Sold Down the River: Timsbury Chronicles 1/2

This is a companion piece to “The Blame Game“. Both concern a similar georgraphical area and the two tales are linked with many recurrent experiences. I’ve never felt much inclined to write about our tenure of operating service 768, but the resurfacing of considerable ire from the residents of Timsbury regarding their bus services is juxtaposed with my experience of their complete disinterest in our service when we were fighting our way through North Road 18 times a day for barely any passengers.

Everyone’s a winner, baby
The modern bus service tendering process at Bath and North East Somerset Council runs at a truly glacial pace and the 2014 awards were the first ones to be awarded following a series of consultations and contract tendering that lasted over a whole year. Prior to this, council staff seemed to have been more satisfied (and perhaps empowered) to make decisions based on their experience and the market, but the endless box ticking exercises made this tendering round drag on worse than an M6 contraflow.

In June 2013, the council (having recently started several new contracts at Easter 2013) started procuring opinions for contracts then proposed to start at Easter 2014, although this later slipped back to September 2014. This was supposedly so that the council could confer with hundreds of interested parties and “stakeholders” to ensure that the right changes were made. Many parties (including myself) provided feedback to the council on their proposals.

Because i am something of a hoarder, here is one of the consultations as originally published: June 2013 Consultation on Market Day services

Following another round of consultation in November 2013, contracts were published in December. As i was quite keen (naive? foolish?) at the time, i was eagerly trying to build a bit more work for the business. I submitted prices for services 672 (Blagdon – Bristol), 752/754 (Chew Valley Shopper services) and 768 (Farrington Gurney – Bath), all of which had been relatively competitively priced, reflecting the considerable level of competition between operators locally at the time.

Some time around March, i received a phone call from Richard Smith (then second in command at B&NES Public Transport), inviting me in for a chat. This chat involved some polite flannel and a few queries about how my operation was set up and what support structure i had in place before revealing that it was proposed to award service 768 to me, under a revised structure where one bus would run a Monday to Saturday service, rather than the current arrangement where an extra bus supplemented the main service with additional journeys on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We would be taking the service over from CT Coaches of Radstock on the 1st of September 2014.

Everyone’s on board, honest
If nothing else, Richard can be a good salesman. He assured me how on board everyone was with the changes being made to the service and that we would be wholeheartedly supported by the communities along the route of the service. Upon commencement of operation, this was found to be far from the case.

Passengers from Timsbury, Camerton and Writhlington moaned about how the duration of their shopping trips to Midsomer Norton was now either 33 minutes or three hours, having previously been the far more practical 70 minutes on the  previous timetable. Passengers from Writhlington moaned about one journey at lunchtime which wasn’t serving their suburb.  Passengers from Timsbury also moaned that the 09:20 journey to Bath on Tuesdays and Thursdays was no longer there.

Of course, most of this was the fault of this bloody new bus company and according to the passengers nobody knew the changes were coming and they had told the council that they didn’t want the new timetable when they had sent a scapegoat out on the bus to sell it to them. Obviously the bemused traffic enumerator[1] who had been sent out to consult with passengers had failed to effectively feed back to those making the decision how unpopular such a service structure would be.

To be honest, we had been fairly lucky in the past, taking over services from other operators which had either been abandoned or done poorly and our reception reflected that. With 768, it was made clear to us from pretty much day one that we weren’t welcome and that passengers on the route weren’t interested in problems being sorted out, they just wanted to incessantly moan about them. One day when i pointed out to some passengers from Writhlington on the bus that there was a notice with the phone number, address and email address of the council for their complaints rather than just moaning to each other on the bus, i was told in no uncertain terms that i shouldn’t be listening to their conversations and to mind my own business. We were also faced with a driver from the previous Tuesday and Thursday journeys who had actively tried to steer passengers away from using the new service because it wouldn’t be him driving them.

It was also obvious from day one that the timetable which had been issued by the council was completely unworkable. Certain sections of route had less than half the time they actually took to perform. The timings had been drawn from the previous service, which in turn had been taken from every iteration of the service since it was improved through Rural Bus Grant in the late 1990s. Richard had failed to notice that the previous incarnation of the service had turnarounds of at least 20 minutes at the end of each journey (aside from one in the afternoon at Clutton). They were also providing fewer journeys, and operating a (now withdrawn) section of route which had been loosely timed, allowing for recovery. We were now faced with five and ten minute turnarounds which rendered the service impossible to operate reliably.

There was also the issue of operating through the congested North Road in Timsbury, which was a major part of the problem. B&NES had stipulated that the service should run through North Road in both directions en route to and from Greenvale Drive. The result was that we were passing through North Road 18 times a day, all in the pursuit of providing links to a doctor’s surgery which to my knowledge never generated a single passenger journey in the whole time we ran the service. But Timsbury Parish Council described such a facility with words like important and essential.

As an aside, there will be more about Timsbury Parish Council and their blinkered antics in episode two of this tale, The Blame Game. They are a very noisy bunch, who insist that there is massive demand for bus services in all directions from the village, but never seem to use the services themselves, not pay any attention to the fact that villagers’ usage of the services has changed significantly over the past 20 years since they last asked.

A First Revision
Within a week, i opened negotiations with the council to revise the service and make it possible to operate more reliably. We quickly arrived at the conclusion that a revised timetable was necessary and this was agreed on to take effect from the 13th October, pending approval from the Traffic Commissioner’s office. One afternoon journey would no longer serve Farrington Gurney, but there would be (deep joy) an extra journey to Writhlington.

There followed more moans that it is being bloody changed again and one Saturday morning in late November, i reached a proper meltdown in Timsbury when a pensioner with forthright views decided that it was my fault that she hadn’t been informed of a timetable change over a month earlier on a service she hadn’t used for over three months.

Stop right there
It wasn’t just in their public liason and consultation that B&NES dumped on us. I should preface this part of the story with an observation from my experience, this being that the two most senior members of staff at B&NES Council at the time simply didn’t communicate. As always, the fallout of problems which arose from this were left for those of us at the coal face to deal with.

As part of the changes to the service at Writhlington, we were now making a circuit of an estate (Manor Park) previously unserved by public transport. Prior to our commencing on the route, we asked Richard which way we should be going around the estate (as it was a loop). He responded that he didn’t mind. At the same time as this, another senior member of staff at the council was apparently making arrangements with the Traffic & Safety team to site bus stops around there, but didn’t think to involve either of the bus operators (us and First) who would be serving them. During training, the week prior to commencing, we decided that it would be best to serve the estate in a clockwise direction as this gave us priority at a congested section and also made the turns easier. This was communicated back to Richard.

Sadly, there was no communication with the bus operator (us) as to which way around there we were going, so instructions were issued by B&NES to put bus stops on the (anti-clockwise) wrong side of the road. I complained that we had decided to operate in the more operationally sane direction, and received an apology for being “omitted from notification of the decision”. There was never any apology for not being involved in the siting process, nor the complete communication breakdown which had led to the situation. I can’t imagine that First aren’t involved in the siting of bus stops on their services.

I also still reflect that, four years on, council officers are still appalling at apologising for their shortcomings and mistakes. Given how much forelock-tugging bus operators are expected to be whenever we make a mistake (or are imagined to have done so) by the public, the council could do with learning some humanity by admitting that we’re all faulty little humans and we all make mistakes.

Meanwhile in Radstock
The Radstock Regeneration was a project that had been in the planning for several years and reconstruction of the local road network was scheduled to start pretty much simutaneously with our service commencing. From October 2014, the main bus stops in Radstock were closed and out of use for five of the following six months (with a month off for Christmas traffic). The replacement temporary stop was next to the riverbank, a route only rivalled for its levels of traffic by the number of rats running across the road to the wasteground opposite.

A new junction was being constructed on Frome Road (our route to Writhlington), which required over a dozen passages a day through the temporary traffic lights at the bottom of the hill. These were supposed to be manually controlled at peak times, but this usually consisted of an apprentice sitting in the van asleep or fannying around on their phone.

All the drivers (including myself) rapidly became sick to the back teeth of the constant barrage of appalling traffic management, incessant passenger complaints (many of which ignored the roadworks they were seeing every time they travelled on the bus) and complete disinterest from anybody at the council.

The Radstock works and disruptions lasted well in to Summer 2015, although long before this i decided that i had been sold down the river and was ready to chuck in the towel.

Let it Go
There was another issue which was clouding my judgement at the time. During the last four months of 2014, which were utter misery at work, my wife and i had discovered that we were expecting the arrival of our son in the spring of 2015. Then at the end of November, a very dear friend died suddenly. I was in absolute turmoil and unable to address anything in my mind on account of working flat out for six days a week, including driving a full day every Saturday. There were some really dark moments.

I opened communication with Richard at the council in order to either get the service more manageable or to give notice on it. To be honest, i’d probably have been happier with the latter. There was a change date scheduled for the last weekend in March 2015 at which i’d have been delighted to walk away from it. As it happened, we agreed on a revised service. There had been a proposal for some time that in the longer term Writhlington should become part of 179 during the week, as it was on the Sunday at that time. This was to happen from April 2015 (and to be funded by Paulton developers money for three years – more of that in part two). 768 would be revised to focus on the remaining (and rather sparse) parts of the route.

The End of the Affair
To be honest, our final iteration of the 768 from 29th March 2015 worked well. We only served Writhlington and Timsbury on the first journey of the day and the passengers who were left on the remaining sections were far more appreciative of our efforts.

In the early hours of a Thursday morning in April 2015, we welcomed our son in to the world. Some 48 hours later, I was out driving a bus on the following Saturday as normal. The next Saturday i would have off work would be his first birthday.

Aside from a few Saturdays when First’s services between Midsomer Norton and Bath fell apart, loadings were particularly pitiful at the weekend. I regularly arrived at Bath at 11:38 completely empty, watching every other bus arriving in to the city with substantial loads. It wasn’t unusual to not carry a single passenger on the last three journeys (14:00, 16:05 from Bath, 15:08 from Farrington). I made comments to Richard Smith at B&NES on several occasions that this was the case and that i’d be willing to substantially reduce the contract payment to get rid of Saturdays altogether or even just finish at lunchtime, but he was never willing to discuss it seriously. Eager to get some sense of normal family life, i made the decision to give notice on the contract from the end of July 2016.

Of course, this decision resulted in me being labelled as “difficult to work with” and “never satisfied” by members of council staff who were never required to work at weekends themselves. At the time of writing, i still haven’t secured any further work with the B&NES Public Transport department. Having spent every Saturday (bar two) for two years out driving to Bath and back, and having not had more than a couple of days off in two years, i have no regrets about the decision. The topic of Saturday services brings us neatly on to the current situation…

[End of Part One]

[1] Traffic Enumerators are generally retired people on substantial pensions who are bored. They tend to be part of the baby boomer generation and generally employed to count vehicles for council traffic censuses on a part time basis, as required. Bath and North East Somerset also employ them to carry out tasks relating to public transport, such as surveys of bus journeys and putting up timetable displays at rural bus stops. Their suitability to these tasks isn’t considered, as we once got sent an Enumerator to survey the 768 who admitted within the first minute of him being on the bus that he got travel sick quite easily. They are also seemingly incapable of putting bus stops on the correct side of the road, particularly in the Chew Valley (see the bus stops in Compton Martin at the time of writing for proof).

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One thought on “Sold Down the River: Timsbury Chronicles 1/2

  1. Hmm, I remember being invited to similar “chats” when I won contracts in Cambridgeshire and Thurrock. Like your scenario, there would be a bit of preamble followed by a question along the lines of “So, who exactly are you?”

    Like

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