Saturday 13th June 2020 will see Stagecoach West depart from North Somerset for the final time of the current era as their stint operating the X5 service between Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon, Portishead and Cribbs Causeway will come to an end. The previously hourly service has been on a two-hourly schedule since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The writing had quite possibly been on the wall for some time as Stagecoach never quite seemed to attract the passenger loadings that First had previously done on X5, at least from my observations of the Weston end of the route. Their figure of £3,000 per week loss was probably exacerbated by very heavy peak flows to/from Weston for Weston College which required three vehicles, bringing the college term weekday total to a PVR of five for the whole service, four of which were running all day. (Source of Update pic)
Anyway, in an effort to try and share how this situation has been handled, i thought i’d offer a timeline of developments in the run up to the withdrawal of Stagecoach.
No later than Sunday 5th April 2020 (70 days prior):
Stagecoach West were obliged to inform the local authorities (North Somerset and WECA) along the route of their intention to withdraw the service and to lodge paperwork making it official. Neither the operator nor local authorities make a sound until…
Tuesday 28th April May 2020 (47 days prior):
Stagecoach West were obliged to lodge the cancellation of the registrations for the two routes (Weston to Portishead and Portishead to Cribbs) with the Traffic Area Office by Sunday 3rd May (42 days prior). As it came to pass, Stagecoach were somewhat ahead of the game and their cancellation was duly processed by the TAO and acknowledged online on the Tuesday 28th April. The cancellation came amid the flurry of temporary service registrations, but was still noted on several forums.
Wednesday 29th April 2020 (46 days prior):
North Somerset Council sent an email to several operators indicating that service X5 was being withdrawn and inviting expressions of interest. Key points of the email were as follows:
NSC has been told that Stagecoach will be withdrawing service X5 from 15th June. The council needs to replace this service. We do not currently have any firm ideas about what form this should take, but we believe the weekday peak hour service is commercially sustainable in normal circumstances. NSC would therefore be interested to hear from operators who believe they can deliver this service sustainably in full or part prior to carrying out a formal tendering exercise. We would consider ideas to integrate a solution with contracted service 88 which is due for retender in March 2021. The council intend to approach the market formally within the next fortnight.
I wrote back before the deadline expressing an interest in providing a service with a reduced off-peak frequency between Portishead and Weston which would be sustainable once travel patterns were back to normal. Obviously, at that time we knew little about where the Covid-19 Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG) scheme was heading, which would benefit operators to start running longer, inter-urban services.
Monday 4th May 2020 (41 days prior):
I receive an email from North Somerset thanking me for my interest. I am told they are planning to go to tender this week with four various options. They also express an interest in linking Portishead with Avonmouth, although this was a facility pencilled in to be provided by the proposed X3X service First were intending to launch prior to the pandemic. (Update: I’ve since been informed that the X3X was registered as non stop between Hotwells and Sheepway to provide flexibility on the route, so this wouldn’t have done anything constructive to connect Portishead with Avonmouth).
The following week passed with no tender being published, as did the next and the one after that.
… tumbleweed bounces across empty streets …
Wednesday 27th May 2020 (18 days prior):
An email arrives from an as yet unknown North Somerset employee, thanking me for my interest in the X5 service. There have apparently been significant developments and the tender process has been put on hold pending further investigation.
On the same day, First post notices up to staff informing them that: “To allow sufficient time for North Somerset Council to work with operators to find a more permanent replacement, we have registered a temporary replacement for service X5 which will commence on 15th June”. It goes on to say that the temporary X5 will run every two hours between Portishead, Clevedon and Weston only, being interworked with Sand Bay service 1.
First produced a public press statement on Monday 8th June.
Despite showing an interest, an independent operator ends up being of no interest and out of the discussions. I have since found out that North Somerset have also proposed a package to another operator in order to retain the Portishead – Cribbs Causeway end of the service. As they don’t appear to have regsitered it, i would guess that this proposal was unsuccessful. This was not offered nor even suggested to us.
I have my suspicions of what a permanent replacement for the Stagecoach offering will involve, and i suspect the development of it will require a narrative that no existing commercial operator has an interest in providing service X5, which is false.
Having touched on the fact that North Somerset are already down in to tens of thousands for their bus service support budget in my previous post, it is concerning how councils in the area seem to be rich in capital funding, but paupers in terms of funding for revenue support (conventional bus service subsidy). Capital spending can be manipulated to offset revenue shortfalls sometimes, but these end up being the sort of schemes as have been seen at Somerset County Council, which are unattractive and don’t increase passenger usage in the long term.