The Barbie Dalek

Much of this post is based upon a press release issued to the local media on 4th December, which resulted in this article in the Weston Mercury. Text which is copied verbatim from the release will be coloured maroon and references (found at the bottom) in blue. Despite the date of publication, it was written almost entirely prior to the commencement of services 5 and 5A to Hutton and Bleadon respectively and prior to the publication of North Somerset Council’s tender round for services from April 2018.

Upcoming bus changes to First services 5 & 5A will duplicate independent services 4 & 4A.

In October 2015 the Weston Mercury ran a story regarding “bus wars” between First and Crosville concerning the 3 and 103 services in Weston. First were keen to maintain an even headway between the services provided by them and their competitors. Regional Director of First, James Freeman was quoted as saying “If there are going to be lots of buses, passengers want them to be regular. It gives people a much better service – for many months, the Crosville buses were just sat in front of our own. It boils down to whether the operator puts its interests ahead of customers.(1)

Turn the clock forward two years and the bus service landscape of Weston has changed. Crosville have withdrawn from competitive activity on the town network, now providing only two routes to the north of the town. As part of these changes, Crosville also gave up their services 4 and 4A to Bleadon and Hutton which were picked up by fellow independent operator Citistar, provided under contract to North Somerset Council since the start of September 2017.

From 14th January 2018, it would appear that First have abandoned the principles of co-operative bus operation they were extolling to Crosville two years ago. The multinational operation (which runs 6,000 buses, employs 17,000 people and has a turnover of £4.3bn (2)) is apparently so threatened by the presence of Citistar (two buses, one managing director and one employee) that they have altered their 5 bus service to run minutes in front of Citistar 4 on journeys towards the town centre.

I’m somewhat bemused as to why i’m considered such a threat by First. It appears that somebody in the organisation thinks that i am, as this is not the first project to have been scuppered by the Barbie Dalek. When First decided they had become bored of the 17A (Southmead Hospital – Keynsham) service, there was considerable community noise regarding the withdrawal and i tried to open a discussion with South Gloucestershire Council regarding a replacement for the Oldland area to Keynsham. Lo and behold, First magically appeared with a copycat idea (19B) within a few days of emailing my idea to an officer in South Glos.

In view of this and the introduction of services to Hutton and Bleadon a few months after i started, I suppose i should be flattered to be considered as threatening as Wessex, Crosville or Faresaver at their most competitive times. Flattered enough, that is, that James Freeman can abandon the moral high ground from which he preached to Crosville two years ago in an act of considerable hypocrisy.

Alternate Citistar service 4 daytime journeys from Hutton will now have a First service 5 running three minutes in front. Seven out of nine Citistar 4 services from Weston General Hospital heading for the town centre will have a First 5 or 5A running one minute in front of them. This change also means that Weston General Hospital will now have only three buses an hour to the town centre, two of which will be scheduled to operate within a minute of each other, followed by a 40 minute gap.

Back in September when we started running the 4/4A services around Weston, First were providing four buses per hour out of the hospital – two journeys each on 5 and 20. It was relatively rare for us to arrive at the hospital and collect many passengers who were not specifically waiting for our service. From January, this will be just two and the hourly journeys on services 5 or 5A will be one minute in front of ours.

The ridiculous thing is that there is decent, established demand between the Hospital and town, certainly enough to justify a bus every 20 minutes, as it could have been if First were to schedule their journeys in the gaps between mine and their 20. Now, in the pits of winter, our big, caring Barbie Dalek will be leaving passengers to wait 40 minutes if they miss a bus, but at least they’ll almost all be carried by a First bus. Travel transformed.

First had the opportunity to take the tender for the Hutton and Bleadon services in the summer when we won it. They further have the opportunity to secure a longer term tender to run the service from April, so why bother trying to run us out of town now? Even if this is a move to try and establish themselves on the route before the tender is submitted, does it not give everyone a substantial foghorn that this is something that First are now intending to secure?

The North Somerset tendering round in which the longer term contract for the Hutton and Bleadon services will be awarded (unless First decide to continue commercially) also sees all other subsidised services in the area go out for bids, including our Chew Valley shoppers buses. As a result, this is somewhat of a stressful time and crucial time for the future of my business.

This renewed activity by First in Hutton and Bleadon will represent their first commercial interest in either of the villages for a decade when previous service cuts resulted in the services passing through a variety of independent companies (such as ACL, WebberBus and Crosville), mostly under contract to North Somerset Council.

Just let it sink in how ridiculous this is. ACL was a credible competitior, only brought down by an apparent disagreement between the managing partnership. WebberBus never managed their Weston operation properly and Crosville have been in something of a state of flux over the past 18 months. All of these organisations had at least 20 operators licences. Yet the minnow which has never shown an interest in competing with anyone is the one they choose to bite?

Hutton and Bleadon Hill have been relatively non-existant as a priority for First in the past decade. Bleadon village has not been considered a commercial viability by them in almost thirty years. Weston has become a town where there are only two significant markets – Weston College students (on a pass scheme administered by First which underpins the whole town network) and concessions. Infrequent services such as the scheduled 5/5A routes are unlikely to attract significant student traffic, so the whole viability of these sections is resting on concessions? Sorry, but at current concession rates, i don’t see their sums adding up. Even if the numbers were there, the ghastly Enviro 200 vehicles used on service 5 would be unlikely to cope comfortably with more than about 20 passengers at once.

If First are intent on making changes to the 5 whilst reducing the rest of the service to hourly, why not extend it across Oldmixon and Winterstoke Road to Asda? This would have strengthened their own core network, adding needed suburban links between huge housing estates and similarly huge supermarkets. The defence given by First’s (indentityless) Spokesdalek in the Mercury article states that “The timing of buses is designed to facilitate school movements and concessionary pass-holders.”. On an hourly route, concessionary passholders tend to travel on the first journey on which their passes are valid.

Managing Director of Citistar, Andrew Fear said “I am truly disappointed in the actions of First to behave in such an unnecessarily predatory manner. Had they approached me to discuss a co-operative enhancement to the Hutton and Bleadon services, I would have been happy to discuss the matter with them. Whilst we do not have the capacity to provide later or Saturday journeys which First have registered, daytime journeys could have been arranged to provide everyone with a better service. We are not on a long term contract with North Somerset Council and coming to an arrangement to provide better services together would have been an opportunity for us both to improve service stability and our offerings to the public.”

Co-operation, eh? Remember that? The blissful co-existance that First were requesting from Crosville a couple of years ago? I take it that this only applied when First want control?

On the subject of co-existance, we had yet another new face from First at the most recent WEBOA (West of England Bus Operators Association) meeting. This cheerful chap is apparently working on the Metrobus project for First. Informally, after the meeting, our new face was of the charming opinion that there is plenty of work for all of us and that things would be better if we all work together. At the time we all agreed…

“First seem to prefer to neglect their existing services, further cutting the frequency on the existing routes 5 and 7 whilst wasting resources in duplicating the service provided by another operator. Recent press coverage and observations on the road indicate that First clearly have problems operating their current services. Several journeys on service 5 have been cancelled in recent weeks and long gaps are often apparent on service 7. Perhaps it would be wiser to concentrate on getting these services right before trying to push other operators out of business. Since we commenced operation of services 4 and 4A some twelve weeks ago, we have achieved almost perfect reliability (3) in notable contrast to First’s town services during the same period.”

It is fair to say that we have benefitted from First’s very mixed performance over the past couple of months. Some morning journeys on service 4 heading in to town have picked up significant numbers of passengers who were waiting for an alternative service which had failed to arrive. If anything, i think our relatively reliable presence has helped take some of the heat away from them.

In the trade press, recent articles seem to paint a very different picture to what is actually being experienced by passengers. (CBW on James Freeman; CBW on Chris Hanson and Weston) I appreciate that issues with staffing and traffic tend to be transient, but there is only so much banging of the company drum that can be done before the admission is made that priorities have been pursued incorrectly. No bus company (including us) is ever going to have a perfect reputation, but to keep proclaiming brilliance in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is nothing but foolhardy.

With rumours on various forums regarding disquiet amongst investors in the Group PLC and this reportedly resulting in firm instructions to local bus operations that they have to make unachieveable margins, it cannot be a pleasant time to be in management at First. Across the country, First UK Bus subsidiaries are cutting back on services, which makes the only apparent expansion occurring during this period even more confusing – a marginal Weston town service being run by a benign independent on a short term contract?

I genuinely don’t know if somebody in First has a personal grudge against me, but if they do, i’d much rather they just came out and said something so that i knew what i was up against. The persistent sniper fire of a substantial PLC against my business has reached a point where i need to think very carefully about whether i want to continue. I am proud of what we have achieved, particularly given how reliable the Hutton services have been, but there has to be a point where i decide to do something different with my life. Something where i’m not fighting against an unknown quantity which is impossible to plan against. The outcome of the North Somerset tendering will probably decide where the line is drawn.

References:
1
– “Buses clash in turf war”, Weston Mercury, 5th October 2015:
http://www.thewestonmercury.co.uk/news/buses-clash-in-turf-war-1-4259002
Also featured in the published edition dated 1st October 2015.
2 – First Group / First Bus – Key Facts:
http://www.firstgroupplc.com/about-firstgroup/uk-bus.aspx
3 – Reliability details: In 13 weeks of operation, we were scheduled to operate 1,105 journeys on services 4, 4A and 4C. 1,104 of these were successfully operated with one journey on 4C being abandoned due to malfunctioning temporary traffic lights causing severe traffic problems. On spot checks of real time tracking, no journeys have been found to be in excess of 12 minutes late and most within five minutes.

 

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