The Impossible Dream

The Elected Members of North Somerset Council have recently voted themselves out of the reformation of Avon County Council currently being glamourised in various guises, most notably the Metro Mayor. I assume he (or she) will have had an immaculate manicure prior to taking office.

But i digress. North Somerset’s councillors seem to be blissfully ignorant of how well their area has done under the joint West of England projects, most notably the alterations to the M5 junction at Weston-super-Mare, but also relatively huge sums of cash for public transport projects. Both of these schemes and many others were funded under the Local Sustainable Transport Fund or LSTF. It is highly doubtful that these would have happened if they had been going it alone at the time of bidding. To illsutrate, Bristol City Council were listed as the lead bidder on the project (Link (XLS)) and North Somerset isn’t mentioned in the DfT literature.

North Somerset’s LSTF projects have been extraordinarily lavish in stark comparison to the other Avon authorities. The largest project in financial terms was the Kings Ferry Commuter Coaches to the North Fringe of Bristol which occupied six vehicle workings at their peak. The funding for these services had been awarded on a four year basis with the second two years being proposed as commercially viable by Kings Ferry (or NatEx Group). The services didn’t make it much over two years with KF and were later operated by Crosville, who lasted mere months once the money ran out despite spending significant sums on branding brand new Yutong coaches for the service.

There have also been pots of money made available for increasing various key interurban corridors in to Bristol. The services currently known as X1/X1A were boosted to their current frequencies through the A370 kickstart tender. Portishead services X3/X4 were awarded money through the Portishead kickstart to improve three buses and hour to four. Nailsea services X8 and X9 were increased to a 15 minute headway with comprehensive evening and Sunday services through the Nailsea to Bristol kickstart. Whilst some of these kickstart schemes have been visibly effective (particularly Portishead), the off-peak X1/X1A and X8/X9 services are struggling to justify the levels of service currently being funded. Given the six-figure sums provided in funding for these schemes, significant question marks remain over their longer term viability.

A further LSTF bankrolled project (£150k p/a) for North Somerset was the A2 service, providing links to the A370 corridor, Nailsea and Yatton Station to Bristol Airport. This has since been amended several times to become a replacement to service 121 and the new links provided by the original services have been lost.

With the exception of Nailsea service X9 which was a joint venture between First and Abus (as an acknowledgement of their 55 service which it effectively replaced), all of the North Somerset projects have been awarded to First.

In comparison, i haven’t been aware of any LSTF funded services in Bristol nor South Gloucestershire. Having told me that they had no intentions of using LSTF cash to provide bus services, Bath & North East Somerset performed a u-turn with the untendered 701 service in Bath. 701 provides services to the Bath Spa Uni campus at Sion Hill which is a tricky area to serve due to narrow streets and huge numbers of parked cars. B&NES claim that 701 is being kickstarted and will become commercial, although the operator running it has not previously shown any intentions of running a commercial service.

Meanwhile back in North Somerset, the council have recently seen fit to issue two more kickstart scheme tenders. The first was for an improvement to the existing service 16 in Weston-super-Mare, currently provided by Crosville. Having previously suggested that this service was now a commercial venture operated by Crosville, it would appear that the advent of £150k of developer funding from the ever growing urban sprawl of Weston-super-Mare means that this service (along with part of their also apparently commercial town service 5) is now available as a write-your-own-service tender. So far, so good an opportunity.

My problem is that if anybody other than Crosville were to be awarded this funding, i find it very difficult to believe that their 16 would cease to exist. The ongoing squabbles between First and Crosville on the Weston local servies where one party is almost entirely the aggressor are concering. This weighed heavily on my mind as i decided not to bother with the 34 pages of badly formatted questionnaire to bid upon this particular opportunity. Had there been a page of questions regarding the actual legality and solvency of my organisation, along with a couple of pages detailing a timetable and specification for a couple of Solos with WiFi and comfortable seats, the potential for reward may have been justifiable.

Given my scepticism of the incumbent operator’s willingness to relinquish control of part of their existing network, i struggle to see an outcome of anything other than that party possibly winning this tender.

The second kickstart scheme will be funded from council reserves rather than LSTF or developer funding. A neat summary of the scheme can be found here. It appears to be seeking somebody who runs a network of interurban bus services around North Somerset to receive £240k for doing a bit more or doing it a bit better. Given that all of the services listed in this document (X1, X1A, X3, X4, X5, X6, X6A, X8 and X9) are operated solely by First (admittedly with certain journeys on X9 operated under contract to them by Abus), it would appear that there is only one outcome to this tender. The same outcome as has happened for all of the LSTF kickstart schemes.

To put this potential outcome beyond any doubt, the above linked decision by the council’s Director of Development and Environment gives a 45% weighting in the decision of an award to a “Commitment to operating the nine key inter-urban bus routes across the core North Somerset bus network“. Bids close on 30/01/2017.

So these are the impossible dreams. Tenders for bus services which are mind-numbingly complicated enough to scare off smaller operators, and that can only possibly be won by one operator.

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