by Gary Hopkins, Lib Dem Council Group Leader
Like it or not buses account for the vast majority of public transport journeys in Bristol. Trains are very popular and could be added to but thanks to Dr Beeching Bristol has few lines and so there is unlikely to be a vast increase in passenger numbers in the near future.
It is therefore vital that the bus network is regarded as and run as a public service.
First clearly regard the network as purely an opportunity to enrich their shareholders. We should not forget that all the companies running our buses need to make a profit but the saga of the 51/50 (where First stopped running the 51 in order to squeeze people on to the 50 before Wessex came in to rescue the service, attracting over 1000 passengers a day) illustrates this point: with the latest fare increase from First some journeys that cost £1 on Wessex will now cost £3 on First! A company that seeks to grow its passenger numbers by charging lower fares and increasing frequency has been far more popular with South Bristol residents than one that seems to want to maximise profit from a modest number of customers.
After claiming that the 51(Whitchurch, Hengrove, Knowle, Wells Rd to town) was loss making because of poor passenger demand First have now decided they need to put on many extra number 2 buses to run part route down the Wells Rd in competition with the new 51. Residents have said they are hunting in packs and speculate that they would disappear if the Wessex 51 was not running.
By a happy coincidence whilst writing this article I and fellow Knowle and Lib Dem Hengrove Councillors got an e-mail from the Mayor thanking us for our efforts on the 51 and assuring us that steps had been taken to prevent the re-occurrence of the failure to properly alert Councillors and the public to the cuts. (Officers had agreed the 51/50 service merger in private and had even transferred an extra subsidy to First, without any public announcement.)
In other areas where there is no competition, First have dramatically reduced bus frequency.
Is the free for all on the Wells road good for passengers and our transport network? Well it is better that the previous private monopoly but a franchise system would be far better.
Lib Dems in Bristol have always argued for the council taking control of the routes, fares and timetables so that companies fit into an integrated network and we get away from the position of First pocketing big profits on some routes and demanding subsidies for others. This was difficult in the past but should now be progressed.
Lib Dems in parliament have, over the last few days, proposed an amendment (amendment 14 clause 4) to the buses bill that would allow councils to introduce franchising and not have to ask government permission. If the Tories do not veto this in the commons it will be a massive step forward and we will continue to press the mayor to take and use these powers, which are supported by the local government association.
Meanwhile the Tories press on with the anti public service agenda in the form of clause 21 of the buses bill that would make it illegal for a council to run a bus company. We strongly oppose clause 21 and whilst we do not think that the answer to the bus problem is massive nationalisation there may well be times when a council intervention is the way forward.
Have you ever been infuriated when cars or buses are blocked at a junction by somebody parked on a yellow box? The power to enforce against this rests solely with the police at present, and of course they have limited resources and any fines go to central government so enforcement is rare. A Lib Dem amendment in parliament was agreed that would allow councils the power to issue tickets for this and to keep the fines. This should have happened years ago but was blocked by my old foe Eric Pickles. Lets hope the government show more sense this time.