Passengers are complaining about chaos on their journey to work and school after a First Bus shake-up saw several services scrapped across the West of England. The changes came into effect last week but despite assurances in September that they were designed to “deliver more reliable services”, one Bristol mum says that’s not been the case for the bus her sons rely on to get to school.
First West of England has issued a long statement to Bristol Live detailing three key issues contributing to the disruption – claiming that last week, “traffic congestion was the worst we’ve seen since before the pandemic”. It also said staff shortages mean they are currently 150 drivers short, and of those in post, sickness levels are currently high.
Claire Alsop ended up driving her sons to school last Wednesday morning (October 12) after both their usual bus and their back-up bus was cancelled. She said that in ten years of her children using buses in Bristol, this month has been the worst.
Ms Alsop said: “They normally catch the number 2, that one was cancelled so they walked over to Horfield to try and catch the 75 or 76, when one turned up it was full so wouldn’t let them on and then the next few of those were cancelled.
“The school is understanding but it’s horrible just turning up late day after day, it’s not just them, it’s impacting everyone. The schools are all very well aware of the problems the buses are causing.
“I don’t think you could regard it as a service that could be relied on at all. Sometimes the buses will just disappear off the tracker, it will say 1 minute away and then it won’t turn up at all.
“Another problem is that when they do turn up and they’re full so you can’t get on. If you’re cancelling a lot of buses then the ones that do turn up are packed.
“It’s gotten worse but it’s been bad for a while. I think that it’s hard for young children because if you’ve got an 11-year-old travelling to school it puts them in a very stressful situation.
“They are having to make decisions based on cancellations. I think that’s really stressful for an 11-year-old who’s only potentially been travelling independently for just over a month.
“I’ve got older kids as well so [my children] have been using the buses for school for over 10 years and there’s been ups and downs. But this is the worst month that we’ve seen in those ten years.
“Everyone’s really supportive of a bus company when it’s a one off. Lots of people have said that the people on social media are really good at dealing with complaints but then the company itself doesn’t do anything about it, so the complaints just carry on mounting up.”
Keeping up to date with the ongoing cancellations has not been easy. One local Facebook group, ‘West of England Buses Have Your Say’ now has a thread where group members can post details of cancellations they have experienced.
Fare rise for weekly tickets
Last Tuesday afternoon, one passenger said they saw two consecutive 76 buses cancelled only to find that when the bus finally did turn up, it was terminating at that stop. And it’s not just cancellations that have caused frustration – while there has been publicity over First Bus reducing fares, with adult singles now being £2 per journey, for those buying weekly tickets, the price has increased.
One of Ms Alsop’s sons, who is 16, gets a weekly student ticket and uses the bus every day to get to school. Her son and other bus users have now seen their fares increase.
Ms Alsop said: “They’re claiming to have reduced fares while putting fairs up for 16-year-olds. They have gone up quite significantly (£15 a week to £17.70). I think they’re all feeling a bit fed up.
“They published on their website that because that age group uses the bus a lot, they had been giving them a discounted fare and they’re [scrapping] that because they don’t need to attract them to use the bus.”
What First Bus says
Doug Claringbold, Managing Director of First West of England, said of the bus fare changes: “Following our January launch of new flexible tickets, reduced single fares and a new 2-Trip ticket that reduced costs for many of our Day ticket customers, these changes give our customers even lower single and return fares.
“The £2 single fare in Bath and Bristol offers outstanding value, and rather than waiting for the Government’s temporary £2 single fare cap to start in January, we are taking action now to help our existing customers and to encourage new customers to use our Bath and Bristol services.
“Although some other fares have increased as we face significant cost increases, with the cheaper single and return fares alongside the Day ticket reduction and £1 child fare in the West of England Zone, as an overall package we are pleased to be able to balance the increases with significant reductions that will help many customers at a time when the cost of living is increasing so sharply.”
Regarding the cancellations, a spokesperson for First West of England said on Friday: “We are very sorry for the disruptions that our customers experienced [last] week. We know that the service is not as good as it should be. There are three main issues which have come together to create pressures on our services at this time.
“Firstly, we have a continuing driver shortage and we are currently 150 drivers short. Secondly, sickness levels are high this week.
“Thirdly, and this is the issue that is causing the tipping point this week, traffic congestion is the worst we’ve seen since before the pandemic. This is partly because of roadworks in the city centre and Cumberland Basin but also because of the sheer volume of traffic.
“However, we are working hard to recruit more drivers. Driving a bus is a great career -many of our senior managers started as drivers. We offer a great package which includes flexible hours, competitive rates of pay, professional training (with pay), free bus travel for drivers and their families, High Street discounts and other benefits.
“We’ve also just opened brand-new, modern rest facilities for our drivers in the centre of Bristol. People are keen to become bus drivers and we are working to make that process as easy as possible.
“Roads in the city are expected to open at the end of the week and then more in a month’s time so we are expecting traffic congestion to ease. Once again, we’d like to apologise to our customers.
“We are hopeful that the situation will improve over the next couple of months. In the meantime, we would ask our customers to bear with us and, despite the understandable frustrations, be kind to our drivers.”