Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Porlock's Persistent Problems (2)

The bus service between Minehead, Porlock and on to Porlock Weir ...
 ... is, indeed, a microcosm if the UK's ailing bus industry, continuing to ail over the last half a century. Yesterday we went through the stability of Western National, via Scarlet ...
... with, then without its Pimpernel, on to Southern National, privatised then part of First. Another big company retreat and the arrival of Quantock; then pointless and destructive competition from Webberbus ...
 ... but with First (seen below coping with a very high tide!) holding on to a school contract which might have saved the all-day operator.
Any bus watcher with a brain cell could see that Webber Bus had expanded beyond the strength of any financial support so its collapse was expected and came in 2014.

It was, as Mrs fbb might say, a "Bonny Stramash!"
Buses of Somerset stepped in and provided a tendered replacement for both the Porlock Weir service 10 and the Minehead Town service 10A. It was not long before the emergency timetables were considered ‘optimistic’ and the two services were recast to be operated by one vehicle.
The town service (now numbered 11) trundled on its near unfathomable route in the hour's gap between arriving at Tesco and departing back to Porlock Weir.

Even this did not satisfy the (unrealistic?) financial criteria demanded by First Group and early in 2018 Buses of Somerset announced their intention to withdraw both the two services as discussions with the local parish councils could not bridge the gap between income required and financial support available. Somerset County Council had long since said it had no money to support the service.

It then gets very complicated - too much so for a brief blog - so we roll the clock forward to the start of the new service on Monday 19th February of this year.

The "bonny stramash" became more bonny (less bonny really!) and much more of a stramash.

A click on the Trraveline index reveals a true feast of buses to Porlock and The Weir.
First Bus are still there wearing their Buses of Somerset disguise and still running the school journeys ...
... for which they usually supply a yellow school bus.

Then Ridlers run two journeys on Mondays to Fridays ...
... usually with a posh step entrance minibus.
Which leaves the enigmatic Atwest operating the rest of the Monday to Friday service and the whole of the Saturday service.
Atwest is the abbreviated name of a charity ...
... which will convey you in the luxury of a smallish minibus.
These community bus operators are less tightly regulated than "real" bus companies BUT the Department of Transport is now trying to "bring them in line" with the commercial bus operators. This will, of course, increase their costs and mean many will go out of business, so clearly a government policy which reflects their comedic acronym, DaFT.

Do these three operators have an interavailable fares policy? Guess!

Do these operators publish one co-ordinated timetable page in order to help the passenger? Guess.

Does Somerset Council do ditto. Guess.

Will these small buses be adequate for the Summer Tourist trade? Guess

If ever you wanted a textbook lesson on how NOT to provide a socially necessary bus service that might make money in the peak Summer, this is it.

fbb suggests putting the whole lot, operators, County Council, Parish Councils and community representatives in a large room. Give them all a pair of boxing gloves, lock the doors and don't let them out until they have sorted out a sensible way to behave.

And An Apology!
In yesterday's blog, fbb suggested that Minehead was in North Somerset.
Sorry folks, it is in West Somerset. According to fbb's anonymous local resident, who supplied much of the material for this blog, the district is soon to be renamed Somerset West - a scheme to use up some of the money which is being saved by not supporting a sensible bus service between Minehead and Porlock.

What fun! NOT!

 Next catch-up blog : Wednesday 28th March 
The effusive praise, the Palms, The Cloaks, The Donkey etc. all spoke of a reign of victorious peace with Jesus as "The King" - then he went and got himself crucified. But at no stage did he try to avoid conflict; the "something" that was wrong needed exposing despite the cost.

The first place he went to was the Temple at Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish Faith for nearly one thousand years.

But the "faith" was missing.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the Temple and began to drive out all those who were buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the stools of those who sold pigeons, and he would not let anyone carry anything through the Temple courtyards. He then taught the people: “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations.’ But you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!”

To pay your tithes to the temple you had to change everyday money for rip-off "temple" money; to offer the sacrifice of a dove or lamb as per regulations you had to buy a temple dove of lamb at equally rip-off prices.

Where was the respect for the house of God?

There was none; but Jesus anger was not designed to make himself popular with the authorities. He railed against the ...
You do wonder how Jesus would react if he were to return today and pop into one of our Cathedrals. 
Or how might he challenge the tired and lifeless worship in many of our churches.

But back then this was the first "something wrong". Two more to come!


  1. There a difference between claiming the the U.K. bus industry is ‘ailing’ and the reality that the provision of rural non commercial bus routes is ‘ailing’.
    Why do you conclude from this ‘article’ that First require unrealistically high revenue from non commercial routes provided under contract - do you have any figures to quote?

  2. Perhaps a slip of the fingers, Webberbus finally sank in 2016 rather than 2014. I have a copy of their timetable for the 10 and 101 dated 18th April. The first two journeys from Porlock each morning advertised to continue to Taunton as their 17. The interlinking of routes was a common feature of the Webberbus network.

  3. Traveline southeast and Traveline southwest give the 10+11 as a single combined timetable, which ever entry you click on.

  4. FBB has heard of the competition rules has he? They might make a nonsense of the aim of a co-ordinated bus network, but rules are rules.

    We know that FBB doesn't/won't recognise the severe financial constraints that local government finds itself in, but Somerset are really on the edge now, in terms of staff, as well as budget.

    First is a business, why shouldn't it withdraw routes if it wants too - whatever the profit level? And there may be other reasons to withdraw; availability of staff, distance from engineering base etc. First are on record as saying "we are good at moving lots of people" which by extension means "we aren't good at moving small numbers in rural areas". And as one of their most respected MDs has said "given my staffing difficulties why should I run miles away from home for low returns when I can use those same resources in the big city where there is good growth, and more in prospect?"

    There are areas of the industry where there is growth, but there are also areas, primarily deeply rural, where alternative solutions are needed. But, as we all know, FBB is anti-change.

  5. Would Anonymous at 0903 like to point us in the direction of the actual “competition rule” that prevents interavaile ticketing and jointly-presented timetables?

    1. Google "Competition Acts Buses" and there's lots of entries!!

      In summary, the relevant legislation is now the Competition Act 1998, but there was a predecessor Act in the 1980's which was encompassed in the Transport Act 1985 (as updated in the Transport Act 2000) which is the legislation that the industry works to.

      Basically, bus companies are forbidden from talking to each other about co-ordinated timetables and inter-availability of tickets UNLESS a third-party (usually a Local Authority) is also in the room to ensure that one operator doesn't score points over another operator.
      The over-arching need is that the passenger MUST still have choice where choice is available; so if AnyTown Bus Company charges £10 for a weekly ticket valid only on their services and RipOff Bus and Coach Company charges £9 for a weekly ticket valid only on their services, the passenger still has a choice. It is entirely possible for a local Council to introduce a weekly ticket available on ALL routes of both companies as long as that Council "owns" the ticket and prices the ticket ABOVE any similar ticket.
      There is no need to apportion revenue between operators if both operators agree to retain the revenue from their sales (which is normally what happens with Rover tickets and the like).
      As far as timetable co-ordination is concerned, the same rules apply, so companies can run 1 minute apart all day long and the Competition Act(s) are satisfied.

      Try explaining all that to passengers!

    2. You don't quote any detail from either Act, but from what you say it appears to me that there is nothing to prevent anyone publishing a timetable that shows all buses operating on a given service as long as there is no hidden agreement not to compete and no reason for bus companies to allow passengers to travel on their buses using third-party ticketts if they really wanted to. The real reason it doesn't happen is that bus companies consider their narrow short-term interests over and above the needs of passengers and the supposed legislation is a convenient hiding place. Of course, if you can quote an actual piece of legislation that disproves this, I'll accept it.

    3. Bus companies managed to find a way round the Drivers Hours regs for 50k+ services easily enough when it suited their commercial interests to do so.

    4. Think if you look at the 1988 Competition Act, chapter 1 has sufficient detail in respect of collusion between businesses.

    5. The point that I was trying to make, but failed so to do (and I do see how that happened), was that companies may not discuss any form of service rationalisation without a third party in the room.

      The network changes in Oxford several years ago (for example) involved Stagecoach and Oxford Bus co-ordinating timetables on certain corridors in the interests of reducing overall numbers of buses, and Oxford City Council oversaw that process. It was necessary for both operators to see each others' timetables to ensure that a bus every 5 minutes was just that, and not a bus every 2-8 minutes. THAT was against competition legislation, as in theory it removed the choice of two buses arriving on the same minute, which gives full choice to the passenger!

      Many years ago (late 1990's?) Arriva and First had conversations about rationalising their route networks in Leeds, which involved both operators agreeing to withdraw from competing services in the interests of reducing costs. THAT was illegal, and the Competition Commission jumped hard on both operators.

      Concerning the allowing of passengers travelling with a third-party ticket . . . . you have a discount voucher for Asda's Baked Beans, and you go to Sainsbury's and try to use the voucher on Sainsbury's own brand Baked Beans - - - good luck with that!! It's exactly the same principle here, you know . . .

      And finally . . . . I didn't quote any detail, as this isn't the place to do so. I did give enough detail for interested persons to dig it up for themselves!

    6. Indeed you did give sufficient detail, and this information is well known across the industry.

      It has also occurred in the West Country where both BaNES and North Somerset have acted as brokers to enable coordinated timetables and fare interavailabilty to be established.

      Think someone was being deliberately obtuse in demanding the actual legal references!

    7. Still no chapter and verse on the legal position from anyone. I think it’s up to those who say an action is illegal to show exactly why. The onus is on the prosecution to prove guilt, not just ask the defence to google it!

    8. To Greenline 727. Supermarkets have been known to accept each other’s discount vouchers as a sort of spoiler. They get the custom at a price of a small discount and more importantly the issuing supermarket doesn’t get the trade.
      But that wasn’t my point. What (exactly) is to stop Stagecoach (for example) accepting First tickets if it chose to do?

    9. Stagecoach could accept the First tickets, but why would they, unless First accepted the Stagecoach tickets as a quid pro quo? This would have to be on a mutual basis, i.e. no money changing hands between the operators. So, unless the two companies were running roughly equal services (and this would have to include roughly equal return ticket sale opportunities), why would they bother?

  6. What FBB doesn’t realise is that however pretty Exmoor looks, this is a seriously deprived and financially challenged area. West Somerset is the smallest district council in England with 1/3 over 60 and rising and the working population decreasing. Hill farming and tourism do not provide much income and it’s a long way from anywhere. The district council ran out of money nearly 5 years ago and Westminster agreed there was no hope of income exceeding statuary expenditure. Most of the management were made redundant and the adjacent Taunton Deane Council took over management responsibility. Last week both councils agreed to be wound up and replaced by a single Somerset West and Taunton council which benefits from economies of scale. Subject to Parliament approval the new council starts on 1st April 2019. For example public toilets were deemed non essential; they have been taken over by parish councils or volunteers or closed. Bus services are treated the same, they are just not that high up the priority scale.

  7. No discussion of rural buses, or any other aspect of local authority spending, can ignore the fact that since 2010 local government has lost nearly half of its funding from central government -and, contrary to popular myth, council tax provides only a small part of local government's income. Austerity has tipped rural buses close to, and in some counties, over the edge (buses to Kirkby Stephen or Alston anyone?). Until we have a governmnet that is prepared to tax at a level that will fund the basics of civilised life situations like this (or what readers might have seen on BBC2's 'Hos[pital' last night) will continue. Yes, I know it's a political point, but it needs saying.

    1. Regrettably many rural people today do not see buses as civilsed. Walking to the main road, waiting in all weathers without shelter for a service a couple of times a day to one destination, is not civilised. Tesco and Amazon etc deliver and friends are in other villages.

    2. In the 1970's our rural route was run twice a day by the local agricultural hauliers. The battered coach was much older than any of their lorries. You simply can't do that today and make money. That route still runs to similar times, but by the main bus company, who have seen the villages grow and a new prison built.

  8. What I haven't seen are the loading statistics for this service. First said use it or loose it; the later won. The Minehead to Bridgwater service is now just the college runs. The day time journeys could be empty or when I rode it we had 2 passengers. Now in fact there is a free shopping service provided by EDF using Hinckley point C construction workers buses during work hours. In general many rural routes may be nice, but few use them - they all have cars and use them as more convenient inspite of free passes.

    In France last summer the local route ran on demand for all journeys other than the school runs. If requested they would send a taxi painted in bus livery; it was never a bus.

  9. In contrast to Minehead's disappearing rural services is the trunk service to Taunton.

    The railway closed in 1971. In 1977 the bus was 2 hourly and took 1.5 hours. Today the bus still takes 1.5 hours, but runs every 30 minutes.

    It must say something about Minehead's economy and isolation, that so many locals spend 3 hours in a day on the bus.

    1. Route 28 also serves several other villages along the route, including Watchet, Williton and Bishop's Lydeard. Taken in total, there's a reasonable passenger base along the route, and there's also the County College in Taunton as well as a good shopping centre.
      These are all factors that encourages a good level of service, and with a bus every 30 minutes this encourages good numbers of passengers.

      Contrast with the previous [398?] service from Minehead to Tiverton, which seems not to run now. When I travelled on it some 15 years ago, there were very few passengers, although the scenery was fabulous! In the vernacular, the service was "thin" {no chimneys, so no bums on seats}.

      The service from Minehead to Porlock suffers in much the same way - few chimneys so few bums! A bus at school times and a couple of trips for shopping is all that's needed now. Maybe some extra trips in the high summer as well?

      Horses for courses, y'know!!