A community travel organisation is planning to accelerate out of the pandemic with an innovative extension to its services that is expected to open up new travel opportunities for those in Ryedale.

Ryedale Community Transport has adapted its operations over the last year to take account of lockdown conditions. That has had a financial impact, because income from services provided to other organisations has reduced.

Although that could have weakened the organisation, a series of grants have offset the potential for damage and a new award means it should be able to extend the services it offers over the next five years, reacting to demand from the public to set up a network of flexible routes across the area, where passengers can pre-book journeys.

It will operate under the Ryedale Rovers name.

The project will inevitably start slowly, because progress will be directed by demand from the public, but it is hoped that by the end of the first five years, to be funded with around £200,000 from the National Lottery, the service will have enough passengers to support itself financially.

It is a development that could see a significant improvement to community transport after the era of the coronavirus pandemic, which has presented challenges.

Ryedale Community Transport has evolved into a major transport provider, operating accessible minibuses, vehicles designed to accommodate wheelchairs and a ‘wheels to work’ scheme which provides scooters for predominantly young people who would otherwise struggle to commute after finding jobs.

The organisation was put under pressure by the pandemic, which saw income from services provided for other organisations dry up as lockdown restrictions took hold.

Backed by around 80 volunteers, RCT provides services for around 800 people, using a fleet of 13 vehicles and volunteers’ own cars, with an additional 23 mopeds available.

The value of the service has been recognised by the County Council, which has awarded three quarters of the cost of a new bus for the service.

The service works closely with North Yorkshire’s Stronger Communities team in the area and the County Council supports its operations through initiatives such as ‘capped’ fares, which means passengers facing long trips to hospital will pay no more than £20, with the authority making up the rest.

The overall cost is more than £80,000, but it is a specialist vehicle built to a bespoke low-floor design, which is capable of carrying up to four wheel chair users, providing important flexibility.

Through the pandemic, the organisation has continued to provide the transport which is vital to the lives of its users, including Sue Allerton, of Malton, who needs assistance with 25-mile journeys for hospital appointments.

She relies on a wheelchair but does not qualify for NHS patient transport and would be unable to attend appointments, sometimes more than once a week, without RCT volunteers.

She said: “They pick me up and are always very helpful. Without them, I would not be able to get to hospital. I get a great deal out of the service.”

Although she has spent a year isolating because of Covid-19 she is also looking forwards to the return of social trips, to destinations like Whitby and Harrogate, which she enjoyed before lockdown.

“They are places I would not have got to otherwise and I really enjoyed the drives out, so I hope they come back after lockdown,” she said.

Spokesman Ken Gill said: “We take over where public transport stops. The moors are a wonderful place to live, until you cannot drive and then you realise how difficult living in a rural area can be.”

Some remote villages have only a weekly bus service, creating a void for those needing to attend appointments on other days: “We plug that gap,” he said.

Although journeys dropped off dramatically during the last year, the demand has remained in some areas and changed in others, with GPs using the service to take them out to patients rather than patients visiting the surgery.

Using a driver, protected by a screen, proved efficient because it allowed the doctor to write up medical notes while being transported between patients.

However, such developments were not enough to prevent the RCT expecting a financial shortfall of around £60,000 for the year, a problem that has been solved through successful grant applications.

RCT has adapted its own way of working with technology to allow office staff to operate remotely and the adoption of chemical cleaning techniques for vehicles used to transport passengers.

At the moment they are providing transport for those attending vaccinations, though as age groups get younger there are fewer who need help.

“We took the view that this was one of those times in life when if services were going to be needed, it was now and when coronavirus first kicked in we were inundated with offers from residents to come and help.

“I am hoping in the next few months we will get back to some sort of normality. I think there will be a huge demand to go out and socialise.”

That demand may help to influence the way the new flexible routes, funded by the new National Lottery grant, develop.

“Passengers will be able to pre-book a journey. It will be fairly slow in the first year. I want to plot demand and find a solution.”

The hope is that by developing a service the community wants, it will carry enough passengers to operate on its own turnover by the end of the first five years.

Marie-Ann Jackson, Head of the County Council’s Stronger Communities Programme, said: “North Yorkshire has a history of working with community transport organisations and will continue to do so, to ensure rural communities have the best transport links it is possible to provide.”