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The end of competition on a bus route - the effects from then end of the 234

When a commercial bus operator decides to drastically change or cease operating a route, they do so based on the business case for their shareholders, rather than out of consideration for existing regular passengers or the effect on the area served or other operators. They just need to give legal notice of about 50 days to the traffic commissioner. Although there may be rumours about what's going to happen, and the logic may be clear, the process of change is usually kept a secret as late as possible so that services being pulled keep bringing in as much revenue to the withdrawing operator right until the end, and to ensure that any amended services designed to compete with another operator aren't undone straight away by changed that other operator makes.

Over the years, we've seen buses on competing routes retimed during the day so that they run just ahead of the other company - thus picking up most of the passengers to the detriment of the second operator - and also to the detriment of passengers on the flow, who would be far better served by a half hourly bus than by two buses a few minutes apart then a massive gap. I'm not pointing at any individual company here - on our routes, they both do it through some are more subtle than others.

But it's when a service is withdrawn - one of the operators throws in the towel - you see the greatest hardship. Let me quote the x34 / 234 as an example.

x34, run by Faresaver, runs from Chippenham to Frome via Melksham and Trowbridge. Until August 2015, it ran Monday to Friday only, and daytime only. During the late morning and early afternoon, buses were every half hour, with longer gaps later in the day - final buses at 16:20 and 17:35 (only as far as Trowbridge) from Chippenham

234, run by First, also ran from Chippenham to Frome via Melksham and Trowbridge. Until August 2015, it ran Monday to Saturday, from early morning until late evening. An hourly service during the day, with reduced frequency after the 18:35 bus from Chippenham. Typically, during the operating hours of the Faresaver x34, an x34 service ran a few minutes ahead of a 234.

The 234 ran for the last time on 1st August 2015. Gaps left were services through Leap Gate in Trowbridge, along Horse Road in Trowbridge, and along the whole route after 17:30 and on Saturdays. Leap Gate is a significant developing housing area in Trowbridge and the provision of a bus service there at early occupancy time will have an effect on the metrics of the area for years to come. And significant holes are left for returning commuters via Chippenham for whom a last bus at 17:35 is too early (the 18:35 used to load to about 20 passengers), and during the evening - right up to the last bus there were people every day (5 to 15 on my counts) who used it as their final leg home. The eveing buses met a real need!

With just 6 weeks to fix, and having to do so under "emergency powers" because the registration window had passed, some amendments were made to the x34. An hourly Saturday daytime service was introduced as an experiment (delighted to see lots of people on those buses), and some services diverted to run via Leap Gate - with (it should be noted) additional support cost offered and granted by Wiltshire Council. An extra early morning run, before a vehicle is needed for school runs, also helps fill a "get to work" gap that was previously filled by a First service.

Gaps have been left in the service in the early evening (which was commercial) - if you finish work in Swindon at 17:00, it's mo longer possible to get home by public transport to Notton, Lacock, Beanacre, Semington or Hilperton by public transport. Finishing in Chippenham at 17:30 and you'll have to be very sharp to catch the last bus to those places too. And (personal note, I admit) the absence of the later buses from Chippenham to Melksham is a real issue - these days, I have to drive all the way to distant appointments where I would have taken public transport, or pay [c2]ã20 per taxi ride for the final six miles where I would have taken the 22:26 bus. I'm not alone in this - I picked up a taxi the other week, late at night at Chippenham station and asked for Melksham ... "Just come back from there" says the cabbie ... "we get a lot of evening runs to Melksham these days" ...

There is sense in planning transport services to avoid the need for panic, quick fixes. Especially where those fixes require unbudgetted support which results in cuts elsewhere, or where those fixes come in very expensive / too expensive to afford because the operators have the council over a barrel, or don't naturally fit into the planned business so will cost a lot to provide. And there's a distinct lack of consultation / discussion with passengers / passenger groups about what's needed for the future - there's simply not the time. And some of these funding decisions are made with limited data available, in the final instance, to the Wiltshire Cabinet who - I understand - were the final arbitters in deciding whether to support an evening x34 / 234 into the future. Not a very clever way to plan a bus service for future years, is it?

Since last August, bus frequency through Notton has decreased (that's a council supported part of the route) and services through Leap Gate are at a lower level than previously, even allowing for the new subsidy there. Last departure from Chippenham is 17:35 rather than 22:26 (4 runs have been lost). I can't tell you officially what's happened to the passenger who used to use them; I've met a few in my travels - some no longer travel [as much], others use taxis or drive. But I can't tell you officially as (it seems) there's been no follow up by either the public transport or strategic transport groups at Wiltshire Council to find out.

Prices increased on x34 in January - with a 50p increase on a [c2]ã1.50 fare for schoolchildren being the steepest in percentage terms. I'm told by the operator that fares had been depressed on the route / held down below an economic rate. I'm told by some parents that the rise came as a surprise, and that some children who were just given their fare money each day were denied travel the day it came in. I do have sympathy on both sides here ...

Why am I raking over the past? Because it looks like it might be the future too. Rumours and inital evidence suggests that one of the operators on the Chippenham - Corsham - Rudloe - Box - Bath route is about to withdraw (24th April 2016). And an uncanny resemblance to last year on 234 x x34 - this time 231 v x31. People of Corsham, Rudloe and Box - please note ... we were promised that an evening replacement service was planned but it never happened. You in Corsham have the advantage that one of the councillors who's ward the bus passes through sits on cabinet ...

See Option 247 for the way I think buses should be in the future ... and there's a consultation open there for you.
(written 2016-03-02)

 
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Prining a pound sign from Python AND running from the command line at the same time
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