Borders and Behaviour: How Not to Procure Bus Services.

I realise a lot of my recent ramblings have centred around North Somerset and the council that governs the place, but i’ll try to divert my attention elsewhere after this post.

North Somerset Council have recently undertaken a tendering round which sees every one of their existing four bus contracts replaced by a different service, along with some interesting potential developments.

The existing routes being withdrawn are:
88 Nailsea – Portishead – Walton Bay – Clevedon (Carmel Bristol)
A5 Winford – Airport – Wrington – Winscombe (Carmel Bristol)
B1 Weston – Bleadon (Weston CT)
C1 Weston – Worlebury (Weston CT)
C2 Weston – South Road (Weston CT)
L1 Weston – Locking Parklands (Weston CT)
NSC are also withdrawing their contribution towards the 672 service contract which is managed (and majority funded) by WECA (HCT)

Their replacements were tendered as:
Route A: Whitchurch Asda – Dundry – Winford – Airport (25 seats +)
Route B: Airport – Yatton – Clevedon (25 seats +)
Route C: Clevedon Town Service (25 seats +)
Route D: Airport – Wrington – Blagdon – Winscombe – Locking Parklands – Weston (25 seats +)
Route E: Weston – South Road (25 seats +)
Route F: Weston – Worlebury (12 seats +)
Route G: Weston – Bleadon (12 seats +)
Route H: Nailsea – Portishead – Marina / North Weston / Esplanade (12 seats +)

(As an aside, I apologise for the lack of maps. I have included one below for Route D, but this is the only one i have drawn myself in order to ascertain a mileage for the route. I have not included maps from the tender pack as i was unsure of what would be deemed fair use.)

A, B and C are intended to interwork. Route A will replace part of the A5, with a new extension beyond Winford over in to South Bristol. Route B will return a Yatton – Clevedon link, protracted to start from the Airport. Route C is envisaged to replace part of First X5 (although the council isn’t sure which part of it yet). Two versions were offered, either every hour or every 90 minutes.

Route D as offered. (Source: GoogleMaps)

D and E are intended to interwork. Route D replaces the southern end of the A5 (along with a near half hour and 20km dogleg diversion to Blagdon and back) and the L1, although does not offer a replacement service to the caravan parks adjacent to the Helicopter Museum (West End) or on Hutton Moor. Residents of these parks will generally now have a walk of around a kilometer to reach a bus stop. Route E is a direct replacement of the C2, although may struggle to operate as such as a 25 seat vehicle (minimum 8.5m Solo Slimline) will struggle to access the roads the services is routed along. These services were offered at seven to eight journeys per day, with journeys around every 90 minutes.

F and G are intended to interwork, being relatively direct replacements of existing C1 and B1, with the latter now operating via Winterstoke Road to access vital funding from the Haywood development. These services were offered at a 75 minute headway.

H is a standalone working, partially replacing 88 and potentially replacing the Portishead Marina section of First’s X3. The H diagram as tendered will see the bus visiting Sainsburys in Portishead four times over the course of two hours (again, to access developer funding), but unlike 88 will not serve the considerable social housing provision around Pembroke Road at Redcliffe Bay and will no longer provide any service to Walton Bay Caravan Park. Instead, the new service will concentrate on more important matters such as getting stuck between parked cars in the Marina and providing a vital new service around Portishead Esplanade where properties typically sell for over £1,000,000. The council officer who discussed this tendering round with operators told us he was following orders from higher management and elected members in putting this tender round together. One cannot help but think they may have got their priorities wrong somewhere. Each leg of this service was proposed to run every two hours.

All contracts were (eventually) confirmed to be Monday to Saturday operations and none of the diagrams had any breaks nor (in some cases) sufficient time to change drivers. I don’t believe that any of the reference letters are intended as the public designation of them.

Borders
It is particularly noticeable that routes A and D look fairly illogical on a map, yet follow the North Somerset authority border for a fair part of their routes. One of the detrimental factors in devolving powers to local authorities (and particularly smaller unitaries) is that their solutions to local service provision start to look infuriatingly illogical when dictated by their county boundaries. The public don’t have any interest, nor pay any attention to local government borders drawn on a map by Whitehall and as such their travel habits don’t follow them either. North Somerset’s decision to withdraw from supporting service 672 which provides a link from Blagdon and Dundry to Bristol in favour of providing these rather cumbersome orbital routes (albeit at a higher frequency) doesn’t add up when the reason cited is the inefficiency of their contribution towards the 672 route. These new services will last only as long as the developer or airport funding does and not a moment longer. Despite the council’s encouragement in tendering documentation for operators to grow patronage, these gross cost contracts will never become anywhere near commercially viable. Offering these three year contracts without a longer plan as to how they will be provided is frankly ridiculous.

Behaviour
The other aspect in dealing with bids for these contracts is the penalties. The 31 mile long route D could potentially attract a fine of £205 per single journey for failure to operate, and no doubt then attract a further £120 in fines for failure to provide route E on arrival in Weston. Consider a situation such as that which happened a few years ago where the entrance to First’s Weston Island Depot in Bath was blocked for several hours. This could easily happen to us as an operator – one tree down in the wrong place effectively blocks us in the depot. Assuming (not unreasonably) that a situation may occur where we were unable to get out of the depot all day, we could be facing £4,120 in fines from the council for failure to operate the two vehicles on the D/E service combination. Using calculations made on bidding for this service, that could effectively mean an operator would be operating the next two days free of charge to the council. As compulsory gross cost contracts (where all fares and concessionary payments are returned to the council), this is a recipe for commercial disaster as an operator.

Of course, this assumes that any operator can manage to operate the schedules as tendered. Routes D and E in particular have zero-minute turnarounds pretty much throughout. There is no recovery time in them and the timings throughout are ludicrously optimistic. Despite reassurances from the council officer who discussed the tendering round with operators that services would be amended before introduction, operators are signing a contract which says this is what they will provide.

The contract also includes a provision that the council will provide ticket machines for these services at no cost to the operator. This may appear as generous, but will also allow the council to monitor exactly how punctual each service is at every timing point. Very useful to issuing penalties. On the subject of ticketing – there is no requirement for operators engaged in providing these services to be part of the AvonRider multi-operator ticketing scheme. Another huge own goal against providing integrated bus services.

A Question of Trust
But come on” i hear you say, “no council would be that unreasonable to a bus operator!“. Therein lies the problem. As with all public sector contracts, these are phenomenally one sided. The recent behaviour of staff and elected members at North Somerset Council does not suggest that leniency will be the position taken. When the leader of the council has a history in an organisation that intended to disupt bus services and put commercial operators out of business, what confidence can an operator have in any part of the council?

The contract is clear – Operators will and must comply. The council may or will attempt to uphold their end of the bargain. The council can at any point give three months notice to end the contract (even if operators have just invested heavily in vehicles or other hardware), yet if operators do so they remain liable for any increase in cost to the council in providing the service for the duration of the contract. None of the staff at the council can be relied upon to reply to emails (and often claim never to have received them), yet will often request data from operators by the end of the working day. This one-sided relationship has to change if the council are serious about procuring quality bus services in true partnership form with operators. North Somerset Council are also more erratic at paying their bills than WECA are at paying for concessionary travel, with many operators having had to chase them for payments over recent years.

This issue of trust doesn’t appear to be such an issue with other local authorities around us. Whilst each has their way of working and their peculiarities, no other seems quite so intent on burying their head in the sand and ignoring the world around them.

The penalties to an operator for making mistakes are potentially ruinous. The penalties for council staff who make mistakes are simply not there. If the council is unable to award contracts to replace existing operators, i’m sure it is us who will get the blame. Councillors, hearing a narrative from the staff will conclude that all bus operators are awful and they must set up their own bus operation without further delay. In reality, North Somerset Council’s Integrated Transport Unit has completely failed to understand how their operators work and therein lies the problem. They have failed to recognise the costs and realities that are involved in providing services, aside from their beloved Community Minibuses in Weston.

Service B1. Or L1. Could have been either.
But… “Volunteers always needed”…!

Community Transport can work at a fraction of the price because they are not delivering the same service. A fully depreciated fifteen year old step entrance minibus with a mismatched set of urine-proof seats, driven by a pilot who has a MIDAS certificate that cannot even be bothered to display a Section 22 Permit is not the same as a professionally, licenced operated bus service, fully integrated in to the local network. One will build passenger confidence, provide safe travel with full accessibility, boosting passenger numbers, providing jobs and supporting the local economy, the other is Weston Community Transport.

As with many of my ramblings, this comes back to a fundamental point. Local councils are not the organisations who have demonstrated the knowledge and expertise to plan and run an efficient and inclusive bus network. Operators are far better placed to do so, where funding and objectives are made available. Any talk about recovery funding following the Covid period inevitably comes back to the intensely political subject of control, when really it should be about a question – What do the public want from buses? Do they want bus services which address where there is most demand and to build usage? Or do they want bus services that tick boxes on an evaluation sheet, far removed from reality?

Sorry for the barely relevant picture, but i’ll try and tenuously link it in: Are we going to see the back of buses in North Somerset?

Amended 19/02 to clarify the situation regarding service 672. Apologies for any ambiguity arising.

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