Saturday 29 August 2015

Why Are Cuts Always The First Resort?

As regular readers will know my nearest First bus route is the 64, which runs between Ipswich and Aldeburgh via Woodbridge, Saxmundham and Leiston. For 5 years while I lived in Wickham Market it was my main route. I still use it regularly to get to and from Ipwich, and particularly Wickham Market, as I still have many friends there, in particular an elderly lady who I became close friends with when we were both nursing an old friend of mine in his last days. I try to visit her at least once a week if I can. That is now going to prove extremely difficult as yet again First are cutting the service between Leiston and Melton, this time by 38%, reducing the service from 13 buses a day to 8.

Now to put this into perspective I moved to Wickham Market October 2008. I'm grateful to Clive Nixon who has found copies of the relevant timetables in Ipswich Transport Museum to help me confirm my memories of the bus service at that time - remember less than 7 years ago. It's not a long time, however a lot has happened to the bus service in that time, and none of it positive.

One of the main boxes that was ticked when I decided to make Wickham Masrket my new home was the bus service. Not only was there an hourly service on the 64 between Ipswich and Aldeburgh but there was also an hourly service on the 63 between Ipswich and Framlingham (normally operated by lovely old Ollies) giving Wickham Market two buses an hour. Evenings and Sunday there was a two hourly service, and a last service of 2305 from Ipswich 7 days a week. I was on that late bus at least twice a week, including Sundays, as I was playing pool for an Ipswich pub at the time. It was a great service, my only gripe being the return fare to Woodbrdge was the same as a return to Ipswich, which I couldn't then, and still can't work out. In short on a weekday there were 25 buses each way between Ipswich and Wickham Market - I could even get to hospital in West Sussex and back without having to trouble friends for lifts.

Then things started going pear shaped. First of all the 63 was reduced to two hourly, which had the effect of pushng Framlingham passengers onto the cross country 118/119. So you didn't get the same number of passengers on half the buses. You got emptier buses so the inevitible happened and the Framlingham service was scrapped completely bar one school journey a day. Suffolk County Council stepped in providing a 3 times a day Mon - Fri minibus service between Framlingham and Woodbridge which most people still don't realise exists.

Then the austerity cuts were announced. The very first bus service to go was the evening and Sunday service to Wickham Market and Rendlesham. At a stroke the last bus was brought forward 5 hours on weekdays and my pool career summarily curtailed. All of a sudden what had been 25 buses a day was 13. Last year a Sunday service was restored between Ipswich and Melton - WHY MELTON??? Melton has a station - neither Wickham Market or Rendlesham do! Well Wickham Market has one in name but it is 3 miles away from the village down an unlit road with no pavements. So the communities who needed the bus most lost the most, and come Tuesday they will lose even more.  In late 2011 Anglian started a service between Saxmundham and Ipswich, which was quicker and really gaining in popularity when Go-ahead took over and their first act was to axe the Ipswich services. The 164 disappeared after 6 months as quickly as it appeared.

Now before I continue it must be noted that First are cutting services and closing depots countrywide. Plymouth, Hereford, and Braintree depots are closing for example, and many services elsewhere are suffering cuts. I have spoken to local management and they are just following orders - this is coming from Head Office who obviously know everything about local needs and services. I have been holding this under my hat for a long time now, but I interviewed David Squire before he left as Managing Director of First Eastern Counties, and he gave an extremely strong hint that he was joining Rotala as he would rather be with a company looking to expand as opposed to a company looking to make cuts. I doubt he will be the only one within First to do that. So I am not having a go at local management here. The managers I have spoken to recently share my views and it would appear they are having to operate with one arm tied behind their backs.

So back to the 64. If you live in Leiston you will actually have a better service to Ipswich than you did in 2008 thanks to the re-routing of the 65, although if you shop in Saxmundham you'll only have one bus every two hours so I urge you to use the 521 as much as possible - it is reliable, an alternative and yes only every three hours but you may find the length of time in Saxmundham is better than the hour and 50 mins you'll have to wait for a 64 back. However Leiston is the exception. If you live in Aldeburgh, Knodishall, Snape, Tunstall, Rendlesham, Eye, Saxmundham, Stratford St Andrew, Glenham, Wickham Market or Ufford then you are down by 38%. How ironic that in 2008 there were 8 buses on a Sunday between Ipswich and Wickham Market - the same number as there will be on a weekday from Tuesday. So why is this happening?

Well First claim that passenger figures are low on the sections of route being cut. They claim people from Saxmundham would rather get the train to Ipswich as it is faster. The train also a lot more expensive, but then of course trains run later than the buses. And on Sundays. Oh yes and they connect with other services. As of Tuesday the 64 will not connect with any of the once or twice a day rural services that it currently does - hence my problems visiting my friend in Wickham Market, although I understand that will be corrected for the next timetable change, indeed I have been asked to supply the connections that need to be restored. There are many - the 64 doesnt even connect with the trains now for passengers from Aldeburgh or Lesiton. Oh they don't connect in Woodbridge either. When I saw the timetable my first reaction was that First were trying to drive as many people off the route as possible so they could eventually axe it. I am assured that isn't the case, but this Summer 5 buses have left Ipswich for Norwich - not the sign of an expanding depot.

So why don't more people get the 64 - incidentally plenty do especially between Leiston and Saxmundham - and what could be done rather than cutting services? This Summer has seen £1 fares on the 99 in Kessingland competing with Anglian, and £1 fares on the 53 in Ipswich competing with Ipswich Buses. In the nearly 9 years I have lived in Suffolk I haven't seen a single fares promotion on the rural routes. Lots of fares rises but no promotions. Why not? These days you have got to give people a reason to get the bus. Had Anglian done a major leaflet drop of the area when they started the 164 offering a free journey to sample the service it would have taken off in a huge way. Instead people just looked at the buses wondering what they were and not wanting to get on them - remember country people and change! So we have the lack of financial incentive despite being cheaper than the trains.

Journey times are also too long. Believe me passengers travelling from Aldeburgh and Leiston etc don't want to go round every housing estate there is in Woodbridge, or pick up every shopping trolley there is between Ipswich Hospital and the town who should be on the 66. Years ago there was a shuttle bus operating around the estates which linked up with the main service at Woodbridge. Restoring this would slash journey times from the furthest part of the route, as would making the route limited stop from Ipswich Hospital, and morning and afternoon express services to cater for workers and students travelling to Ipswich. Give them a reason to drop the train. First are doing it from Felixstowe after all.

The last point I have is one that has always been a mystery to me - and that is why do bus services go to outposts and back, rather than via the outposts to somewhere else. Saxmundham is good for an hour's shopping and that's it. Leiston, well is Leiston, and Aldeburgh just doesn't really attract those travelling by bus. So yes, buses may leave Ipswich full and arrive in Ipswich full, but by time they get to Aldeburgh there's hardly anyone left. So why isn't Saxmundham used as a hub (as suggested by ESTA a couple of years ago) and the 65 extend from Aldeburgh and Leiston with the 64 linking up with it but continuing to Southwold. I know there is demand for an Aldeburgh - Southwold link and it would open Southwold up to a new market of people on the Ipswich side. Extend the 99 to Southwold again and hey presto the Ipswich/Lowestoft service is back! You cannot expect people just to get the bus these days, unless like me they have no choice. But no - it's much easier to cut services as opposed to trying something new and innovative. The only new services First have launched recently (X7 excluded) have been on routes already operated on by competitors. That's not enterprise or progress - it's poaching and copying, and is the perfect argument for re-regulation.

It is interesting to note that First are cutting services in Norwich. But hang on a moment. Sanders are taking over the route in Stalham to replace the 12. Konect are putting on extra 53's to replace the 14, and First have been forced to backtrack and continue a limited nght service on the 25 to the University. But there's more. Stagecaoch have taken over First's routes in Plymouth, and in Braintree it has been announced that not only are Stephenson's going to take over some of the routes abandoned by First Essex they are also going to open a depot there and are appealing for First drivers at Braintree to join them. If these routes were so unprofitabe, or lacked any potential would these companies be taking over so readily?

However salvation for passengers on the 64/65 corridor looks bleak. Other operators are refusing to consider the route. Suffolk County Council have ruled out any sponsoring of the route - hardly surprising really as public transport is so low on their list of priorities as to be negligible. No point keeping day centres open, Smurf, if there's no public transport to get there in the first place. I was informed today even Suffolk Links, my lifeline, has been told to make cuts. Cuts mean a poorer service, no matter what spin is put on it. The phrase "greater efficiency" is a death knell.

But hey it's not all bad news. Only 8 days to go and car drivers in the Norwich area get 18 brand new buses to take them into the fair City with wifi, idiot proof on board screens telling them they have arrived and USB chargers. Of course you cannot access these services if you don't drive, or know someone who does. WHAT ABOUT ORDINARY BUS PASSENGERS? If the councils gave them as much priority as they do pandering to car drivers (don't bother telling me Norwich P&R is now commercial - I know) then we would have such a decent public transport system that P&R would be unnecesary. Allow the councils to charge £30 a year for concessionary passes and use that money to subsidise loss making services. It could be done if there was enough desire to do it, and less apathy at high levels. When are top management going to start looking for reasons for, rsther than reasons against.

So are First right, or are they letting down their loyal and dependent customers by not trying to save services with innovation before simply cutting them? Shouldn't cutting be the last resort not the First?


  1. Ah . . . . . . rural buses; a lifeline to those communities that otherwise would see so many people stranded. You are right, of course . . . . . . but now let's look a little deeper.

    In 1985, a Transport Act was implemented that said, in effect, bus companies will only be able to run bus routes that cover costs and local councils will pick up what's left. In practice, bus companies had been very good at "cross-subsidising" lightly used routes from more popular routes, and continued this practice after 1985 (but just not telling people as much).
    That was 30 years ago (and I'd already been a busman for 10 years then!). This model worked fine as long as (1) local councils had plenty of money and (2) bus companies had lots of popular bus routes that made lots of money to (quietly) subsidise the loss-makers.

    In (around) 2000, Government recognised that rural bus routes were declining, and made a Rural Bus Grant available for councils to promote rural bus routes and financially support increased service frequencies to see if they could be saved. Suffolk CC was a big receiver of RBG, and I remember travelling on one such service from Diss to Saxmundham which carried only me (and the driver said he'd never see more than 10 passengers all day on this route).

    Fast forward to 2015 . . . . what's different? RBG finished after about 8 years, and some routes died at that time, but many more continued either operated commercially or where the bill was picked up by the local council. All well and good so far, but in the wider community, things were changing. Mrs Scroggins (the lifeline of the rural bus route . . . travelling 3-4 times per week for shopping, or to get her hair done, or to see the doctor) was getting older, and either not travelling so much, or simply dying. Mrs Scroggins' daughter either didn't live in the village, or had a car. Result, passenger numbers fell (and fell quickly). If passenger numbers fall, then the financials really don't work, and if there's no support funding then the inevitable happens.
    Here's a case study . . . . . in Rutland RBG money supported two routes: RF1 (Oakham to Corby) and RF2 (Oakham - Melton Mowbray via the villages). RF1 runs hourly, and is reasonably well used, so will remain (still with some support, but not much). RF2 runs two hourly "the long way round" and numbers are falling {3 years ago the 1200 ex Oakham carried around 12 passengers . . .yesterday it carried 5 passengers, and ran empty for much of the journey). I think we know what will happen . . . . the service will be cut to only "essential" journeys within a few years.

    More to follow . . . .

  2. And to continue . . . . .
    Dorset CC apply a "usage" test . . . if an hours' trip carries more than 10 passengers in total, then the trip is worth supporting; if less, then the trip simply isn't required and will be cut.

    Now . . . profitability. It's an ugly word, but bus companies have to make profits in order to fund investment. New buses are investment, so . . . no profit, no new buses. Invisible costs of operation are also rising, especially for the PLC's (more HR and H&S legislation needs bigger HR and H&S departments; shareholders demand dividends in return for investing, and so on). I'm not defending FirstBus as such; I do believe that they demand excessive profits from their operations, but they do have a huge amount of debt to service, and users and employees don't always see the bigger picture.
    Smaller operators simply don't have to do this, and they don't have shareholders to satisfy. However, smaller operators also don't have access to funds to replace aging buses, hence Anglian; Chambers; Konect; Norfolk Green selling out . . . . they simply couldn't fund fleet replacement because their profits weren't big enough.

    So . . . .what of the future? Mrs Scroggins will continue to die out; more people living rurally will own cars; rural bus routes will continue to suffer cutbacks and withdrawal; with more cars attempting to access cities Park and Ride will expand (thereby allowing fewer car parks and pedestrianisation).
    If a village lies on a main road between two large towns which supports an hourly (or better) bus service, then residents will have a bus service . . . if not, then no service. I'll refer you to the "five counties" 9/19 service between Peterborough and Nottingham via Stamford, Oakham and Melton Mowbray as an example, and there are many many such services throughout the country. These will survive, simply because they are used. For the rest . . . very sorry, but unless funds become available from councils or Government (varying from no chance to no chance) they will cease.

    So, Steve . . . . I'm afraid none of this will help you personally, but based on 40 years in the industry, I don't see any improvement any time soon. Good luck.

    1. Sometimes the truth hurts, and what you say is totally correct, and surely the only way to protect rural routes now is re-egulation so the councils have the money to subsidise them, or put a levy on concessionary passes as it's those people who use AND need those country services the most. Then when Mr & Mrs Scroggins from the town fancy a bus ride in the country they will still be able to get one.

      Thank you for taking the trouble to write those commentts - up there with the best I've ever had.

  3. i live in lowestoft and first bus has stop running a sunday service except 101 for people who work and live in lowestoft is a joke but are still running x1 and the 1 to and from great yarmouth to lowestoft but even angian buses from beccles have stop running too not every body has a car and thanks to tories we will end up going backwards to when geogre 4th was king

    1. I agree and thanks for making me laugh - at least horses weren't hampered by DDA!

  4. The reduction of the 64 service between leiston and sax appears to be incomprehensible. This is well used as sax has railway connections and supermarkets. It has certainly upset a lot of leiston people to have this service reduced to a two hourly frequency that does not even connect with the train service. As an occasional user of both the 64 and 65 services, it appeared to me that these needed increasing in frequency and was half expecting this to happen due to the amount of passengers that used the service when I travel on Saturdays. It was something of a shock to see the service cut. If there are no adequate services then central and local government should look to de-centralize services and amenities to more local geographic positions so people are able to get to them.

    1. I was gobsmacked when I saw it, Griff. I get on at Tesco a lot when I go to Wickham and there are always at least 15 - 20 people getting off there, and the same amount - not the same people - getting on there when I come back. Maybe if companies got tax breaks for outstations so the likes of Sax depot could re-open at minimal cost to the company then there might be a future, but it would need goodwill and incentive from many quarters.

  5. Your bang on the money. First only want the profitable routes. Look at what they have axed over the last 10/15 years across Suffolk Norfolk and Essex. If it dnt make money it gets the axe. They killed the 63 and the same will happen to the 64. Why do Aldeburgh need all those buses when they can nearly all drive? I've worked in Aldeburgh and it ain't got anything much . the people who rely on a bus get stuffed as usual. Hopefully Galloway will continue to invest in new buses and their rural network be it via scc tender contracts. I do really fear for our rural services though.

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  7. First services in Braintree that are to be cancelled are being replaced by services by Stephensons of Essex. Stephensons have ordered five buses to cover the routes 21/40/131/2 alomg with a base in town. Interesting to see that First are retreating, Stephensons can see a future in the route and most buses on these routes seemed fairly well loaded. Stephensons will definitely bring an improvement to the area, considering the heaps First have been running in recent times.

  8. Thanks for the acknowledgement. I think we have to face it that First wouldn't choose to be in the south and east. They bet the farm on America, then rail, and lost both; and are now fighting a rearguard action against re-regulation in the north and Bristol (London style, which they exited from). Stephensons who have carved a good business out of former EC and EN territory show what can be gone, as does everyone else, who is expanding in the south and east (despite the austerity). First aren't even trying - at the national level, which is where the resources are controlled. Local management are doing the best with what they've got, until it's taken away (or falls to bits). If anyone can see a logic to the First businesses please let me know. Clutching at straws is probably the best I can come up with. After all bus to no bus is transforming travel, I suppose, and cuts and fare increases are a recovery to the banker, whose objective is to take as much money out as possible before the shenanagans goes bust. I know one of your correspondents, perhaps from First, did draw a distinction between "old" and "new" management. But I can't see the difference. I think some of us will be praying for "a Braintree", but sadly there's no need for anyone to buy out First whilst they decapitate themselves. The death will be slow and painful, unfortunately.

  9. oops, typo alert: it was "can be done" not gone! Wishful thinking on my part, perhaps.

  10. Councils are quite wiling to throw million at P&R services and provide information desk and waiting rooms yet are not prepared to spend a penny on normal bus services

    Bus services outside of the major towns and cities are in terminal decline. They are not now massive cuts, well there is not much left but cutting out first and last buses and reducing frequencies. Most bus services are already well below the minimum level to be of any use so they get very few passengers

  11. Sorry to hear you've decided to give up (on the blog) first. As far as First are concerned I think the writing was on the wall when they lost out to Stagecoach in buying Norfolk Green (and that's why). Arriva (who encircle First Essex) and Stagecoach have put paid to any ambitions First had in this area. And they haven't got a Plan B. They are, to coin a phrase, the weakest link.

  12. I can possibly see Go Ahead looking to take over Stephensons and possibly Regal. They would be a good fit with the existing Go Ahead operation in Essex & Suffolk

  13. Back to subject: I hope you're not giving up out of frustration of flogging the dead First horse. It needs more flogging in my view.

    Why aren't they fighting developers (and Councils) for revenue support as essential infrastructure contributions from new housing developments? There are enough of them, apparently keen to trumpet their affordable credentials.
    Snape Maltings, the areas main tourist attraction, is in the middle of the routes. Where's its financial contribution to sustainable transport? It's new boss used to work for the BBC but shouldn't be allowed to get away with the same sort of hypocrisy. The supermarkets could practise a bit of social responsibility too, to woo their customers back.
    The Suffolk coastal strip is one of Britain's main cycling areas. Ever heard of BusCycle?
    There are plenty of such ideas. Of course you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. But with those blinkers, it seems they can't even see the passengers standing in front of them.

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  15. The main problem with First, to me, is that they don't use the resources they have efficiently. We have routes swamped with buses, and others starved. I'm not sure the passengers enter into the equation, but the managers' egos certainly do. Did Braintree suffer, against the big boys of Chelmsford and Colchester, because it had no-one to speak up for it and perhaps having lost local authority contracts (which don't make money anyway) was seen as "the loser", and is Ipswich again a backwater for First? They do seem to worry about the urban politicians who make a lot of noise, but I'm not sure that for the passengers 3,4 or more buses an hour, even often unreliable and clapped out, make a huge difference, but they keep the politicians quiet as it "sounds good" for the PR. Are they so scared of competition that they think it puts the frighteners on them or something? It doesn't.

    I think we had a situation last year where the new bus allocation went where Arriva had put theirs. The rest of the business didn't enter into the equation, apparently. Perhaps even the First corporate management are as exasperated with them as the rest of us. Most companies have cottoned on that quality, reliability and limited resources do go together. But not the local First for whom quantity is everything. So they do as much, or as little, as they think they can get away with. No confidence, and no attempt to do the right thing.