FreeBus: A lot of publicity, but not much else

The start of the 2010 decade was a tumultuous time on Bristol’s public transport. Rotala Wessex were keen to make their presence felt in the city. Bristol City Council’s lead on Transport, Gary Hopkins was trying to entice other major group operators in to the city by mass tendering every supported service at once (spoiler, he only managed to attract HCT, who brought tatty ex-London articulated Citaros to the city) and an organisation called FreeBus were getting plenty of attention.

The roots of FreeBus are rather unclear. From mid-2010, their website appeared making a plethora of claims about how Bristol’s urban public transport could be free at the point of use funded by a mixture of “donations”, “grants”, advertising, Bristol City Council’s existing £4.7m service subsidy and… errrm… magic beans perhaps? The initial version of their website also referred to them being a charity, although no record of the organisation ever having been one appears to exist. Even in to 2011, they were still referring to the organisation as having applied to become a charity in publicity materials.

The only legal entity which seems to have existed as FreeBus was a limited company which was incorporated late in 2010 and began adding various local directors, including a future leader of North Somerset Council, some notable local Green Party activists, a planning manager at Bristol University and an Aerospace engineer. The initial public face of the organisation was MSc student Jack Phillips, apparently studying “travel behaviour change and the policy implications of free public transport provision“.

Operations

A brief one day pilot operated on 11th December 2010, using a vehicle provided by the somewhat erroneously named “London Bus” of Warmley (Nigel Comer, PH1064303), Olympian G37OCK. This operated a Temple Meads – Broadmead – Centre – Temple Meads loop. A plethora of photographs was posted to Facebook showing over 30 volunteers cadjoling passengers on to the service, mince pies being handed around and a brass band (for some reason). I’m pretty sure if i had thirty enthusiastic students and activists freely available to promote every bus service i provided, we could improve loadings too.

A Bristol Community Transport/HCT VW VDL Kusters (photo: Tim Jennings)

Despite having operated their initial pilot with one large double deck, the organisation suggested their long term plan was to utilise VW/VDL minibuses, which had been present at various Bristol Community Transport projects for some years (prior to their subsummation in to HCT’s operations), although no mention was made of community transport providers being engaged to provide FreeBus services. Certainly their arguments about decreased dwell times at bus stops if fares were not being charged would be outweighed by the cumbersome plug doors on such vehicles.

A more ambitious scheme was launched to start operating every Saturday from 11th June 2011, performing the same circuit (now dubbed “F1”) on a half hourly basis with a bus and driver provided by Wessex. According to the company’s accounts for 2011, this exercise cost them some £224 per day of operation. Despite having the manpower to badger passengers in to making donations, the average donation was quoted as being a meagre 30p. Certainly the lack of social media gushing that the trial service had generated seemed to suggest that enthusiasm for the scheme was waining as it began to dawn on organisers that their faulty costings (which suggested such a service could be operated for £161 a day) were a long way from viable on even a trial basis.

The Aftermath
During the 2011 “F1 season”, the website was updated to indicate further routes that FreeBus intended to provide, including services via Gloucester Road to Horfield (briefly referred to as F2), a loop around Newfoundland Way, Stapleton and Easton, a direct copy of the 1 service between the Centre and Downs and a service from Temple Meads to Brislington, Callington Road and Knowle (which would serve the neither the Centre nor Broadmead). None of these would see the light of day. In fact, despite all the upbeat suggestion on the website, there would never be another FreeBus service.

Despite not actually achieving anything in 2012, there was a redesign to the website which continued to insist that the new “longer residential” service was coming at some point after they’d taken “a well earned break”….. from…. errmm… hiring in somebody else to run a bus service…? Although never mentioned on the website and now seemingly almost erased from the internet, there was a suggestion that FreeBus were going to make a comeback running a service to Portishead via Pill and Easton in Gordano, which was documented by FatBusBloke on the Public Transport Experience blog in March 2013 (although frustratingly no source is quoted). Like most ideas to come from FreeBus, this was hardly new thinking, merely duplicating the First WoE 357-9 services which were about to be rebranded as X2/X3.

So why Portishead? I’ll direct you back to one of my opening comments – the future leader of North Somerset Council, one Donald Davies was elected for the first time in 2011 as an independent councillor to represent Pill on North Somerset Council. On early versions of the FreeBus website, he had been listed as Treasurer of the organisation. Both the Freebus website and his LinkedIn page also suggest he has extensive experience in logistics and transport, perhaps this would explain his council’s apparent plans for their own PSV fleet, although such experience would also raise questions about how FreeBus could have got their costings so wayward in their initial publicity drive. One would hope that such mistakes will not be repeated at Castlewood.

The issue of funding appears to have dogged FreeBus throughout their existence, almost as if to prove the concept were unsustainable. Despite recording £9,043 in donations during their accounts to year October 2011 with a net profit of £1,309, this profit never appears to have been used to provide “free bus services in next financial year” as promised. The next set of accounts will suggest that whilst not apparently trading, the cash on hand was now £363 with no recorded expenditure. Shortly after the publication of these accounts in August 2012, it would appear that there was some fallout amongst the FreeBus board later in 2012, as four directors (including Davies) had their appointment as directors terminated during the following months.

The company continued on in a dormant form until 2016, when it was voluntarily struck off at Companies House, with one of the remaining directors apparently having emigrated. The Companies House records of FreeBus accounts make for interesting reading, particularly where no two consecutive years of figures seem to correlate. It seems likely that interest wained following the six month trial service in 2011 and members were unable to agree on a future direction for the organisation.

The website remained online until around 2017, when presumably the domain registration lapsed. No archived version of the FreeBus website seems to contain any mention of the Portishead service. The FreeBus Facebook and Twitter pages are still online with occasional updates, the latter being maintained by former director Robin Stent. Chair Jack Phillips appears to have disappeared from the scene completely.

Ultimately, despite all the publicity and effort made the net achievements were nil.

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