First had a difficult day in Bath last Thursday. Following a serious road accident immediately outside their Weston Island depot at 3am in the morning, the police closed the road in order that their investigations could take place for around nine hours. This prevented First from getting any of their buses out on the road. The accident was reported in the local press here.
Local management were quite understandably surprised by the scale of the challenge which this presented. Although drivers were arriving at both the depot and bus station, they were missing some 150 buses for them to pilot. Assistance began to trickle in from other depots and a morning peak hour service was rescued on a few routes, notably the Bristol – Bath corridors. After morning school movements, assistance also started to come from other local bus and coach operators. By mid morning Abus, Applegates, Arleen, Bridgwater Tours, Somerbus and South Gloucestershire Bus & Coach were all in evidence around the city. First’s local controllers and inspectors did a solid job of covering as much as possible and sending buddy drivers out with those unfamiliar with the territory.
First’s local management also gained co-operation from Faresaver, with both parties announcing that First season tickets would be accepted for travel over sections of route that First were struggling with. There were also (briefly) some suggestions on social media that Rotala owned Wessex would be similarly co-operative given the extraordinary circumstances. Apparently some confusion had arisen and this was found to be erroneous. Wessex quickly took to their own social media to ensure that nobody was misled – they would not be helping their rivals at First. This also gained them the most negative media coverage of the whole incident in the local press.
Now i may be an awful cynic, but despite the negative press i cannot help but feel that this situation was capitalised upon by Wessex to promote their longer term goals. Step back from the events of the day and consider what Wessex have to gain from bringing negative headlines upon the local bus industry as a whole. Wessex have had a tough time over the past few years. First have been persistently biting away at their networks built over the past decade. From the South Gloucestershire Council tendered services centred around Yate, to the intensive UWE services, to the more lucrative parts of the Bristol City Council tendered network, to Bath University, Wessex have lost far more ground to First than they have gained.
Their response to losing work has been to make themselves relatively unpopular in Bristol by flooding the Westbury – Downs – Centre corridor with extra buses in competition with First. Both now operate their own varieties of service 1, or “theOne” in the case of Wessex. At a time when central Bristol is suffering from some of the worst traffic congestion in recent memory (which i appreciate is quite a claim for the city), flooding it with excess bus capacity is only going to make the industry unpopular in the already blinkered view of a car-centric public.
Since September 2016, both First and Wessex have attracted criticism for the number of buses heading for the Claverton Down campus of Bath University. Whether or not this is justified is still up for argument – Bath has an astonishing number of students which is growing and most significantly growing away from accommodation on the campus in to various city suburbs.
I’ll attempt to tie all of these loose ends together by pointing out the approaching menace on the horizon. We are shortly to gain a new overlord in the form of a Metro-Mayor, who (regardless of political colour) is very likely to be pushed in to a fully regulated arrangement for bus services in B&NES, Bristol and South Glos. This will result in franchising, which is brilliant news for the likes of Wessex and Hackney Community Transport (aka CT Plus, former operators of Bristol Park & Rides at Portway and Brislington), who have premises and maintenance facilities set up to run larger operations than they currently run. It would represent less good news for First who frankly have the biggest network at present and therefore the most to lose.
It would also represent terrible news for small operators running services traditionally not of interest to the larger players. The larger operators would become interested in these services as they would no longer have guarantees that they would retain their existing services once contracts are announced. To facilitate this, these would likely be packaged up in to operational units which would be unwieldy enough to be unviable to their incumbent providers.
So what seems like a spur-of-the-moment Scrooge like decision fits neatly in to a strategy of making the local bus industry as unpopular as possible and therefore (in my opinion) pushing the regulation agenda forward ever more. It can only be in the interests of those operators with underutilised facilities and the desire to run more buses to push for full franchising and regulation.