Less Expression

First’s North Somerset Excel network, previously the Express Yourself network will be undergoing changes from the end of April 2019, which (whilst being referred to in their press release as improvements) will see the loss of:
– one direct bus per hour between Weston-super-Mare and Bristol (Currently 4, becomes 3)
– one bus per hour between Weston and Clevedon (currently 2, becomes 1)
– one bus per hour between Backwell and Bristol  (currently 6, becomes 5 and less during peak hours due to journeys running as X1X via the Motorway)
– one bus per hour along Locking Road and New Bristol Road in Weston (currently 5, becomes 4)
– the section between Yatton and Clevedon entirely (aside from our shoppers journey on Thursdays, currently hourly)
– one bus per hour between Nailsea and Bristol (currently 5, becomes 4)
– all evening and Sunday services to Failand (currently hourly)
– all Sunday services to South Nailsea (Queens Road / Whiteoak Way etc) (currently hourly)

The only improvements that actually seem to be listed is the introduction of some extra journeys around Clevedon to Dial Hill on X7 and peak journeys between Weston and Bristol as X1X, via the M5. I would cynically suggest this is simply putting buses which would be running empty from Weston to Bristol in service and that as token gestures go, competing against your own railway is pretty weak.

These changes are not surprising given the context which none of the official press releases will refer to. In January 2017, North Somerset Council invited tenders to “strengthen the core inter-urban bus network in North Somerset by making available kick-start funding to be used to provide new or enhanced services.” Their core network was conveniently defined as the existing services X1-X9 as existed at the time. These services were to “…be registered as appropriate with a commencement date of 30 April 2017. The network of services will operate for a minimum of two years from this date.

This tender was predictably won by First as it was never feasible that another operator would be able to win a tender based on providing another operator’s already established network. £240,000 passed from North Somerset to First during the next two years under the contract. Clearly somebody paid scant regard to section 1.5 of the contract: “A high quality service with a strong customer focus that will be commercially viable in the longer term is crucial to the success of this project and an emphasis on this will form a key part of the evaluation process. The successful operator will be expected to provide a robust business case evidencing how they would propose to grow the service and achieve commercial viability following the funding period.”

At the same point in 2017, North Somerset had a second tender round going on the same basis; as a two year kick start contract. This was for bus services between West Wick, Locking Castle and Weston Town Centre, then provided by Crosville as their service 16. First duly won this as well, with another £150,000 being provided to them for doing so.

Service X7 was introduced as a result, probably of both tenders. In addition, journeys to West Wick via Worle were provided on service 3 (every 20 minutes, 28/04/17-02/09/17), then service 5 (every 30 minutes, 03/09/17-13/01/18) before dropping to hourly from 14/01/18 and disappearing entirely from 27/04/19.

Both of these contractual obligations expire at the end of April 2019, hence the cutting of several vehicles worth of work from the Excel network. The council would appear to have no long term benefit to show for their £390,000 expenditure.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Local councils clearly don’t learn that First interpret the term Kick-Start to mean something completely different to what many of us understand. Another tender was issued in January this year for the continuation of a service to Yatton village, this time with £77,000 of developer funding to maintain a service between Top Scaur and Henley Lodge. This was awarded to First, in order to subsidise service X2 in to providing a double run through Yatton, in an identical fashion to its predecessors W1 and 350. North Somerset even congratulated themselves in their own press release for “saving” the route.

The net result of this is that the public transport service between Yatton and Clevedon now stands to be at its lowest level since before the closure of the railway over the same route in 1966.

Meanwhile campaigners continue to press for a public sector (which has hereby demonstrated no ability in long term planning, nor stability) to have greater controls over services. I’m not sure that they fully understand the implications of handing control over to people who simply don’t appear to understand the benefits of stability and sustainability.

References:
All items marked blue in “quotations” are copied directly from the original tender documents for the services below.
Interurban Commercial Bus Service: Tender number DN231166, issued by North Somerset Council, 2nd Jan 2017.
Local Bus Services Kick-Start West Wick to Weston Town Centre: Tender number 213406 or DN227986, issued by North Somerset Council, 15th Dec 2016.
LOT 3 – Local bus service(s) in the Yatton village area: Tender number DN392337, issued by North Somerset Council, 11th Feb 2019.

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