TransWilts CIC and TransWilts Community Rail
Public and sustainable transport in Wiltshire

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Why we have two buses an hour - but not a half hourly service

A problem

We have two buses an hour to Bath. But that's not a half hourly service - they run within a few minutes of each other and then leave a gap that's little short of an hour. On the return from Bath, the two buses are scheduled to leave two minutes apart, and most of the day they're just a minute apart when they get back to Melksham.

We have two buses an hour from Chippenham too ... and the same grouping occurs. Departures at 08:57 and 09:00, 09:57 and 10:00, 10:57 and 11:00, 11:57 and 12:00 ... would be far better spread out (as far as I am concerned) to leave at 08:30, 09:00, 09:30, 10:00, 10:30, 11:00, 11:30 and 12:00.

Am I a lone voice saying "the current scheduling is not in the best interest of people who want to travel" and also "look - if you run the buses evenly, you'll encourage a rise in passenger numbers using the total service to the benefit of the bus operator's farebox income too"? No - I'm not a lone voice ... the topic's not a new one, and came up again in at the Core Strategy discussions on Thursday evening - in some ways a little off topic, but in others it's an example of some of the crazy situations that really ought to be sorted for the mutual benefit of service providers, service users, and service subsidizers.

Within limits, if you increase the frequency of a public transport service along a major flow, you'll increase the passenger numbers. A very rough rule of thumb says that a service's steepest increase of use is when the service frequency and journey times are about equal - so that enormous traffic gains are to be made when an service with 55 minute gaps is increased to one with 30 minute gaps where typical journey times on the service are 25 to 35 minutes

Update - June 2010 - [Current Bath < --- > Melksham timetable]


Why do we have such an odd situation where the buses are so uneven that the overall service seems designed to suppress use, and where the timetable is both a laughing stock and a frustration to the people who use it or who want to use it? It all appears to come down to the competitions system, the subsidy system, and the apparent desire of the operators to put their profit before passengers.

Bus operators running 'commercial' services are free to run to any schedule they like, subject only to giving six weeks notice of changes.

Both of the "Great Cross" service through Melksham - Chippenham to Trowbridge and beyond, and Bath to Devizes and beyond - ran hourly, provided by Badgerline - for years. The service was taken over by the First group who continue to run the derivate service, at fares which we find steep. Along came Fosseway Coaches, looking at the lucrative market in which the existing service had a monopoly, and decided to compete. So they added services just ahead of the existing service, with a view (it would appear) to "mopping up" early passengers at the bus stops along the way. Fosseway are now Faresaver.

Faresaver's little wheeze appears to work well for them - a high proportion of bus travelers make their journeys free at the point of traveling - on senior citizens passes, for the most part, and such travelers will get onto whatever bus comes along - especially as the second (or First) bus isn't very reliable at present - see [here].

But it's not just simply a question of people getting on one bus or another. Tickets are not interchangeable, which is highly frustrating to the minority who actually pay as they travel and buy return or regular tickets to try to keep the cost per journey down somewhat. On many journeys, Faresaver is actually more expensive. in spite of the name which is, I think, derived from their scheme under which you make 10 journeys at full price and can get the 11th for "free"; I consider this misleading, and my view is shared by others.

Interestingly, travelers who don't pay when they travel (i.e. on bus passes) will get on any bus, and the local taxpayer will later pick up their bill which is a proportion of the regular fare - so it's a valid commercial practice (though you may consider it a sharp one) to hike fares as high as possible and go for the "don't know / care how much it costs the taxpayer" market. And - let's face it - I expect that if you ask the typical bus pass traveler what the regular fare would be, who is actually paying for them, and how much, they probably wouldn't know anyway.

One final piece of information for the jigsaw, before we speculate on solutions. By law, the bus companies are not allowed to arrange things directly between themselves as this would be a cartel and anti-competitive to anyone else who wanted to come into the market. There are / have been solutions to this in the past - with split operations on routes such as X4 / X5 (Bath to Salisbury) which has now been split into two at Warminster, and X49 (Swindon to Trowbridge) which is - I think - now single operator.

Wouldn't it make the most enormous sense for everyone to run a regular - half hourly - service on each route. Passengers would gain. Passengers would be gained. Buses would be more heavily loaded. Income would be greater for both bus companies ... but the problem is "how do we get there from here"

Exploring solutions

And, suddenly, I come to a halt in writing.

I've been able to describe the absurd situation we have. I've been able to describe where we should be. But I'm darned if I can see an easy way to get where we should be from where we are.

Is there a lead that "The County" could take - rather like a a "golden share" - through which they could offer a subsidy of 1p per journey (that's about 400 pounds per year in total) to two operators but specifying more closely the service they wish to buy? Perhaps I should ask County ... ;-)

In fact - perhaps I should offer County the 400 pounds per annum as Sponsorship - "This timetable is sponsored by Well House Manor - the Melksham Business Hotel"

Update - 30th November 2009

I have been copied in on previous correspondence from the Council - and reproduce a reply dated 14th April 2009 from the council leader, with permission:

Dear Mr Xxxxx

Thank you for your email. I have looked into the issues you raise regarding the buses 234 and X34 and unfortunately the uneven spacing of buses on these services is because the two bus companies that run on these routes are in competition with each other and have no interest in operating an evenly spaced timetable. In particular, the Faresaver bus company prefers to time its buses to always run a few minutes in front of the buses operated by First, as it believes it will pick up more passengers that way. Whilst this may seem rather wasteful, it is perfectly legal and regrettably there is nothing that the Council can do to change the situation as we are confined by the Transport Act 1985.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

It strikes me that there may actually be some opportunities, now, to re-address the situation. Up until 1st April 2009, Wiltshire County Council did indeed have no input as it wasn't providing funding for the services and - as stated - was confined.

From that date, the unitary authority took over the District's responsibilities for making payments for "Free" bus passes to the bus operators so in effect it is now the largest paymaster of Faresaver; I wonder whether that gives it any influence.

Finally, I wonder if the new Community Area Partnership, which is an independent body that can do things with out some restrictions, could play a hand in brokering a deal. A lot of it comes down to what carrot (if any) can be offered to sort the situation which isn't good for the passengers out; I would much rather that than any stick, even if I was sure that one is available.

Update - 15th July 2010. Comment from Anon (but known to me)

... On to another subject and following the Government •[99]s recent request for details of laws that could be modified or even abandoned to improve daily life I wrote to Duncan Hames drawing his attention to the duplication of bus services running just minutes apart locally and in other parts of the country and suggested that the logic of the law was correct to bring about competition but now needs to be redrafted to ensure buses run over similar routes by competitors are equally spaced in time interval throughout the journey route to provide a better service to the public. Last Friday morning in Melksham there as a 234 an X34 and a few minutes later an X31 and 231 all following one another nose to tail.
(written 2009-11-28, updated 2010-07-16)

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