Crisis on the buses

July 25 2022

THE boss of bus operator First has apologised to customers in Kingswood and across Bristol for the "unacceptable" level of cancellations in the network.

But passengers are also being warned that services, already cut back earlier in the year, will face further cuts in the autumn because of  the withdrawal of government funding. 

First West of England managing director Doug Claringbold told a council meeting: “The level of service that First has been delivering has not been acceptable because of the level of cancellations, largely driven by a shortage of trained bus drivers."

Mr Claringbold said drivers had been lured away by the doubling or trebling of wages in the HGV sector, while others from Europe had gone home.

He said: “I am sorry we have cancelled too many buses across the network.”

Mr Claringbold said government Covid funding, which has kept many routes going throughout the pandemic, ends in October and a huge review of the network is taking place with the West of England Combined Authority and other operators.

He said: "In October we need to have a timetable which is robust, so there will have to be some planned changes to bring us back into line where our resources meet the services we operate.

“We are not prepared to run a non-reliable service.

“We have to make sure we have a set of services people can rely on and not try to do too much.

“Those are the difficult decisions we have to make in terms of getting that service network operating in October.”

Mr Claringbold said there was a significant gap between the current taxpayer subsidy to run up to 90 per cent of the pre-Covid network and the number of customers now using buses, which has only recovered to 75 per cent of levels before the pandemic.

He said: “People’s lives are different now. We need different people to use the bus.

“About 95 per cent of our passengers are travelling again but they are not travelling as much. he serial commuters who were travelling five to six days a week are travelling two or three days.”

The South Gloucestershire Council scrutiny commission meeting also heard from Metro Mayor Dan Norris and Stagecoach West MD Rachel Geliamassi that while some passengers would suffer in the short term, innovative ways of taking people where they needed to go were in the pipeline.

These include running services on request, like taxis, and using minibuses, which can be driven by people with less training, in rural areas.

Mr Norris told the meeting on July 6: “We are having this bus review over the summer that will look at commercial services and supported services because the money from the Government is ending in the autumn quite abruptly. That is a cliff-edge, that will be tough, there will be cuts to services. I’m not going to hide the reality of that.”

He said £105 m government money for Weca’s Bus Service Improvement Plan to forge an “enhanced partnership” with operators could be used only for “new and innovative” services and not existing routes.

He said: "We need to do some really smart thinking in consultation with local people to get that right.

"The public will have to be reasonably patient because these things take time – this funding is over five years. 

"In the longer-term we should be confident things are going to improve, but it will be bumpy in the shorter term."

Cllr  Nic Labuschagne said: "The bus service is so unreliable, we have a crisis right now." 

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service

New way to pay fares

Metro Mayor Dan Norris and First MD Doug Claringbold launch the Tap On, Tap Off system

ONE aspect of using buses that has become easier is paying the fare.

Operator First West of England and the West of England Combined Authority have teamed up to launch Tap On, Tap Off (TOTO), which allows people to pay for their bus travel using a contactless card or other payment device, such as a smartphone, without having to buy a ticket.

Passengers tap their card or device against the reader when they get on the bus and just before they get off – a system already used in London.

First then works out the correct fare for each journey and ensures customers never pay more than the relevant day ticket each day they travel, no matter how many journeys they make. It also ensures each extra day costs less for people travelling more than once a week.

Customers will not need to know which zone they are in or which ticket to buy and can check what they have been charged online.

Metro Mayor Dan Norris said: "If it’s good enough for the capital, then it’s the very least that we should expect here in our region."