Row with First could see council take over the buses in Bristol
BUS operator First's stranglehold on Bristol's bus services could soon be at an end.
A simmering row between the council and First has finally boiled over and now transport leader Tim Kent is taking the first steps towards regulating the city's bus services.
The move would mean the council would be responsible for bus transport in the city and private operators such as First would have to bid for the contracts to run routes.
The cabinet councillor's strategy is a high-risk one because if the buses did not generate enough fares, any shortfall would fall on council taxpayers to pick up. But Mr Kent and his team of transport officials are so fed up with their poor relationship with First, they see no alternative but for the council to take responsibility for running the buses.
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The tipping point came at Easter when First decided to pull the 20, 36 and 51 services on Good Friday and Easter Monday. They will not operate on bank holiday Monday next week.
First argued that there was no point in running them because they were not viable on a bank holiday – but they were happy to do so if the council chose to subsidise them.
But Mr Kent said First ran profitable bus services on 340 days of the year and therefore there should be more give and take.
He told the Post: "This is not some angry councillor just shooting from the hip, without giving the matter careful consideration. We realise that what we are proposing is high risk because of the possible financial penalties – but other cities are looking at the same legislation and we are going to do the same."
In a strongly-worded letter to First, Mr Kent said: "We expect the major bus company, First, which makes substantial profits in our city most days of the week and has seen real growth in passenger numbers, to run a full network and service. We expect this to occur on bank holidays as well."
Mr Kent's reference to "real growth" refers to the popular Showcase bus routes, which have been set up thanks to millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. First have invested in a fleet of new buses to run on the routes – but it is the company which takes all of the profits.
The method which could be used to effectively take over bus services would be to introduce what are known as Quality Contracts, where the council decides which services it wants to have run.
Mr Kent said in his letter to First that "decision after decision" taken by the company appeared to prioritise short-term profit, which was damaging the company's reputation with the public.
He has told First that the recent decision to cut bank holiday services had given the authority "legal justification" to bring in Quality Contracts to regulate services.
Mr Kent stressed that he believed negotiation and co-operation with bus companies was likely to achieve much more.
"But at the same time, I cannot allow for a monopoly public transport company to effectively withdraw services without notification and leave whole parts of the city with no form of public transport," he said.
A spokeswoman for First said the company had "held brief discussions" with Mr Kent over the letter.
She said that council funding for bank holiday services had been withdrawn last year as part of cost cutting and re-tendering process, which also saw subsidies cut for evening and weekend services.
"When this happened, we understood the pressure that the council faced to cut its budget, and we proactively took steps to take as many previously supported journeys on commercially, absorbing the costs of doing so," said the spokeswoman. "We took on journeys during the evenings and weekends, retaining travel opportunities for the people who needed them.
"Bank holiday service provision generally mirrors the level of service that operates on Sundays. Where we operate commercial services on Sundays, we do the same on bank holidays."
First said the 20, 36 and 51 were council-funded on Sundays but not on bank holidays. The company pledged to make sure that the areas served by the 20, 36 and 51 would have some buses on the June and August bank holidays.
On Quality Contracts, the spokeswoman said: "The process of forming a quality contract replacing existing bus operations is long, complex and potentially very expensive to the public purse."
She added that the company believed the council should concentrate on bidding for funding for measures to increase the attractiveness of bus travel under the government's Better Bus Area scheme.
"In recent years we have made a number of significant improvements to the services, increasing frequencies, investing millions in new buses and new ticket machines and creating more jobs," she said.