I was out driving this morning, covering a coach job for a local operator. At one stage i passed Hartcliffe Morrisons and was waiting at the traffic lights as the CATT Community Bus left the store with a considerable load of pensioners on board. It struck me that these were precisely the sort of people who used to be a mainstay of the local bus network in the area. Having come back and investigates their operation, i found that the Hartcliffe and Withywood Community Partnership operate a surprising six minibuses and a car. For the most part, these vehicles are in use during office hours, Monday to Friday only.
In contrast, bus services in the area have been disappearing over the past couple of decades. The criss-cross network of services around South Bristol in the early 1990s is now mostly reduced to single service corridors, which often restricts the choice of destination. Accessing Imperial Park from nearby Hartcliffe or Withywood either involves a long walk or a change of buses at Hengrove Park. Given that Hengrove Park is currently being reconstructed to accommodate the Metrobus scheme and there are no raised kerbs at the temporary stops, this does nothing to promote services to less mobile passengers.
The seemingly unstoppable rise of Community Transport schemes is seriously damaging the more marginal parts of major urban bus networks. It isn’t difficult to see where large community transport operations exist that there are fewer bus services running. The main corridors are strong enough to survive, but the cross city links and off peak shopping services are being seriously damaged by this state funded behemoth.
Meanwhile in Somerset…
Out in the sticks, we find Mendip Community Transport, recently given a short term contract to provide former Bakers-Dolphin service 67 across the moors between Wedmore and Wells, also linking to Wookey Hole. MCT claim the service will need to be funded by Parish Councils to be sustainable in the longer term, but just how strong are the finances of this “charity”?
Mendip Community Transport and it’s commercial MCT Trading Ltd arm are probably the most profitable road transport company in Somerset. The 2016 Charity accounts declare they carried some 94,797 passenger journeys during their accounting year, whilst increasing their funds available by £181,071 and demonstrating almost £1m in the bank. This equates to some £1.91 profit per passenger journey.
The charity accounts make it clear where their freeflowing cash is coming from: “During the year the charity was successful with its bid for two new buses from the Governments Community Transport Minibus Fund“. Hardly a sustainable business model given current public spending trends, but the first to start moaning when their cash hungry business model is endangered.
The company accounts for MCT Trading Ltd make it quite clear that the operation of the “charity” is the main business and the limited company is purely held for operating licence purposes, although this is unclear too – the charity accounts state that “Under a Section 22 permit the Charity continues to provide the Bus service from the Town of Glastonbury to the Tor from April to September“, when this service is registered under a PCV licence to MCT Trading Ltd as PH1056321/1. Their laissez faire attitude to regulations can be further seen ever day on the bus operating service 67 around Wells, which contrary to DfT guidelines displays both S19 and S22 discs. The vehicle used also features high steps for access and a narrow door.
There is also a serious question over impartiality here. Trustees include Glastonbury and Street Councillor Alan Gloak. I wonder how impartially he would act in his councillor role when faced with the opportunity for MCT gaining more business at the expense of established, licenced, tax paying businesses. MCT already operate several home to school contracts on behalf of Somerset and neighbouring authorities. They have contracts to provide the wealthy private Wells Cathedral School with student transport.
The problem i have with Community Transport organisations such as CATT and MCT is that they don’t offer public transport, instead they abstract potential funding, revenue and passengers from it whilst consuming huge sums of public money because they are a charity and therefore must be a good thing. It cannot therefore come as a revelation that passenger numbers are falling on marginal local bus services. When we as bus operators are perennially portrayed as the villains in any local media piece, we have no hope of success when faced with bankrolled charity opposition. In the face of this, media and local councils would do well to remember the fact that local bus services have their doors open to all giving the potential for growth and sustainability, whereas community transport (despite their misnomic name) caters for the few.