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What is happening on the 231 bus? What are you going to do about it?

Question from my inbox: "What is happening on the 231 bus? What are you going to do about it?"

Answer: At present, First (West of England) run a bus service - the 231 - from Chippenham to Bath, via Corsham and Box. Apart from the final two journeys from Chippenham to Bath on Monday to Saturday (at 20:55 and 21:55 from Chippenham) and most Sunday services, these buses are commercially operated. That means that the decision to run them, times, route, fare structure, etc, is a decision made totally by First (West of England). The services need to be registered with the traffic commissioner, who should be informed of any changes 56 days (I think it is) before they take effect.

The final two journeys from Chippenham to Bath, and all Sunday services except the 07:40 from Bath to Chippenham (which is also commercial) are supported by Wiltshire Council, who have contracted for the services to run within certain rules upon payment of a fee - the annual cost is given in the current "bus consultation" papers. These services are also registered with the traffic commissioner as part of the same registration. By nature of the contract, Wiltshire Council do of course have some input to times, fares and ticketing issues with these services.

First has decided that from 24th April 2016, it will no longer operate the (commercial) route 231. I have been aware of the reregistration for a few days, but it's often the case that a deregistration is followed shortly by registration of a replacement, and only in the last 24 hours has it been confirmed by First in a press release, making it clear that only supported services will run after that date. Bear in mind that commercial services are run purely for the commercial advantage of the operator, which usually aligns with advantage to the passenger and so it works; once the commercial advantage to the operator goes, the linkage to the social and economic wellbeing of the area goes too.

"TransWilts" [[to whom the question was addressed]] is a community interest organisation looking to work with transport providers, local councils, central government. We are not decision makers and have no powers except perhaps of persuasion, and an ability to help inform people from information which is often public, but well obfuscated and hard to find. We have no more right than any other members of the public to access the information. In the case of the 231, I hope we have helped to inform discussions in good time for the changes; when the timetable of the 272 changes last August with the loss of early morning services, regular passengers only realised when the bus failed to "show" one morning. After all, it's likely to be in the interest of a company that's removing a service to keep it quiet until as late as possible to maintain revenue for the last few weeks, and to avoid / shorten any negative response.

So - when you ask who "above you" can be contacted , there's really no-one above us. We're not in the chain at all. At First Bus, Andrew Sherrington who issued the press release would probably be your starting point. Above him, James Freeman who looks after First's Bristol and Bath operation as a whole. But I seriously doubt that you (or anyone) will persuade them to change their mind. You could also contact your county councillor / if you live in an area served by the 231, I expect he / she already has correspondence on the topic. But the best route forward in my personal view is to take a look at the metrics of the passenger flows on the Chippenham to Bath corridor, look at other services in the same corridor, and look forward to what's needed for the future. And it may not be quite as bleak as you could thing from the direct answers above.




Let's move on. We've 'lost' the 231 which ran every 30 minutes from Bath and every 30 minutes from Chippenham - but during the day, the 231 provided only half of the bus service between the towns, as Faresaver's x31 also runs. Some sections of the route do differ, but for many people there's an alternative commercial bus already available within 15 minutes of when they want to travel. And because this alternative is commercial, Wiltshire Council aren't even allowed to offer First (or anyone else) to run a replacement for the 231, as that would be considered as unfair competition with a private company, and the council could be in serious trouble.

However, with the law as it stands (which feels pretty crazy at time), people are working hard to try to plug some of the major gaps that are left. First and Faresaver haven't been allowed to co-operate / share information on the route, as that would have been considered to be a cartel - an arrangement that would have made it difficult for a third operator to start a service - so the cancellation of the 231 has been (in theory) a surprise to Faresaver. But in this business it's pretty clear to see how buses are doing by watching them go by, and to look at other patterns of changes and make some pretty good educated guesses as to what might happen, asking "what if" and having some plans ready 'just in case'.

The current final service with Faresaver from Chippenham to Bath is at 16:42, with a 17:12 part of the way. First runs (but ceases) later buses at 17:02, 17:32, 18:07, 18:37, 19:10, 19:55, 20:55 and 21:55 - and Faresaver have registered (hot of the presses!) a couple more services after their 16:42 to provide for home going commuters. From Bath, after the last Faresaver bus at present - 17:35 all the way and an 18:06 part run - First ran buses at 17:50, 18:45, 19:45, 20:45 and 23:00. Again, Faresaver have registered a couple more services after their current last.

In some places, First and Faresaver took different routes, and another change in Faresaver's registration is to the routing of some (alternate?) buses to cover route sections formerly server by First.

Now that Faresaver have registered their changes, and commercial services are set, Wiltshire Council can offer subsidised contracts to replace the two late buses from Chippenham and the Sunday service (which First will probably go on running, as they do with the 271 from Melksham to Urchfont) and any other gaps that are left, should they wish to offer such contracts. It's unclear to me at present how much they will offer and for how long, as on one hand I am assured that there's no intention to loose the evening and Sunday service, and on the other had there's a consultation running at present which looks to save 2.6 million in annual subsidy, and the only way they offer to do that is to do a number of things which included the end of all evening and Sunday services.




So there you have it on the 231 - what's happening, what's likely to happen to the best of my knowledge.

The current system isn't very 'clever' in circumstances like these - and we haven't even looked at the effect on fares for (for example) people travelling from Corsham to Bath Spa University or the Royal United Hospital. Currently, that's £6.50 First Bath Outer Zone for a day return, but I think it rises to around £10 by the time you buy a Faresaver ticket into Bath and a Bath Inner Zone out to the RUH. One wonders where the extra money goes, especially as the bus operators taken together are making a huge saving by halving the number of vehicles they have on the corridor.

There won't be through ticketing either, nor (I suspect) a combined timetable. Service patterns won •[99]t be designed to connect (that would be an illegal cartel again!) . And other wider changes that could make a huge difference (such as looking at other buses in the network as a whole) are available.

A further issue with maintaining existing services as the stand (which I think you suggested) is that it gets very expensive to do - not only are you spending money on what was (perhaps) the best solution 5 years ago but isn't now, but you're also not looking forward to the future. Such route will call for an upward spiral of support from the public purse, and an even increasing downward spiral pressure on services still running,

A new "bus bill" is headed for parliament, and I've been in touch with our MP on this and have support. It allows councils to choose different approaches to look at the requirements in their area, and for Wiltshire we're attracted by a scheme under which the operators bid to operate specific routes and route groups, with common ticketing and information systems, for a set period. Please take a look at option 247 for details. It won't retain every bus  •æ but it will work to a useful and connecting network, pulling out remaining duplication, adding connections and opportunities, simplifying tickets and fares and providing an environment where the passenger will be rather higher in the pecking order than it seems at present.

At this point of the council's consultation, based on the law as it currently is and without a change of scheme, option 247 isn't on offer on the consultation. However, there is considerable local interest and it's starting to be noticed. It's in the "campaign" realm at the moment, but as it moves toward a partnership its something that TransWilts will take a very serious look at actively engaging with.

If you agree with my thoughts towards the end of this email, please do add your support via the council's survey, and please do let your councillor and your MP know that you support option 24/7 too. With public input  •æ it can be done.

(written 2016-03-04)

 
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  [4615] Questions for First (West of England) - (2016-01-05)
  [4592] A comparison of the public transport alternatives to the Royal United Hospital, Bath - from Melksham. - (2015-12-06)
  [4547] RUH Hopper - experience and thoughts forward - (2015-10-20)
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Z407 - Option 24/7 - the way forward for Wiltshire buses
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