Service is not acceptable, says bus boss

July 26 2022

THE boss of bus operator First has apologised for the "unacceptable" level of cancellations across the network.

But passengers are being warned that services, already cut back earlier in the year, will face further cuts in the autumn when the withdrawal of government funding pushes them over a "cliff edge".

The 48 and 49 services to Downend and Staple Hill are among those across the network to be hit by cancellations.

First West of England managing director Doug Claringbold told a council meeting: “The level of service that First has been delivering has not been acceptable because of the level of cancellations, largely driven by a shortage of trained bus drivers."

Mr Claringbold said many drivers had been lured away by the doubling or trebling of wages in the HGV sector, while others from Europe had returned home and, while Weca was helping huge efforts to recruit drivers, it would not happen overnight.

He said: “I am sorry we have cancelled too many buses across the network.”

Mr Claringbold said government Covid funding, which has kept many routes going throughout the pandemic, ends in October and a huge review of the network is taking place with the West of England Combined Authority and other operators ahead of the “cliff-edge”.

He said: "In October we need to have a timetable which is robust, so there will have to be some planned changes to bring us back into line where our resources meet the services we operate.

“We are not prepared to run a non-reliable service.

“We have to make sure we have a set of services people can rely on and not try to do too much.

“Those are the difficult decisions we have to make in terms of getting that service network operating in October.”

Mr Claringbold said there was a significant gap between the current taxpayer subsidy to run up to 90 per cent of the pre-Covid network and the number of customers now using buses, which has only recovered to 75 per cent of levels before the pandemic.

He said: “People’s lives are different now. We need different people to use the bus.

“About 95 per cent of our passengers are travelling again but they are not travelling as much.

“The serial commuters who were travelling five to six days a week are travelling two or three days.”

The South Gloucestershire Council scrutiny commission meeting also heard from Metro Mayor Dan Norris and Stagecoach West MD Rachel Geliamassi that while some passengers would suffer in the short term, innovative ways of taking people where they needed to go were in the pipeline.

These include running services on request, like taxis, and using minibuses, which can be driven by people with less training, in rural areas.

Mr Norris told the meeting on July 6: “We are having this bus review over the summer that will look at commercial services and supported services because the money from the Government is ending in the autumn quite abruptly. That is a cliff-edge, that will be tough, there will be cuts to services. I’m not going to hide the reality of that.”

He said £105 million of government money for Weca’s Bus Service Improvement Plan to forge an “enhanced partnership” with operators could be used only for “new and innovative” services and not existing routes.

He said: "We need to do some really smart thinking in consultation with local people to get that right.

"The public will have to be reasonably patient because these things take time – this funding is over five years. 

"In the longer-term we should be confident things are going to improve, but it will be bumpy in the shorter term."

Winterbourne ward councillor Nic Labuschagne said: "The bus service is so unreliable, we have a crisis right now."

By Adam Postans, Local Democracy Reporting Service


Things have got worse

DOWNEND resident Terry Stevens has been collecting complaints from fellow passengers since the last timetable changes at the end of April.

The changes included the withdrawal of the Y2 service, which provided a direct route from Downend to Yate and a faster way into Bristol city centre, as it made part of the journey on the M32.

Terry, who relies on buses since epilepsy left him unable to drive, said: "It has definitely got worse.

"If you want to get to Yate from Downend you have to go to Fishponds or Staple Hill to catch the Y5, which goes all the way through Pucklechurch, or get to the ring road for a Y1.

"But the other services are also worse.

"The 48 is supposed to be every 20 minutes, but sometimes I'll check my phone and find the next two services have been cancelled, then one is running and the one after that is also cancelled.

"The ones that are running are more crowded.

"Some people are getting back in their cars now – they can't get to work otherwise.

"But that's not an option for everyone.

"A bus driver told me e-scooters were part of the reason for the cutbacks but disabled people and pensioners can't ride them."

Voice readers have also reported cancellations of rush hour, late night and weekend 48 and 49 services.

We have asked First for figures on the number of cancellations and which services are worst affected. 

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