Bid to speed up bus smart-card ticket system
BRISTOL'S biggest bus operator has announced it is speeding up the process of introducing a smart-card ticket system in the city.
FirstGroup – the firm which owns and operates First Bus – has revealed it is looking at ways of attracting more passengers on to its buses at a time when the business has been struggling.
The company, which operates in most of the major towns and cities in the county, has also announced it is also concentrating its resources on the more affluent areas.
The firm said a combination of soaring fuel prices, falling demand in struggling areas and cuts in subsidies has meant that some of its bus franchises are struggling. But in areas such as Bristol where demand has continued to rise the firm is planning to increase its presence and investment in its services.
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Although First is Bristol's biggest bus operator by some distance, the firm has had a difficult relationship with the council in recent years.
And as reported in the Post, the city council's transport boss Tim Kent wants to seize control of bus services in the city.
Despite the row First is speeding up its plans for a smart card system for the city similar to the one operating in London. At the same time the company is looking to cut its ties with the centres where services are struggling.
The company has also announced it is introducing new livery on its vehicles over the coming months.
Around £160 million is being spent on 1,000 new buses and another £4 million on refurbishing buses which still have several years of service left.
The decision to refurbish the buses was taken following pressure from passenger groups and passengers and will see the interior as well as the exterior of buses upgraded.
As part of the move towards a ticketless system the firm is spending £27 million on a new system that has already been tested in Bath.
A spokesman for the firm said: "The technology will also enable us to offer customers touch-in, touch-out contactless payment using their bank cards.
"This will help us to reduce the barriers to bus travel. This next-generation ticketing will not only reduce both cash transactions and boarding times but will enable us to offer a wide range of ticket products including the ability to cap daily and weekly fares.
"The equipment also has the capability to accept payment by mobile phone."
The firm said that cuts in subsidies has meant that it has to reassess its services in Bristol. The firm will now concentrate on the busier routes and add more services where demand is highest such as Whiteladies Road.
A spokesman said: "During the year in the Bristol area, where the level of tendered work has reduced as a result of reductions in local authority funding, we reinvested the mileage saved to enhance frequencies on our key corridors which have the potential for further strong growth.
"Fare promotions have also been introduced and, alongside the delivery of highway infrastructure improvements by our local authority partners, we have seen an encouraging increase in patronage to date."
The firm has already sold off less profitable operations in North Devon and King's Lynn and a number of other depots, and is looking at other sales. The firm said trading in some cities in Scotland and the North of England was particularly tough and that cost efficiencies would not be enough to offset the impact of reduced government subsidies and fuel costs.
According to the figures released yesterday bus operating profits fell nearly 10 per cent to £134.4 million in the year to March 31.
Chief executive Tim O'Toole said a new management team was working on a plan to encourage growth.
Mr O'Toole said: "We have a very strong platform to grow in UK bus. The vast majority of our bus operations generate good growth and returns with opportunities to grow further.
"However, there is scope to reposition our portfolio to concentrate on those areas with the greatest potential."
The company added that it is a very string position in terms of bidding for the new West of England rail franchise.
FirstGroup has around 8,000 buses operating in 40 towns and cities across the UK, carrying 2.5 million passengers every day.