A Konundrum

To preface this tale and provide a little context: In late 2016, i unsuccessfully tendered to operate revised bus services 663, 664 and 665 around Keynsham. These services commenced in their new form, with their new operator from 8th January 2017. If you want to read any bitterness in to this, then feel free to, but none is intended.

Norman’s Network
Keynsham’s first dedicated town services came as part of the minibus revolution of the late 1980s. From deregulation day in September 1986, Norman Coaches’ smartly branded Merry-Go-Round network took to the road offering services C (Courtenay Rd, Chandag Estate), L (Longmeadow Rd, Park Est) and M (Monmouth Rd, Park Est). These would be joined by B to nearby village Bitton and S to Saltford in 1989. I should also mention at this juncture that Badgerline also introduced minibus services from 1986, but these were considerably less popular and lasted less than two years before being absorbed in to through services to Bath and Bristol.

Badgerline took over the Merry-Go-Round operation from mid 1994, initially retaining services L and S as a single bus working with generally two journeys on L for each S. They also had competition for a couple of years from Burnett-based independent Silverwing with their 442 service. The L and S services were eventually handed back to the council who duly tendered them as services 665 and 664 respectively. Badgerline won the 1996 tender and ran the services for another year before Streamline took over at retender in 1997.

Almost commercial
The services were retendered again in 1999 when Silverwing took them on, interworking them with a peak hour working on service 673 from the Chew Valley to Bristol. Despite being juggled around various operators, the services retained high levels of popularity during the late 90s. The tender price offered by Silverwing reflected this and the subsidy per passenger journey was below 5p per journey, the best value for money of any B&NES contract at the time.

Silverwing operated the services until their demise in early 2001, upon which First Streamline took them back on for some four years. Although not providing the service as cheaply as Silverwing had, passenger loadings remained solid with a regular pool of drivers providing a reliable service.

Competition time
In 2005, the service was retendered again and this time won by the council’s own in house transport services fleet, with the service now covering the scope of L and S with occasional ventures in to Chandag Estate, in order to serve the Wellsway following the loss of Chandag to Bristol service 347 and it’s ill concieved replacement 667.The expansion of the council’s own fleet in to running stagecarriage bus services was politically motivated. The perception was that the council had several vehicles and drivers sat around unused between school movements and the ethos was supposed to be utilisation of this resource, but the 665 timetable by this time spilled over the afternoon school movement thus scuppering this intention.

From day one, the council made a mess of the service. The vehicle sent out for the first few weeks was one of their 13 seat Mellor bodied Mercedes 614D minibuses, complete with tail lift and cumbersome plug door. Passenger loadings, particularly on the (now reduced frequency) Longmeadow Road journeys were considerably more than 13 and inevitably some intending travellers were left standing at the roadside. The Mellor Mercs were fairly swiftly upseated to 16, but this did little to improve their lot as they remained impractical vehicles for stop-start work around housing estates. At the time i was regularly driving the Friday 640 and 636 services for Somerbus and usually arrived on one of the journeys slightly ahead of the 665. One morning a passenger came along and moaned that the 15 passengers or so for Compton Dando and the Chew Valley had a “proper sized bus” in the form of our Merc 811D 33 seater.

It is also fair to say that many of the drivers were unimpressed with the new direction their employer had taken. Many of the staff were former drivers of various local bus and coach companies who had taken the easier option of weekday work only with the council. There were many stories of drivers moaning, refusing to stop along Hail & Ride sections of route and playing the radio loudly whilst in service. This behaviour was brushed aside by B&NES Public Transport team, who had clearly received orders from further up that they were to tolerate such nonsense without punishment because it was in the council’s interests to be running the service.

A few years previous to this, B&NES had also started funding a Keynsham Dial-a-Ride scheme. Although the scope of this was supposed to be to provide travel to those unable to access normal bus services, it quickly started being abused as a subsidised taxi service. Passengers previously loyal to the 665 service chose instead to start booking these demand responsive journeys despite the fact that they would have to pay rather than receive free travel on the scheduled bus services.

B&NES carried on with the Mellor Mercs for another five years before providing an Optare Solo in the form of YJ10EZV which did not carry front, side and rear destination displays for several years after purchase. Instead it had a single line display mounted upon the dashboard. It also had the curious feature of no wheelchair space, that area being filled with seats upon tracking. I have to wonder if this vehicle was ever Initial Use certified for use with fare paying passengers, as opposed to the social services transport more usually undertaken by the council’s own in house fleet.

A scan of a late edition 665 leaflet for the B&NES operation. The odd destination display arrangement can be seen in the windscreen.

The council’s inability to cope with operating the Saturday service led to this part of the service being subcontracted to Radstock based CT Coaches from around 2010 onwards, who often used Transit R43JUB amongst other vehicles.

Throughout the period of B&NES operating the service themselves, passenger numbers continued to fall. During this period the Dial-a-Ride operation expanded from a single vehicle to four.

Hard times
The subsequent retendering in 2016 was a very different proposal to 2005 when the service had been taken over by B&NES. With council budgets now under intense scrutiny and being harshly squeezed, the service was looking precariously expensive. Luckily, B&NES had managed to get a substantial pot of cash to fund  public transport from the Somerdale (Cadbury’s Factory) development. Part of this had been spent on diversions to First 17 and 17A, which in reality had never happened as the road system around the complex wasn’t complete. The decision by the council to subsidise the service from developer funding rather than the main budget sets a dangerous precedent that the service will not continue to receive funding once that pot of money is exhausted.

The service was thus redrawn to cover Somerdale (a couple of minutes away from Keynsham High Street), with extra journeys covering Chandag Estate which had now been abandoned by First’s 178. In their wisdom, B&NES decided that the service should be split in to three routes, with echoes of the Norman’s operation over 20 years ago. 663 was to be the Chandag Estate service, 664 the Saltford route and 665 around Longmeadow Road loop.

The service was retendered in late 2016 and won by CT Coaches to commence from 8th January 2017, who had been providing the Saturday service. The tone of the tender had heavily suggested that the council were keen on ditching their own in-house operation and their use of rental Enviro 200 SN65OHG during the second half of 2016 served to illustrate that long term measures were not being taken to ensure they retained the contract.

Shortcomings and challenges
In principle, the 2017 timetable looks reasonable enough. Chandag Estate gets the lion’s share of the peak hour services, with 664 reduced to three round trips and 665 to four. Somerdale has a mish-mash of departures roughly every 40 minutes.

663, 664 and 665 from 8th Jan 2017.

Some areas do reasonably well. Trips from the main estates to town are 90-100 minute shopping trips, which is ideal for a town like Keynsham. Other areas do less well:

  • There is now no usable service to Waitrose; unless you’re the sort of pensioner who can rattle off a shopping trip in under 20 minutes, you’ll be down there for over four hours. Travel across Keynsham from the 665 route to Waitrose is no longer possible.
  • Aside from the 665 loop heading in to town, all journeys via Tesco have been abandoned. Previously (due to much councillor led meddling), all journeys had served the supermarket. It isn’t much use being dropped off at a supermarket if you have to carry several bags of shopping for a ten minute walk to get to a bus stop for the return journey.
  • Gaston Avenue and Saltford have a four hour gap in 664 journeys. You either have just over an hour to do your shopping or you’re there for over four.
  • Journeys towards Somerdale from Keynsham High Street stop in several different places and have no stop in common for journeys towards to development. Considering the main project at Somerdale is a huge retirement complex, it might have been prudent to make the service as simple as possible…?
  • Unlike most other relaunched services of late, the route numbers are meaningless. Only the Monday shopper’s bus on Somerbus 668 traces the same lineage back to the NBC-era numbering system when services 365 and 367 passed through Keynsham en route to Radstock and Frome.

There were also a number of issues as part of the tendering which were never really dealt with properly. B&NES originally consulted on the previous 665 service with a view to removing parts of them which duplicated other bus services. This would have seen part of the Longmeadow loop cut back to serve only the parts of the route well away from the 38/349 services.The services as implemented have actually increased the level of duplication. 663 operates exactly the same route up the Wellsway to First 178, rather than taking in the top part of Chandag Road.

The council also provided some fairly detailed survey and loading data which raised some interesting data. Most notably, several fairly time consuming sections of route were carrying nobody at all. There was also the fairly alarming statistic that on certain weeks the Saturday service (which only ran until lunchtime) was carrying more passengers than the weekday daily average. Perhaps the lack of a Dial-a-Ride offering on Saturdays was weighting the loadings.

The tendering was oddly managed by the council. Despite being registered on the relevant electronic procurement system and regularly receiving notifications of tenders for bus and school services all over the country, i didn’t know the tender had been opened until i bumped in to a member of council staff (quite by chance) who wanted to know if i intended looking at it.

So there we have it. The new 663, 664 and 665 services reasonably address one travel target out of a potential market of at least four. The network would by no means be an easy thing to crack with one bus, but so much more could have been done that has been achieved here.

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