Bus services described as “rubbish” by the Mayor of Bradley Stoke are to be subsidised by local taxpayers for at least three months until a new operator can be found to operate them on a commercial basis.
Wessex Connect, which operates the U7, U7A and U8 services, announced last month that it would be stopping the services from 20th May because, it claims, they are “commercially unviable”. The move would have left the whole of the south of Bradley Stoke without a daytime bus service for six days of the week.
But bus users attending a meeting of Bradley Stoke Town Council’s Planning Committee last week were critical of the way the services have been run since they were introduced in September 2011, as a replacement for the previous 71 and 72 services.
Around twenty-five members of the public attended the meeting and they were unanimous in their criticism of Wessex Connect, citing stories of ticket machines not working, buses running late or not turning up at all and drivers taking the wrong route.
Malfunctioning ticket machines not only resulted in revenue being lost but also led to an understatement of passenger figures, they observed.
Justin Thomson of Wessex Connect said the services had been losing “six figures a year” when his company took them over in 2007. They had hoped to increase patronage by, for example, introducing new vehicles but had now been hit by a reduction in Government grant and increasing fuel costs. The company had also been affected by the recent loss of a 17-vehicle contract at its Bristol depot and needed to act now to protect jobs, he added.
Bradley Stoke Mayor Cllr Ben Walker told Mr Thomson:
“Yes, you can market a service and try and get news out on the streets. The fact is that bad news travels faster than good news and your service is rubbish. You aren’t going to get people on it.”
Roy Steele, Principal Transport Officer at South Gloucestershire Council, informed the meeting that a proposal for replacement services to cover a provisional period from 20th May had been discussed with Wessex Connect, adding that it was hoped to find a permanent solution from September 2012.
But he warned:
“The Council has a limited pot, so whatever we do now must be clawed back over the rest of the year”.
Confirmation of the decision to provide a taxpayers’ subsidy for an interim period came two days later, in a press release issued by the Conservative Group on South Gloucestershire Council:
“After appeals from local Conservative Councillors and residents, the Council’s Integrated Transport Unit (ITU) has been involved in discussions with all the bus operators in the area in an effort to secure replacement services and demonstrating that there is a viable market for services in the town.”
“A new commercial replacement service is expected to be in place at the beginning of September and so, in the meantime, it has been agreed that an interim arrangement with Wessex Connect can be funded by South Gloucestershire Council to keep the U7 and U8 services running with some changes.”
The changes include:
- The interim service on the U8 will be slightly reduced from five morning peak journeys to four, with the first two journeys having the timing amended;
- The later return journey at 18:15 will not operate as the ITU advises that this service carries the least number of passengers to Bradley Stoke;
- The U7A will not operate as the ITU advises that this duplicates a number of journeys that Wessex currently provides on private contracts with employers in the area;
- The U7 will operate an amended route (MoD Abbey Wood will now only be served during am and pm peaks) with seven journeys during the off peak period giving local access to facilities Monday – Friday.
Conservative Councillors for Bradley Stoke South Rob Jones and John Ashe, who have been campaigning for a solution for alarmed local bus users, said:
“Although this interim arrangement will still mean changes to the U7 and U8 services, we welcome the relief this brings to the bus drought that our town had been facing.”
“We have been contacted by many local residents who had been concerned at the impact that Wessex Connect’s withdrawal of these services would have had on them and we would like to thank the council officers in the ITU who have been working on ways to minimise this impact.”
“We will keep on pushing for a more comprehensive commercially-operated bus network for all of Bradley Stoke because a community of our size really needs it.”
Timetables for the revised services are expected to be made available later this week.
Speaking on BBC Radio Bristol this morning, SGC’s executive member for planning and transport Cllr Brian Allinson said:
“We stepped in to enquire how much it would cost to continue [the services] and the figure was way beyond what we could pay because our budget had already been set for the year.”
“We’ve negotiated a slighly different frequency, which has brought the price down but it’s still going to cost us quite a lot of money to provide the service until September.”
“We’re in deep conversation with a number of major bus companies and we’re sure that by September we will have the matter resolved.”
A spokesperson from Council’s press office confirmed the details released by the Conservative Group but was cagey about revealing the cost to local taxpayers, telling us:
“We’re not yet in a position to disclose SGC’s financial contribution.”
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