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