This is a companion piece to Sold Down The River, my own experiences of providing a bus service serving Timsbury and the surrounding area from 2014-2016.
A bit of background
From the 28th October, First made changes to their service 179 between Writhlington, Midsomer Norton, Paulton, Timsbury and Bath. Although it isn’t the main service between Norton Radstock nor Paulton and Bath, it does provide a useful completion to the network, providing connections with some of the sparsely populated areas in the middle and some of the more weakly supported urban areas. In its current form, it has evolved from being a part of (and therefore somewhat supported by) the main through services between Norton and Bath to its current form.
The September 2018 form was a two bus working, Monday to Saturday over the whole route around every 90 minutes. The second bus working (and extension from Midsomer Norton to the hilltop outpost of Writhlington above Radstock) was supported for two years from April 2015 in an attempt to “kickstart” the sustainability of the second bus on the route. A single bus operation has also been provided on Sundays and Bank Holidays with support from Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES).
It should be noted that prior to April 2015, at which the daytime service could be considered truly commercial, the service had operated using one bus, approximately every 2h15m between Midsomer Norton and Bath. Evening services at this time were provided under contract to B&NES by Wessex, with Sunday services every 2h30m (and commercially operated, aside from the last round trip from Writhlington to Bath).
During the life of the two bus working, cutbacks had already started happening to journeys which were provided out of the B&NES core budget, as opposed to developer funding. The 2055 journey from Bath was withdrawn and the 2300 journey reduced to run Friday & Saturday only from September 2016, following a withdrawal of council funding. In September 2018, further cutbacks saw the funded 1940 journey from Bath and 2300 Friday & Saturday journey from Bath withdrawn. Those who argue that the current situation has all been brought about by First, should perhaps consider these cuts in funding before blaming the ubiquitous evil bus company. But more of that later.
In the late Spring of 2018, i had been considering my next moves following the loss of the contract to provide services 4 and 4A in Weston-super-Mare, as a result of First deciding they were commercially viable (having decided to operate buses as little as a minute in front of mine). Having not secured any additional work through the previously mentioned B&NES tendering, i found myself in the position of not having sufficient work to keep us busy enough to remain viable.
Around the same time, changes to bus service registrations required us to give local councils an additional 28 days notice prior to notifying the Traffic Commissioner’s office of our intentions to register, alter or cancel any service. If changes were to be made in September, they had to be with the council by early June. By the time this deadline was looming, no further opportunities appeared to be forthcoming, so i opened communication with B&NES that i had intentions to register a service to compete with First’s 179 in a similar fashion to that which they had done to me in Weston. Fair play, huh?
Over the month from opening communications with B&NES to the middle of July, the landscape changed somewhat. Two viable home to school services and a supported bus service had unexpectedly become available and having gone from a complete dearth of opportunities, i was now in a position where something stood a good chance of coming together. I informed B&NES that i was now not intending to pursue the registration of the service. Rather surprisingly, they had already added it to the database of Traveline.
A Notice of Intent
All went quiet for about a month. I managed to secure a contract for an additional home to school service from September which would make the financial position more tolerable than it had previously been. Out of the blue towards the end of August, i received a phone call from B&NES informing me that First had given notice to quit the whole of service 179, aside from the recently renewed and contracted Sunday and Bank Holiday service and was i interested in taking it over?
A quick investigation of the practicalities concluded that the answer was probably no. Citistar only has an authorisation for two vehicles and seeking an increase to that would be unlikely to happen quickly enough to operate the service. This would assume that it would be possible for us to recruit a driver which is far from a forgone conclusion in the currrent climate. I did suggest i would be willing to do some numbercrunching if there was another operator interested in taking it on who wanted help with the scheduling and costing. B&NES would consider supporting a weekday service by cancelling the Sunday and Bank Holiday contract and freeing up the funds they were currently spending on that.
It should be noted at this point that B&NES had been funding the 179 service in its entirety for two years from April 2015 to April 2017. As well as contracts for evening journeys, a late Friday and Saturday journey and the Sunday service, there had been general support from Paulton Purnell development which had funded the second bus on the service, an increase in frequency and the extension from Midsomer Norton to Writhlington. Despite appearances to the contrary that the service had been in essence commercial, the substantial payments to First were propping up the route.
A Plan is formed.
As it happened, another operator was interested in considering a single bus and driver working with a modest level of council support and between us we hatched a plan for a more sustainable service which stood a modest chance of becoming commercially viable. The main stumbling block was the simple fact that they aren’t First and as such, not part of their mobile ticketing or contactless card payment schemes, a situation which now forms the main obstacle to other operators taking over services deemed uneconomical by First. Despite this, we came up with a reasonable proposal to rescue a reasonable level of service.
A Plan is scuppered.
B&NES were proposing to fund the weekday service through withdrawing support for the Sunday and Bank Holiday journeys which have recently been awarded back to First. It transpired that as soon as this was communicated with First’s commercial office, the traditional tendency of hoovering up any available work and funding kicked in and negotations with other operators were closed immediately.
An inconvenient truth for those who hate the evil bus company.
Bath and North East Somerset Council’s support for bus services which run on the weekend in the Somer Valley area (basically anything covered by 172-4 and 179) has been reduced to almost nothing over the past five years. In late 2014 on Saturdays, they were paying for five evening journeys on 179, all day on 82 (Paulton – Radstock local), all day on 768 (Bath to Farrington), all of 379 (Bath – Norton – Wells Road – Bristol) and 12 evening journeys on 178 (now 172). The council are now paying for seven evening journeys on 172, a tiny payment to the peak Saturday 179 provided by CT Coaches and nothing else.
As a comparison, in late 2014 the council were supporting Bath City Services on Saturdays operated by First to Combe Down (evenings, 1), four evening journeys to Upper Weston (1), five late evening journeys to Foxhill & Batheaston (13), four evening circuits of Fairfield Park & Larkhall (6A) and six evening journeys to Kingsway (4). They were also supporting all day Saturday services to Haycombe (12, Wessex), Sion Hill (700, CT), Newbridge (716, CT), Bathwick (734, CT), Larkhall (779, CT) and the Outer Circle (20, Wessex).
As of October 2018, they are still supporting all of the above (although some journeys are now provided by different operators or as different service numbers), plus an hourly Saturday service on University route U2. They have also started paying to support all services to Bathampton, and provided developer funding to services 3 and 3A serving Foxhill and Batheaston.
Perhaps those angry at the big evil bus company should ask why public funding for bus services outside of the city of Bath has been cut back so mercilessly before pointing fingers at the commercial market?
A revolt and a nonsense.
Unsurprisingly, the residents of Timsbury are not happy with their bus service. Examples of their grumpiness can be found in excess on the Facebook group Timsbury Rocks. In fairness, they have had Saturday services for some 90 years and Sunday services for most of that time as well. B&NES issued a tender for Saturday services over the route, although it is my understanding that only one operator submitted a bid which was judged to be too expensive. Reports suggest that First have decided they can take on no extra work on weekends due to staffing problems. Perhaps the council would have had more success if this had been made a condition of taking on the weekday service, along with its funding…?
So where do we go from here? Well, the bored pensioners of Clutton, High Littleton and Timsbury are reportedly now interested in setting up their own S19/S22 minibus operations. None of them seem to be interested in talking to other local businesses who are in the market for passenger transport, so i’ve given up trying to point out that some of us provide reliable, comfortable and economical bus services, but cannot do it where nobody is willing to engage with us.
A Conclusion of sorts
So what have we learned? That the public and parish councils blame First for withdrawing bus services in an area where B&NES have reduced funding to almost nil, whilst increasing their supported service portfolio in Bath. That integrated transport networks are an utter nonsense where every village wants to have its own minibus. That developer funding can be a poisoned chalice, particularly when it runs out. And, most importantly, that First are still the bus company while the rest of us are not.