A vital village (dis)service

In May 2016, the WebberBus operation collapsed. WebberBus had done a fairly comprehensive job of spreading themselves far and wide over most of Somerset, often duplicating First routes but also taking on some other work in which nobody else had an shown an interest.Most of these odd choices were operated commercially – Bridgwater and Minehead town services, Minehead to Porlock, Burnham on Sea to Weston via the A370 and Burnham on Sea to Wells.

Burnham to Wells has been variously operated as 170 (Badgerline), 670 (Badgerline, Southern National) and rechristened by WebberBus as 67. During this evolution, it also got extended over the route of former Badgerline 172 to Wookey Hole. The final iteration of the service operated by WebberBus saw a two bus operation, running all day Monday to Saturday. As well as the core route, it also took a lengthy loop around Burnham on Sea and Highbridge replacing town service 113 and the former Wells local service 174 to Churchill Road. The whole thing had ended up as quite a pudding.

Following the collapse of WebberBus, Somerset County Council contracted First to take on the service in its existing form, which they did so briefly on an emergency basis before it passed to Bakers Dolphin of Weston. Bakers had lost their Bridgwater local service 6 (ironically to WebberBus as part of their commercial expansion) and Shipham to Street service 668 (to Libra upon retendering). Their smart Streetlites and Solo were quickly pressed in to service on 67.

And so everything went back to normal, or at least it would have done if Bakers had been willing to operate the service without subsidy as WebberBus had done. This mostly misguided article from Somerset Live was written rather in a rather sensationalist style, but did contain one interesting bit of information which hadn’t been widely publicised elsewhere – Somerset were now paying £180,000 per annum in subsidy for the service.

Whilst the casual eye may see £180k as a huge sum of money, it is not an unreasonable sum for a service running six days a week, requiring at least three drivers and clocking up some fairly hefty mileage. It is also not unreasonable considering the relatively low level of cash fares paid, the artificially cheap fares and the relatively low reimbursement rate from Somerset County Council for concessionary passholders.

To illustrate the issue of fares – there is a significant movement of students from Wookey and the surrounding area to Wells Blue School. The journey is around three miles, with a return fare of £1.50. That means that 30 students (who would fill the vehicle up) would be contributing just £45 towards the cost of operation of the service at the busiest time of the day. The problem is that those who are used to paying these toytown fares would not be impressed (nor likely to continue their patronage) if fares increased to a more sustainable level. Somerset County Council have offered places on coaches for entitled students which pass through the village, but parents have been unimpressed at a quoted price of £3.55 per day.

Back to the service provision: Somerset announced that the service would come to an end entirely at the end of 2016. They claimed that no bus operator was willing to continue the service without subsidy which is probably correct, but also that no operator had shown an interest. As a bus operator based 30 minutes from Wells, i wasn’t asked and nor were Somerbus. I suspect only First, Bakers and perhaps Community Transport operations were approached.

Towards the end of November, i emailed Somerset County Council to suggest that i would be interested in providing a partial replacement to the existing service. My mind was fairly open at the time, but as a minimum providing some Wednesday (Wells Market day) shopper’s services to Wells would be easily feasible. I had no response. I later found that messages to the specially set up “service67@somerset” email address were not being read, due to there being too many messages.

The announcement was met with a strange lack of response from the local press and various local and regional passenger groups. It appeared that the service would be allowed to disappear until a Facebook group popped up in mid December, primarily reflecting the worries of residents in Wookey. Within a week there had been a well attended meeting at Wookey Village Hall and Somerset County Council were already showing signs of relenting. A timetable was published for January which would see a Mendip Community Transport 16 seat minibus providing askeleton service between Highbridge, Wells and Wookey Hole, Monday to Friday only.

Less than a week after this timetable was published, various councillors sprang in to life and announce that Bakers were to be given a further two month stay of execution and that the existing 67 service would continue to be funded until the first weekend in March. I phone Somerset up and asked what the plans were beyond this point. I laid my cards on the table and offered to run a commercial Wednesday service to Wells from Wedmore. I sent a timetable through and received an acknowledgement in response.

Fast forward to February 2017. After weeks of silence, a local Village Hall Facebook page from near Burnham suddenly has a timetable for the service that will happen from March until July. No official sources appeared for several days afterwards and details were passed around in a haphazard fashion on social media. The timetable claimed to be “Option 4”. As an interested party, perhaps even a “stakeholder” (local government buzzword alert), i’d have hoped to have at least seen the proposals (or perhaps even comment on them) without having to find them through the public domain. Meanwhile, Mendip Community Transport haven’t posted a word on their website regarding the service.

Option 4 proposes that Mendip Community Transport (yes, them again) will operate the service between Wedmore, Wells and Wookey Hole without funding, suggesting that they think the service is commercially viable. I wonder how commercially viable the service would be if the county council didn’t buy them the buses to operate it with.

The Option 4 timetable has also stated that funding will be made available for an off-peak connecting service between Burnham and Wedmore, which will be contracted out to a commercial operator. This was made available for tender by Somerset County Council and won by Crosville of Weston-s-Mare. This is likely to see the busy end of the service (Wells) being operated by a 16 seat, step entrance minibus, whilst something considerably larger operates the quieter Burnham end of the service.

Whilst i wasn’t able to make my planned trip to Wedmore on Wednesday to witness the volume passengers expecting to be able to travel to Wells, complaints have appeared on the Facebook group that, as expected, schoolchildren are being left behind. There have also been suggestions on there that pensioners and parents with pushchairs have been denied travel. Further reading: Wookey 67 Bus Service Facebook page.

The problem remains that the council has now become fixated upon Community Transport as the solution to the problem. In reality, there is enough of a market for a conventional bus service between Wedmore, Wells and Wookey Hole, at least five days a week. It would not need to cost £180k per annum to run. I’d expect a reasonable weekday service, including school provision to cost the council around £45k per annum. But this situation isn’t really about economics or practicality any longer. If it were, Somerset County Council might have bothered to engage with the one bus operator who actually did show an interest in the service.

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