Trouble in Metroland

There has been talk about trams or some form of light rail returning to Bristol for as long as i can remember. Times have passed by and various plans been given the red light by Bristol City Council, the DFT or some other public body, usually on the grounds of the benefits being unjustifiable when compared to the cost of such a project. The project which finally got off the ground has been dubbed “MetroBus”, a network of bus priority measures, bus only link roads and similar measures which are likely to come in at about a quarter of the cost of Edinburgh’s single tram line.

If you’re already familiar with the MetroBus project, you can probably skip the background, which is in a rather fetching maroon.

The MetroBus system will be split in to three main routes (although one is more of a tree branch network in itself):

Long Ashton Park & Ride – City Centre
This route will replace Park & Ride bus service 903, operating via Spike Island and Temple Meads instead of the current route via Hotwells and Canons Marsh (also convenient for parts of Clifton).

Long Ashton Park & Ride – South Bristol Hospital (Hengrove Park)
This route will effectively become a link which has never existed (although Abus 52 is the closest mirror between Highridge Green and SBH). The MetroBus section of it is something of a smokescreen, the true value to the councils is the completion of the South Bristol Ring Road between Hartcliffe Roundabout and the A370 at Long Ashton.

South Bristol Hosptal (Hengrove Park) – City Centre – North Fringe
The southern end of this route covers parts of First route 90 (also former token projects 53A/53C and 91) and adds even more buses to the already 5min+ service along West Street and Bedminster before reaching the City Centre. To the north, the service will use the M32 motorway to reach Frenchay at which it will split:

…to UWE
UWE is the primary reason for the Northern end of the service to exist. The new bus only junction from the M32 to provide a quicker connection in to the UWE Frenchay Campus will be the most successful aspect of the service by far. The University campus already attracts massive bus provision for the ever expanding student numbers.

…to Emersons Green
The projected service to Emersons Green is based upon current First route X48 (which itself was based on the longer standing X62) and South Glos Bus & Coach commuter service 462. X48 is propped up by developer funding from Lyde Green, adjacent to Emersons Green. X62 was eventually withdrawn after a long, protracted failure in 2008, with negligible daytime passenger numbers quite reasonably cited as the main cause. Throughout this time, 462 has operated in a broadly similar manner with morning commuter journeys to town and afternoon ones from town. These primarily work as positioning journeys for SGBC’s school and National Express commitments.

There is also the suggestion that an arterial route around the north of the city will exist, having been quoted in early plans for the network. This appears to have since disappeared, along with service X18, a commuter link around the area (also supported by developer funding) to which the proposed Metrobus service would have been almost idential.

…to Parkway Station and Cribbs Causeway
These will probably be attached to the end of certain UWE journeys, although previous efforts at daytime express services from the City Centre to Parkway and Bradley Stoke (most recently First X84, although X64 and X65 predated them) have produced pitiful passenger numbers from everybody bar university students. The route between Parkway Station and Cribbs Causeway is already served by other services, notably First 19 and 82, although the route the MetroBus service is proposed to take is the slower 73 circuit of Bradley Stoke (a dormitory area, well known for a distinct lack of daytime passengers).

A map of the whole project can be found on this page.

But enough of a history lesson, on to the pressing issues.

As an observer from the outside, there are issues with the MetroBus network which have been raised with public sector employees at various junctures. The belief that passengers will magically appear for bus services over routes which have previously never been tested (bar perhaps the stillborn X18) seems far fetched when non-university bus services in the city are struggling to attract new passengers. This is most amplified in South Bristol where bus services have been steadily collapsing for many years now and MetroBus will exacerbate this problem.

Regardless of whether or not MetroBus is A Good Thing (and believe me, the local newspapers and Facebook are full of people who think it is not), the project will have a destabilising effect upon other bus services in the city. There are obvious candidates as outlined above, but there are also likely to be more marginal losses. Take for example the 76 service along St Peters Rise in Headley Park. The relatively affluent area is not typical bus territory for Bristol, particularly in comparison to the more traditional 75 route which runs half a mile to the west through Bishopsworth Road. Those passengers who do use the service from St Peters Rise tend to catch it at the Hartcliffe Way end, which is very close to the new MetroBus cross city route.

The 75/76 corridor could start to lose pasengers to MetroBus from this area, plus through West Street and Bedminster, this in turn destabilises the package as a whole and First will start to look carefully as their commercial service stops generating the income it needs to survive. The logical approach is to combine 75 and 76 in the south of the city, sending all journeys as 75 via Bishopsworth Road, then adding a loop via Hareclive Road after Bishport Avenue in order to cover that part. This then potentially leaves Headley Park unserved.

I appreciate all the above is based on some fairly wide projections, but these aspects need to be considered when effectively dumping dozens of new buses around the city without considering the impact they will have. This is also one of several scenarios i could have chosen in that part of the city, which suggests that some decline of the existing network will inevitably happen.

Of course, asserting that i am being overly pessimistic relies on the assumption that MetroBus will generate new passengers and before we do that, we have to stop losing our existing ones.

In terms of bus passengers, South Bristol has a network which has been in slow decline for many years. For example:

  • Services 20, 21, 22 (which have operated every 10-15 minutes over recent years) and 51 (every 10-15 mins) combined in to one route 50 around Knowle, Hengrove and Whitchurch which now runs every 15-20 minutes (2016).
  • Service 36 has been progressively reduced and curtailed from a 15 minute service over the whole route to a half hourly service which no longer runs between Hengrove Park, Hartcliffe and Withywood. (Progressive cutbacks in past 12 years)
  • Politically motivated projects to provide services between Knowle West and Bedminster (53A/53C, 91) have lasted mere months before being cancelled (2009/2010).
  • Withdrawl of funding for the Withywood – Keynsham 636 service, although Whitchurch to Keynsham survives funded by B&NES instead of Bristol. (2006)
  • Withdrawl of services 88/89 along the arterial Leinster Avenue through Knowle West (incompletely replaced by 90), leaving the area with no direct service to Bedminster nor the City Centre (2004-6)
  • Services 52 and 53 which previously provided orbital journeys around Broadwalk, Knowle, Highridge and Bedminster Down (including links to town at either end) were progressively cut back from 15 min frequencies until First cancelled them altogether (2000-2010)
  • Services 55 and 57 providing alternative routes out of Stockwood to the Sturminster Road (2, formerly 54) service were cancelled outright with Abus picking up the 57 via Brislington (although this only survives as a couple of journeys now) (2002-3)

The ethos at First would appear to be the mass rationalisation of all routes which tends to come at the cost of anything with runs tangentially to the tree branches radiating out of the city centre. Worryingly, these rationalisations don’t appear to lead to frequency increases on these concentrated routes, indicating that they are managing decline rather than trying to stem it. Bristol City Council are not helping matters by failing to address these withdrawls unless it involves attempting to stir up competition.

It is also important to consider the factors concerning why bus usage is dropping in South Bristol. It is difficult not to notice that even in the most deprived wards of the city that the number of cars strewn around residential streets, driveways and verges is astonishing. The average Bristolian has been heavily schooled since birth by the local press and media that bus services in the city are useless. Combine this with the marketing budget of the automotive industry and you have the recipe for any native Bristolian to think they should never use public transport. I’d hazard a guess that we have a greater proportion of native Bristolians in suburban South Bristol than the suburbs to the north and east. Hartcliffe doesn’t feel like the sort of place you would move to from outside of the area, whereas Emersons Green and Bradley Stoke do. I would suggest that those who have come in to the Bristol area are more likely to use public transport than those who have lived here their whole lives, and therein lies another problem.

Of course we also have the age factor. The average bus user is getting older and more importantly not being replaced by those who are now reaching bus pass age. Much has been made of the wrongs of the “baby boomer” generation and their love of the motorcar is undeniable. They never used buses as children of increasingly affluent parents who were capitalising on their new found freedom. The 85 year old bus user who dies today will not be replaced by a 65 year old retiree. They’re far too busy jetting around the world.

So how does one solve the South Bristol problem? I don’t think the solution will come with short term competition between operators, nor do i think that diluting the current offering with a project like MetroBus is going to help, particularly when using MetroBus will be complicated – Bristol City Council have ensured this will be the case by employing several civil servants to tick boxes regarding “Smart Ticketing” without addressing the fact that a simple turn-up-and-go ticket facility in fundamentally necessary to any local public transport service. The absence of a simple, flat £2 single fare for any journey on MetroBus is a serious mis-step in a world where council staff have become carried away with Smart Ticketing for all because it is A Good Thing. But that is probably a thought for another time.

Well done for getting this far. See you soon.

-af-

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2 thoughts on “Trouble in Metroland

  1. Some very good points here but I don’t agree that First are managing decline. The costs of running all these routes is increasing all the time. Several factors are in play here:

    • crew shortages have been extensive for many years.
    • loss makers carrying fresh air don’t pay the bills. The 36 for example, has had a number of initiatives to sort out punctuality; all with attendant costs.
    • the costs saved from withdrawing loss makers are usually redeployed into the services that do pay. Most major routes have more PVR than ever before, often adding in vehicles to maintain the existing frequency. No additional revenue is seen but costs go up.
    • traditional the local authority would pick up the tab for routes that don’t pay their way but are deemed neccessary, by means of a tender to all local operators. Now as Sir Humphrey has run out of pocket money, it is increasingly left to the commercial operators to take a big financial risk. For example the bumpy politically motivated nightbus network was binned and now a far more agreeable 24 hour service runs on a number of routes.

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  2. Thanks for your feedback, Gary. You obviously have a considerably better knowledge than myself of the operational challenges faced in South Bristol. I think my frustrations come from the lack of willingness to try anything new in the southern suburbs compared to the north and east. I appreciate much of the activity around the rest of the city revolves around trying to complete their network by covering work previously done by other operators, but there seems to be a genuine lack of willingness to try anything significant in the south. One bus off peak on services like the 91 was hardly the greatest of commitments compared with setting up networks like the 81/82/83.

    On the subject of the 36, it is fair to say that it tackles many of the worst traffic areas in the city. I’ve never understood why the Centre to/from Barton Hill and St Annes section has never been given a push because it all looks like decent territory to the outside viewer. Likewise the Broadwalk to Hengrove / Withywood section of 36 looked to do much better with the off-peak extra journeys running shorts over that section. That was a fairly minimal cost exercise which capitalised on the time of day when that section was busiest (9h-14h).

    But as i say, these are all my observations as an outsider. It looks like a really challenging area to be operating in and i think the shifts in demographics are making things worse rather than better.

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