Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from P Cowlyn (BUS 122)

I have picked up a leaflet inviting bus users to make their views known before Easter to the transport committee, and my county of Somerset is mentioned. I live in Wells in Somerset, and have until recently been a bus driver for our main company Firstgroup. I have taken the decision to do without a car and now use public transport for all my travel.

There has been a lot of concern in Somerset over the drastic nature of the bus service cuts being introduced this weekend. Basically the county council have withdrawn all subsidies from evening and Sunday services, meaning that none will now be operating. Somerset have said that they are reducing bus subsidies by 46%, which seems a far greater reduction that the reduction in the money coming from the government. They are also saying that there will be further cuts to daytime services over the next two years. Somerset are making huge cuts in other areas (ie 40% libraries closing) and I understand that they had a lot of exposure to the Icelandic banks which has hit them badly.

Although I might be quick to complain that I can no longer go out in the evenings, particularly to the theatres in Weston and Yeovil, and can no longer pay a day visit to my father in Devon, I have to be realistic and say that many of the evening and Sunday services have been very little used. In fact Somerset has been lucky in that the county have until now supported such services, as many other counties have not done so for years. However I think the county would have done better to leave some evening and Sunday services going and perhaps reduced some daytime frequencies, but they have rejected this suggestion. Our area includes four sizeable towns (Street, Glastonbury, Wells and Shepton Mallet), all a long way from the nearest railway station. Fortunately the evening and Sunday buses on the main route to the main railhead in Bristol has been covered by a new subsidy from Bath and North Somerset and Bristol city council, which will at least keep three of those towns connected on a Sunday. But Street, Glastonbury and Shepton have been left with no public transport at all on a bank holiday, which seems crazy. As a bus driver I know that Bank holidays can be very busy indeed, especially as our towns attract many tourists. I suspect that in the forthcoming spate of Bank holidays many visitors will come down to the area for the long weekend and find themselves unable to leave.

Having had good evening and Sunday services for years, many people have come to rely on them, many to go to work, and these people are facing serious problems.

On the subject of the free bus passes for the elderly, I can say as a bus driver that many of our elderly passengers consider that the bus pass is the best thing the government have ever done for them, and I certainly agree that the benefits are huge. Free travel greatly enhances the lives of pass holders who can now lead much healthier and more active lives. Free travel keeps them busy, keeps them out of their cars, and helps the economy by allowing them to go out and support local businesses and attractions. Many local shops (especially tea shops!) say that business has really improved since the passes came in. There is opposition to the passes, mostly from those who drive cars, but many seem to misunderstand the point that the pensioners are merely filling empty seats on buses that would be running anyway, and therefore costing nothing in real terms. Examples of overcrowding have been very rare, and in the very few places where this has happened (the Lake District and the Torbay area are the only two examples I have found) the problem has been dealt with.

Some bus operators claim they are not being sufficiently paid as they receive much less per journey than the normal fare. But they miss the point—over 90% of the journeys would not be made if fares had to be paid, so they would be no better off.

I wrote to the government a year ago with some comments about the pass. I have said that I think to 0930 morning restriction on pass use is unhelpful because it causes a large peak just after that time. This does not occur in those counties (ie Cornwall, Suffolk etc) that have removed the time limit. Also, many counties have different start times and this causes confusion. Some counties now have complicated rules concerning the frequency or routes, allowing early journeys where frequencies are low, causing more confusion.

Many pass holders say that if money is tight they would rather make some payment than see the passes, removed. A small fare such as 50p per trip, or an annual fee for the pass (as with a Railcard) are two ideas I suggested last year, but the reply I received stated that the passes would remain free. Means testing has been suggested but this would be quite unfair to those who have saved all their lives.

Certainly the funding needs to be carefully looked at. I feel the scheme works better in Wales and Scotland where the bus companies are reimbursed direct from the government works better. Many of the counties did very bad deals with the bus companies (Somerset included) but I believe this has now been changed. Somerset claim there is a five million difference between the money they get for the pass use and what they have to pay, and they are blaming this for some of the service cuts. I feel that the scheme should be centrally funded and that if this is not possible then money for pass use should be kept separate from other cash such as the rural bus grant.

Over a number of years bus services have greatly improved, and if we are serious about wishing to reduce the use of private cars we need to maintain the improvement. No fit-for-purpose public transport service can operate at a profit, but I believe that money spent on bus (and rail) services is money well spent.

To sum up I would say that whilst I agree that cuts have to be made I think Somerset are being a bit too drastic. I depend entirely on the currently excellent public transport system we have in this country and I hope to be able to continue to do so. And, finally, I feel that the benefits of the free travel for the elderly and disabled far outweigh any drawbacks.

April 2011

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