A lot is made of the contributions of local government towards the infrastructure of bus services – the bus stops, shelters and raised kerbs are the mainstay of this, but larger schemes such as bus lanes and bus priority fall in to this category too. Over recent years schemes such as Better Bus Areas have sought to fund this work by taking money from operators’ Bus Service Operators’ Grant (BSOG) rather than previous funding schemes from central government or council budgets.
My experience of dealing with councils over infrastructure has been fairly poor. It does seem as though they are only really interested in dealing with First services and that others are distinctly second class. When we took over B&NES service 768 in September 2014, there were a number of sections of route which were amended or being introduced for the first time. It would be the first time that Manor Park in Writhlington was used and the first time Farrington Gurney would be a terminus. Before taking over i asked what infrastructure was being put in place and was told “start operating, see what works and we’ll put infrastructure in”.
At the same time as we started 768, First also started serving Manor Park in Writhlington, five times on a Sunday (we were doing 11 journeys Mon-Sat). After around three weeks of running, bus stop poles and timetable cases appeared on the opposite side of the road to the direction that we had been serving Manor Park. This had apparently happened in collaboration with First to suit their Sunday 179, five journeys a week compared to our 66. Having queried why this had been installed, I was told the infrastructure was “there for all operators to use”.
Whenever i had been in contact regarding the Writhlington infrastructure, i also asked what was being done regarding (at least) a bus stop flag for the terminal point at Farrington Gurney. Each time, this received only muttering from the council officer that they didn’t want to upset any of the natives by putting anything up. At the same time, Farrington Parish Councillors were asking us why there wasn’t anything to show where the bus stopped in the village. I tried to persuade them to talk to B&NES, but it seems to have fallen upon deaf ears.
In March 2015, amendments to 768 and First 179 saw them take over the majority of the Writhlington service and also operate along Radstock Road between Midsomer Norton and Radstock seven days a week, rather than just on Sundays. Within weeks, we had two new bus stops along Radstock Road and another on Station Road in Welton. All of these stop flags were second hand and had the First logos covered up. The council also replaced the missing bus stop flag in Camerton around the same time, this one came with four First logos – on a stretch of route they haven’t served regularly in well over a decade.
Situations such as this, along with the council’s insistance that Saturday operation of the contract was completely non negotiable led to my giving notice to quit the 768 service from the end of July 2016. A new contract was given to another local operator, without Saturdays.
In September 2016, further changes happened to the local network with First cancelling their 379 service. B&NES had recently installed several raised kerbs and bus stop flags with timetable displays in several locations through Hallatrow for the near exclusive use of the route. 179 and 768 were further amended to provide replacements to some sections, notably 179 being diverted to serve Farrington Gurney. B&NES flew in to action, installing three new bus stops in the village, something which had been impossible when we were serving the place. First then decided they would be cancelling the Farrington Gurney stretch of the 179 at the end of April 2017.
Perhaps this is a form of regulation by the back door – making life so difficult for anybody other than First that they give up. Actions like this make the only sensible business opportunities registering direct copies of First services, something other operators have tried in a few places around Bath and Bristol, which tends to lead to councillors complaining about wasteful duplication, too many buses and the need for regulation.