employees in the town and we estimate that we contribute £30 million to the economy here a year through wages, buying locally and connecting the town.

"When things go wrong, e.g. motorway incidents or a swing bridge turn, the roads and bottlenecks in Warrington can cause buses to be late.

Warrington Guardian:

Stockton Heath swing bridge

"But 90 per cent of our journeys are on time and we operate 99.5 per cent of registered journeys.

"One bus can take 30 cars off the road."

However, he is not underestimating the challenges ahead for the industry.

"But there are things that go against buses, such as cheap car finance, free/cheap car parking, frozen fuel duty and the changes facing the high street and shopping," said the 37-year-old.

"In 2018-19 we had a two per cent growth of passengers, so we are bucking the trend."

Warrington Borough Council (WBC) has started to investigate a new 'mass transit network' for the town as part of its emerging local transport plan, LTP4.

The authority's study considers two possible modes for a mass transit solution – light rail/tram and bus rapid transit.

Mr Wakerley said: "We like the idea of an articulated bus which is electric.

Warrington Guardian:

An electric bus which could run on its own busway or on existing roads

"We can get those and put them in place, as long as it is done in partnership, before a business case for a tram is even put together.

"It would also be cheaper than a tram system.

"I don't think the case and cost of a tram will be as good value for money, compared to the equivalent bus system.

"You can get that tram experience without all the cost.

"The business case is better for a busway."

But a group campaigning for a tram system in Warrington has hit back.

Ian Buttress, co-ordinator of Cheshire Tramways, says members are 'surprised' that Mr Wakerley has gone public with his 'perception of buses over trams'.

Mr Buttress also confirmed the group has been trying to arrange a meeting with senior council figures at the Town Hall.

He added: "Who will pay for this investment in the bus undertaking? We have been told that WBC has no money.

"We have in mind asking WOB to be the operator of the tram lines when constructed.

"Our analysis is that Warrington has three problems: traffic congestion, pollution and a dying town centre.

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"We believe that a tram network can have a beneficial effect on all these issues.

"In our comments on the local plan, we have submitted that the public transport link from the garden suburb to the town centre should be a tram operation.

"The success of the Manchester Metrolink teaches us that passengers on the trams will get out of their cars if there is a good park and ride facility and if the service is high frequency, so the passengers do not need a timetable as 'another one will be along in a minute'.

"There will be plenty of routes for both buses and trams but, so far, WBC has not carried out detailed surveys for future bus and tram networks.

Warrington Guardian:

A tram-train on trial in Sheffield last year. Photo by Light Rail UK

“We urge WBC to start this work immediately and not wait for five years, as mentioned in the local transport plan.

“WBC must provide funds for this work as soon as possible.”

Mr Wakerley hailed Town Hall chiefs for their vision for the heart of the borough as he sets his sights on helping to boost footfall in the area once Time Square opens.

After completion, the council's flagship regeneration scheme will feature a Cineworld multiplex cinema, permanent market hall, council offices and a public square. It will be opened in phases.

Both The Botanist and Cineworld could open before Christmas, with the council offices and the new market expected to be opened in the first quarter of 2020.

"Time Square is brilliant, they are changing the town centre," said Mr Wakerley.

"Our business is built on bringing people to Warrington town centre – it will be fascinating to see the difference when they open it.

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"Ninety-nine per cent of our workforce lives in Warrington, they are really good people, they are really working hard to keep the town’s buses running."

Mr Wakerley also put forward his views on the controversial bus lanes enforcement in the town, which has resulted in fines for motorists illegally driving in them.

He said: "If you want to get to people to shift to get on a bus, from a car, you have to make the bus more attractive."

Furthermore, he discussed whether he believes there is a 'stigma' associated to travelling on a bus.

"I think that used to be the case, I think my generation, we wanted to get in the car," he added.

"But, now, I think young people are not as inclined to get in a car, they just want to get to where they need to get to – they see mobility as a service."