The Balancing Act

Apologies for this eventually being published after the event.

A problem with some bus services is the act of balancing out the bits that work commercially with the less renumerative social and political demands. Sometimes a balance can be struck, sometimes it doesn’t work.

As an example, i’ll point to our Friday shopper’s bus diagram. After morning schools, it runs service 135, a lengthy run around some villages en route to Weston-super-Mare. Now i’ll be honest, we’ve tried three different formats of service 135 over the past six years to try and make it work and despite First withdrawing from their daily services in the area to try and make our Friday shopper’s service work better, it has never really taken off like our other services.

In an effort to explore a new market (or more to the point, try and retain a foothold in one that First had bullied us out of by registering a commercial service against our supported route), we introduced an additional town service 24 around Weston to be provided with the same vehicle as service 135 from Easter 2018. Service 24 links together several suburbs in the south of the town with the major commercial centres at Winterstoke Road and Flowerdown; journeys which are otherwise quite challenging to make by public transport. Although a little erratic, loadings have averaged over 20 journeys per Friday and the service stands up as something worth doing with a bus and driver already in the town. We have a few regular passengers and many more occasionals who make use of the service. The orbital nature of the route sets a framework to address developing passenger demands given the decentralised nature of Weston-super-Mare now, something First and North Somerset Council seem keen to ignore.

The drop
As part of their budgetary pressures, North Somerset Council have taken the decision to abandon funding provided by them for all bus services east of the A370. Our contracts to provide 135, along with that to provide the Thursday service 128 have been prematurely cancelled from the end of May 2020, whilst B&NES (or rather now WECAvon) are suggested to have been left with the carcass of the 672 to fund themselves.

The cancellation of the support for services 128, 135 and 672 will leave North Somerset Council with only two bus service contracts paid from their own budget – Carmel’s 88 and Weston Community Transport’s C1/C2. Anything else contracted by North Somerset is either paid for by developer funding or Bristol Airport.

Whilst i have been able to put together some kind of business case for maintaining the Thursday 128 service commercially (at least until North Somerset decide what they’re doing with Yatton – Clevedon, originally contracted to start from 6th April 2020), the Friday diagram cannot survive without the subsidy for route 135. The mileage is too high, the day too long and the rewards too small to justify continuing, before i even consider the marginal costs.

I won’t miss 135 a great deal, as we’ve tried a lot of things with it and none have delivered the passengers we need to carry to keep it running. It also runs along some rather hairy roads which are in a poor state of repair. In addition, of all our routes, it is the service most likely to be disrupted by woes on the M5 or at the Airport.

Frustratingly, service 24 is a different proposition. A low hassle town service, doing a fairly low mileage and demonstrating reasonable passenger demand. Unlike 135 (which covers much of the scope of the old 121/A2 services), there have never been usable services making such journeys possible before. Unfortunately, the start point for service 24 is also 20 miles from the depot and doesn’t stand up commercially on its own. North Somerset Council were disinterested in retaining it as they see it as as irrelevance because it isn’t part of their contract.

Despite the protestations of their staff to the contrary, their interests appear to lie solely with First and the blurred area of their own in house operations involving Weston Community Transport. Their latest recruitment drive in the Transport Unit has turned up a new member of staff with a CV documenting extensive operational experience in pretend community transport operations. This does not bode well for the future of public transport in North Somerset as it would seem that if First aren’t interested in doing it commercially, then some comedy slam door van conversion running on an unregulated permit, outside of any multi-operator ticketing arrangement is all you’ll be getting.

So with much regret, service 24 will also disappear along with 135 from the end of May 2020. It will signal the end of our time serving Hutton, Bleadon Hill and Oldmixon for now, which is a shame as we’ve met some brilliant people in our time down there on both 24 and our 2017/18 tenure on the previous 4/4A/4C town services. Hutton Parish Council in particular have always been supportive of us as a provider.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, i’ve got several articles i’ve been meaning to read since March about £5bn of government funding for local bus services….

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