I should have been out today. To all intents and purposes I was going to catch the 1815 from Norwich to Halesworth - the last time a through bus will have operated the route for the foreseeable future, perhaps ever. From tomorrow a change at Bungay and operator will be required, then from 1st April, how appropriate, just 5 buses a day will run between Southwold and Bungay via Halesworth. I wanted to be on that last through bus to mark the occasion.
And you know what? I couldn't do it. I couldn't be there to see the death of yet another bus route. I've done it too much over the last few years and I've had enough. I've had enough of reporting negativity surrounding the bus industry in this region. I've had enough of watching operators not give a damn about their passengers. I've had enough of watching vital community links vanish or shrink to a fraction of their normal size when Government departments are wasting our money like it's confetti, at the same time demanding our Councils remove wardens from sheltered housing, make parents buy textbooks for schools, and force residents to pay to have their garden waste taken away.
Can you remember the last positive thing I had to say about the bus industry in East Anglia? I'm pretty sure it was the success of the Beccles Town Service once the users agreed to leave their passes in their purses occasionally and pay the fare to keep the service going. And why was that a success? Because Borderbus engaged with the community and told them straight - we'll provide the bus but it won't pay for itself. The community responded. The market was engaged with and the results speak for themselves.
I've touched on this subject before, but I'm so pissed off right now I'm not just going to touch on it again, I'm going to stomp all over it in size 14 wellies then drive a Challenger tank over it too!
In all areas of commerce firms spend millions on market research. It seems obvious that if you want to build your business and increase growth that you do your homework and find out where the best places are to grow your business. The High Streets are littered with people wanting your opinion on everything. Except your local bus service, where you'd like it to go, when you'd like it to go, and how much you'd be prepared to pay for it. In other words what would it take to leave your car at home and get the bus. Has anyone ever been asked that? We're told the Government want people out of their cars and on to public transport. Yeah whatever! That's why fuel duty has been frozen for years while bus and train fares have risen above the rate of inflation year in year out. That's why scrappage schemes for old cars were created but where was the incentive not to get a new car but switch to public transport? Politicians live on a different planet if they really think we'll believe all that. Why are buses blamed for everything from traffic congestion to poor air quality to the rise in poverty? .
The answer is simple. Because the bus industry doesn't help itself. It is so aloof that it just assumes customers will come flocking to it, that the peasants will be on their knees in gratitude that they have been given a bus and tug their forelocks in respect if a manager is seen. Except that's not the case, as I've reached the conclusion this week that the bus industry does not see it's customers as people. There are exceptions of course, and we know who they are as they stand out like a sore thumb, but in general no bus company gives two hoots who has a bus service and who doesn't. They'd much rather go after the passengers of other operators than find new ones themselves, and that's going to happen again in East Anglia before the year's out believe me. It's easier, you see, less work needed. The punters are already there, just entice them off one bus onto another. We've seen it time and time again and who, in the long term benefits from it? Certainly not the passenger.
Take Kessingland, near Lowestoft as an example. Anglian Bus were doing just fine there, 3 buses an hour, 2 going to Southwold, 1 to Kessingland Beach, and 1 every 2 hours to Halesworth. In the other direction 3 buses an hour to Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and Norwich. First thought they'd have a piece of that so started the 99, cut fares that Anglian stupidly didn't match, finally saw Anglian off and now Kessingland has a 20 minute service again. Except there is only one an hour to Southwold, nothing to Kessingland Beach or Halesworth, and no through service to Great Yarmouth or Norwich. The 146 goes through Kessingland but not round it, as it really should do, so that's scarcely a substitute. Where there are bus wars, in the end the passenger is the one who suffers most.
Let's move further into Suffolk now, and to Ed Sheeran's Framlingham. It has basically doubled in size over the last couple of years with extensive housing developments. I don't know the exact amount but no one locally has contradicted me when I've suggested over a thousand new properties. I'm told by the architect whose office is below me that all new developments must take transport links into account when planning. Ok, now we've all stopped laughing I'll continue. Framlingham lies at a meeting of several winding country B roads. Improvements to local roads equals zero. The Framlingham railway line from Campsea Ashe (Wickham Market) closed in the 1950's, there are no local taxi firms I know of, and buses? Well, there's the Galloway 118/9 cross country service to Ipswich. It runs at uneven times, goes nowhere near a major supermarket, or a useful station. It's sponsored so under constant threat. There's also an off peak return service to Diss, and a little minibus to Woodbridge, again off peak, that runs to different times on different days. Again both those buses are sponsored.
So you'd have thought an operator like, say, First would be thinking "hey, there's close on 2,000 people there without a decent bus service - let's go get them" This is where market research comes in. Liase with the local council and community groups to survey the residents to see when and where they want to go. If a community feels consulted and valued it will respond, as it has in Beccles. My guess is a decent link to Wickham Market station would be high on the list, and that's where you link up with Greater Anglia to encourage use - anything from a free coffee at the station to 50% of your bus fare off the rail fare, the possibilities are endless. Hell, Wickham Market hasn't got a bus to Wickham Market station, and it's a 3 mile walk down a busy road with no pavements! Connect with the 64 and bingo. But no, too much like hard work doing the research and unlike any other industry Heaven forbid they actually employ anyone to do the market research.
Another big development has recently sprung up at Melton near Woodbridge. To be fair a new bus stop has been sited near to the entrance to the development. Unfortunately that road is just off the A12, is ridiculously busy, and crossing it to get to the stop the other side is darn near impossible. Why haven't First kicked up a stink about that? I assume they want customers to be able to get to the bus stop. On second thoughts maybe not, as they recently rerouted the 800 so it missed out Melton Village, forcing customers, many of them elderly to cross that same road. I can guarantee no one at First will have the faintest notion how that has affected people. Well they have as I've told them, but no one has followed it up.
And that sums things up. No one gives a damn, no one wants to give a damn because if passenger numbers fall on rural services then it's the excuse to cut services, forcing cash strapped councils to step in, which means heavily reduced services which passengers will abandon, leaving the route to die. It's as though the operators just aren't interested in rural communities, even though if the service is right the loyalty will be steadfast. And that's the most infuriating point - they don't want to know and give the impression they couldn't care less.
Brian Souter, Chairman of Stagecoach said recently that the bus industry is lagging behind in Research and Development. There's an understatement. I read an interesting blog on that point today, and how bus operators are all too quick to blame outside influences like congestion, but never look at themselves. You can read that blog by clicking here.
Before the Bus UK AGM in London last month Giles Fearnley, MD of First Group said in an article that bus operators needed to interact more with their passengers. Actions speak louder than words, Mr Fearnley, and this week you have proved to me they were simply that - words. I can't go into more detail but his response to an email this week was the genesis of this post, and why I now firmly believe that nothing short of total re-regulation will save our rural bus services or in less than 5 years there will be nothing left. The horse and cart will make a comeback. At least it will be green.
One final thought. Let's say someone living in Halesworth gets the bus to Norwich, and two workmates board further down the route in Bungay. From next week it's likely that Halesworth resident will be forced to take the car, assuming they drive, but it could just easily be a college student whose parents now have to drive them. So they say to their colleagues if I have to drive in I may as well pick you two up on the way and we can share the costs. You've then lost 2 passengers from the surviving part of the route as well as the one dumped on. Then people will scratch their heads wondering why loadings are down.
So Smurfy, my friend, you keep asking about the future of First Essex. If I'm honest, if the current attitudes prevail I'd say it's got no future. As the good book should say: Happy are those who live in Ensign's area, for they shall have buses.
Oh - and the ultimate irony - there was a "Transport Day" in Croydon today, because they don't think their transport is affordable, accessible or clean enough. That's the Croydon that has 24hr bus services that have a flat fare of £1.50, Freedom passes giving free travel on bus, tube, tram and train, At least 10 trains an hour into Central London, when they run, and a fleet of buses the huge majority of which are Euro 5 or 6. Oh, and trams that are the greenest form of transport there is. It's a bloody public transport Utopia and they're not happy!! Tell that to the people of Kessingland, Halesworth and Framlingham! Or the increasing number of communities in East Anglia who have nothing. Makes you spit.
I must thank Grahame, Zak and Kieran for sending me pics of the old 588 I was going to use in a post commemorating the route that ended today. Sorry, but I won't be doing that post now, it's too depressing. That's why I wasn't on that final departure earlier. Something has died inside me too, and I fear it may never return.