THOUSANDS of bus passengers are to be hit in a major shake-up of Hampshire services, the Daily Echo can reveal.

Transport giant First Group is preparing to cut or change 44 routes across the county with some being withdrawn entirely.

Twenty routes in Fareham and Gosport are to change with another 24 in Southampton.

School buses, vital hospital services and links to neighbouring cities are among those facing cutbacks.

Workers, shoppers, pupils and the elderly will all be affected by what has been called a “devastating blow.”

Now there are calls by users for emergency talks with the bus company before the plans come in.

They include school services 154 and 683 which drops pupils off at schools in Springhill, Thornhill and Brockenhurst being axed.

Early morning and evening services to Southampton General Hospital are also for the chop with service 4 being slashed.

This route runs through the city centre, Shirley and Totton.

The number 5, which connects Southampton, Fareham and Portsmouth, is also to have its early and late services axed.

The Southampton city councilfunded 13, to Southampton city centre, Sholing and Bitterne, is also being cut completely while services 22 and 14 are being passed on to a different firm.

Hampshire County Councillor David Harrison said: “I would like to meet with First for urgent, emergency talks to see if there is any way of saving these services.

“Most people will be very unhappy about any reductions, particularly changes that mean there will be less of a service to the hospital.”

Southampton Pensioners’ Forum secretary Don Harper said: “These changes will have a huge effect on the lives of some elderly people who could effectively be trapped in their own homes.

“I worry with ever changing bus timetables and infrequent services some older people won’t be able to get to appointments and just won’t bother going down to the shops which might be the only chance they get to talk to other people.”

These plans are being rolled out in two stages with half on January 17 and on February 7, some are ending later when funding finishes.

First boss Richard Soper said: “It’s about better matching services to demand and improving punctuality.

“Nobody likes reducing services but the important thing to point out is we are not pulling out of any parts of the city.

“At the end of the day you have to look at a service and see if what it brings in is more than it costs to run it.”

He went on to say factors including funding from local authorities, passenger numbers and punctuality had affected the changes.

Southampton City Council transport boss Matt Dean said: “Many of these services are commercial and we don’t have any control over them other than providing bus pass funding which is completely inadequate.

“We pay out £4m to bus firms to subsidise fares and we get £1.2m from the Government to cover this, meanwhile bus operators are seeing passenger numbers go up but profits go down.”

He went on to say the schools had large reserves and budgets and would now have to provide transport themselves adding this was in line with national guidance.