99 and out: The end of buses between Blagdon and Weston-super-Mare

Tuesday 12th April 2022 will see the end of bus services between Blagdon and Weston-super-Mare, which first began on 1st June 1923. Almost 99 years of continuous service in one form or another will conclude as Citistar service 134 is withdrawn primarily as a result of changes to concessionary fare reimbursements and the Enhanced Partnership scheme being enacted by WECA and North Somerset Council.

Through Services
Services over the route first began as service 44, operated by Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company who would later become Bristol Omnibus. At various points both pre and post second world war, the service was extended to run from Bath to Weston, continuing as service 44 until 1967 when services were reorganised and renumbered. During the late 1930s, there was also a service 44A from Radstock via Chewton Mendip, East Harptree and on to Blagdon and Weston.

Substantial reorganisations saw service 129 from Bath to Weston replace route 44 from 17th September 1967 on an infrequent basis providing between two and five return journeys each day. This remained until preparations began for the dismantling of the National Bus Company in the early 1980s where it was replaced by the ambitious service X9 between Bath and Weston which was aimed more at through travel than local passengers. Service X9 would spend several years seasonally fluctuating between commercial operation by Badgerline and tendered operation as service 819 with Badgerline and Clapton Coaches before finally being concluded as a commercial operation prior to the 1998 summer season when driver shortages were restricting the extra curricular seasonal activities (which also included the end of the Badgerline day trip coaches from Bath).

From 1998, Abus would take over the through services from Bath to Weston, variously numbered as 790/793 (X9/819 route), 791 (via Norton Radstock) and 794 (via Keynsham). These were generally one journey a day in each direction (between, aimed at taking leisure travellers to Weston and back for the day. The 50km rule of bus services would eventually mean these services were split at West Harptree with the sections to Weston all being numbered 793. A 792 service also appeared for several summer seasons, aimed at leisure travel from Weston to Bath and operated by Bakers and First.

The most successful of these services was the Wednesday 791 service which lasted some fifteen years, with a final season being operated commercially as service 191 by North Somerset Coaches in 2013 (with occasional Citistar duplicates).

Tuesdays and Thursdays
Rather more quietly, at the beginning of deregulation in October 1986, the Lyons family in Blagdon (Blagdon Lioness Coaches) had started to operate a Tuesday shopper’s service between the Chew Valley, Blagdon and Weston-super-Mare. More punctual and reliable than the through journeys from Bath and targetted firmly at rural residents, service 484 gained popularity. This built upon the service from Blagdon to Wells via Priddy which had been started in 1977 and an interchange was made available in Blagdon for passengers from other villages to give the option of travel to either destination. Despite various changes of route and operator on both services, the Blagdon Tuesday interchange has remained a valuable part of the offering right to the end.

Blagdon Lioness’ garage, with Tiger D771GTC which often ran service 484.
Photo: John Hammond

A Thursday service variously numbered 453 and 835 during it’s operation was also added at October 1986, starting from Chewton Mendip and running as the old 44A route had done some fifty years previously. This was variously operated by Bakers, Coombs, Blagdon Lioness and Eurotaxis under contract to at least three different local councils (Avon, North Somerset, B&NES and possibly Somerset CC too at one point). This was eventually lost as a result of North Somerset Council funding cuts during 2011.

Blagdon Lioness Vario S11BLC seen in Blagdon in 1999. The RE behind is Somerbus on the 683, covering for Abus (ex BOC 1317)

Tuesday service 484 would continue with Blagdon Lioness and become supported service 834 in 2001. The service was eventually lost on tendering to Eurotaxis in 2009. Upon losing their Chew Valley School service with which 834 interworked, Eurotaxis surrendered the contract in autumn 2010 and it was taken on by Coombs for a short term until it passed to CT Coaches of Radstock. The move to CT also represented the move from being supported by North Somerset to B&NES. Despite this assortment of operators (some of whom were more popular than others), the service retained popular with local residents who valued the opportunity for their weekly social meeting, often loading the vehicles very heavily.

Back to commercial operation
Having had the ear of several of the regular passengers on the route, i had bid competitively on it twice in tendering through B&NES, only to lose it on the basis that the vehicle i proposed to use was outside of the age requirements of the contract (yet still newer than that which was being used on it under the same contract). In April 2013, having a suitable school contract with which to interwork the service, i took the plunge and registered the service commercially, saving B&NES some £5,600 a year in revenue subsidies (£50k over the next nine years).

Service 134 started operating in April 2013 and gained popularity by having space for everyone on the 57 seat coach instead of the previous 30 seat Vario. I would use various vehicles over the years, including Plaxton DAF R981FNW, Dart V212JLG and later pretty much any Solo i’ve owned.

The decision was reinforced in 2014 when North Somerset Council (then under more constructive leadership) offered funding to enhance bus services from the Blagdon area. I put together a bid including a Thursday service to Clevedon and Nailsea (which would become 128) and a Friday service (135) offering a longer stay in Weston super Mare than the Tuesday service. This bid was successful and the enhanced package started in September.

Service 128 was instantly popular, drawing upon the plethora of new travel opportunities offered by the service and has remained almost unchanged since it was first introduced (aside from adding a little running time to the morning journey).

Service 135 was more tricky – as with many of the claims of demand produced by local requests, it proved there was no real market for a longer stay in Weston, even in the summer. Many different versions of 135 were attempted, at first providing a service from Felton and Winford (which generated some loyal patronage), then divering away from Blagdon to instead serve Redhill, Wrington and Lower Langford (which had been abandoned by the withdrawl of the A2). The final iteration was the most successful, but never remotely near being commercial.

Briefly daily
Following the contraction of the Crosville operation in Weston, town services 4/4A serving Hutton and Bleadon were offered on tender in the summer of 2017. I put a bid in and was unexpectedly successful. As i don’t like to run empty buses where there is no other service, service 4C was introduced from September 2017 to run from Bishop Sutton via Blagdon, Churchill and Banwell to Hutton and Weston, offering a morning journey to Weston and a 16:30 afternoon return. This may well have continued beyond the end of the contract in April 2018, but First decided that a man with a mortgage and two buses represented a huge threat to them and registered commercially a minute in front of our contracted service.

The Beginning of the End
In the autumn of 2019, i was invited to a meeting at North Somerset Council to discuss the future. It was an odd experience with two council officers, one of whom was hyperactively scattergunning irrelevant ideas around whilst ignoring the fact that there aren’t really any savings to be made from one bus and driver performing one journey in each direction. The bottom line was that they were under intense financial pressure and the 128 and 135 services they were supporting had been identified as providing the least benefit (of the five services then being operated under contract to the council).

I received notice on the contracts for them to be terminated at the end of May 2020. As events overtook society, we never got the opportunity to finish service 135 (or 24 which had been introduced in 2018 to try and increase in income and usefulness for the Friday package) properly. Clearly this funding redirection was part of the process of “ripping up the timetables and starting again” upon which Don Davies was so keen. Shame he has shown no interest in his taxpaying residents of the Blagdon area who have lost out big time as a result of this cavalier attitude.

Sadly without the support for the 128 and 135 to paper over the deficit of income on service 134, i can no longer continue to run the package. It has been made impossible to remain part of the network with the huge burden of costs being placed upon us by the WECA led Enhanced Partnership. Although there was an option to continue as an “Exempted Service”, this wouldn’t have improved our income and would have given the already reluctant councils an excuse to completely ignore our operations, perhaps even to the level of excluding them from being included on roadside timetable displays and travel maps. The realities of what has been submitted to the DfT for approval is in stark contrast to the proposals of support and expanding the network which started the Enhanced Partnership discussions.

It has become impossible to keep absorbing all the small and not-so-small increases in costs introduced by central and local government – ticket machines, BODS compliance, fuel costs, staffing costs, PSVAR and Euro VI vehicles whilst still being compliant with Home to School requirements… the list seems endless. Whilst many of these costs are tolerable for a company running vehicles for 14+ hours a day on several journeys, five or more days a week, they are disproportionately heavy for occasional services where there isn’t other work to cross subsidise. Passenger usage has remained high until the end, but this seemingly counts for nothing in the brave new world of totalitarian public sector control.

The End of the End
Running these services has rarely been a chore. I have my doubts as to whether they would have reappeared after the first 2020 lockdown were it not for the loyal support of many members of the local communities. Although numbers have not regained the levels we were carrying in 2019, they have recovered strongly and according to figures published by WECA in their 2022 tendering exercise, these services are the most used in the Chew Valley area by some considerable margin. Figures for 2021 suggest that service 672 had on average been carrying far fewer passengers a day than we take on one return trip to Weston or Clevedon most weeks. But popularity seems to count for nothing and WECA have decided to continue offering the same package of routes for tender in the Chew Valley, possibly because nobody in an office in Bristol understands where they are nor what the travel demands are, and our purseholders in local councils have made it clear that they don’t require advice from those providing services. Meanwhile, North Somerset refuse to spend a penny on supporting bus services in the area.

And what do local councillors in North Somerset think of this? Well, they’re eager to criticise, but apparently don’t want to talk. Or perhaps have been briefed against communicating with the enemy by the staff in Clevedon who have stood by and watched this destruction whilst throwing money at Stagecoach to rescue bus services in Weston.

So farewell, passengers of Blagdon. I hope you’ve enjoyed our stint of nine years providing your bus services to Weston as they disappear just short of a centenary which would have been fun to celebrate.

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