First WoE at PI after customer complaints

No action against First West of England over bus reliability issues; driver shortage and ‘100,000 sets of roadworks’ blamed for ‘unique’ set of problems

Efforts made to deal with bus reliability issues by First Bristol and First Somerset & Avon, trading as First West of England, have led to Traffic Commissioner (TC) Sarah Bell deciding not to take regulatory action against either company.

‘What Mr Freeman and his team had faced over the last 18 months was unique’

First Bristol, with a licence for 325 vehicles, and First Somerset & Avon with a licence for 300 vehicles, both of Easton Road, Bristol, appeared before the TC at a Bristol Public Inquiry, following complaints made to DVSA by members of the public.

Traffic Examiner and Bus Operator Account Manager Peter Richards said that since October 2014 he had received numerous complaints from the public about the services operated by First Bristol, alleging late running, failing to operate, failing to stop at designated stops and terminating early. It was alleged that drivers were unhelpful when asked for an explanation for the poor service.

When he put the complaints to the company it responded blaming roadworks, driver shortages, traffic congestion and congestion at a particular stop. In one case delays were caused by the service being used for driver training.

In some cases problems were caused by an increase in passenger numbers following a fares review in November 2013. Timetables on the services were being revised. Punctuality figures produced showed a sudden decline after September 2014.

In March-July 2015 the average compliance rate was 69.66%, and in March-July 2016 it was 74.52%. In the last 12 months the company had entered a punctuality agreement with Bristol City Council.

In reply to the TC, he said that the latest compliance figures for 14 First Bristol services varied between 74-92%. Only two services had seen a reduced compliance rate. One had remained the same and the others had all improved.

In relation to First Somerset & Avon, Mr Richards said that he had received similar complaints from the public about the company’s services over the same period. There was also a complaint about the customer services at Bath bus station.

Similar responses were received from the company who also cited vehicle breakdowns. In one case there had been problems with traffic signals. The company was considering introducing customer hosts at Bath bus station. In January-March 2015 the average compliance rate was 71.77%, and in the same period in 2016 73%.

In regard to both companies, he said that the services complained about were operating below the standard laid down by the Senior TC. 

Questioned by Peter Woodhouse, for the two companies, Mr Richards said that he did not dispute what they had to say. He had quarterly meetings with the companies and there had been clear responses to the complaints. He accepted that it was common knowledge that travelling in Bristol and Bath was not easy, and that there were operational difficulties.  

In reply to the TC, he said that there was good communication with the two companies, and as a result DVSA had accepted their data rather than carrying out monitoring exercises. He agreed that they had a good open dialogue with them.

Managing Director of both companies, James Freeman, said that an application was to be submitted to merge the two licences. In a financial period of four weeks the companies operated over 168,000 journeys. Additional management had been recruited.

Both companies had new general managers and in Bath they had recruited two new controllers. First Bristol employed 825 drivers and First Somerset & Avon 595 drivers.

It was an affluent area. As a result there had been a severe shortage of driving staff. At the worst point they had had to rely on drivers hired in from other First companies and agency drivers.

The shortage was most acute in Bristol. As a result they had restructured wage rates. That had had a significant effect on recruitment and retention. They now had fewer than 60 agency drivers. The number was reducing weekly and they could now be stricter on poor performance.

The aim was not to employ any agency drivers by September. Consultations with and feedback from customers had been very informative and helpful in improving punctuality and reliability.

They were working hard to improve matters. Though there were still problems, he believed they were on the right path. The Bristol Radio Control Room was essential in controlling services and the intention was to introduce a smaller one in Bath. Many services had had multiple changes towards the goal of improvement.

Though there was a long way to go, there had been significant improvements on a number of routes. There was a customer charter and all complaints were investigated and responded to.

He did not believe that 95% compliance was constantly achievable, but he believed that 85-90% was currently achievable. The problem was that traffic levels were increasing, though they could vary considerably, and the amount of roadworks was also increasing.

There were 100,000 sets of roadworks over the operating area of the two companies. The Metro Bus Project when completed would improve things significantly but at the moment the necessary work involved was adversely affecting the punctuality of their services.

Although the fare revisions reduced revenue, it led to an increase in patronage which resulted in the use of additional and larger vehicles. Previously the companies had had a poor reputation in the area and he had made significant efforts to regain the confidence of stakeholders and passengers in terms of culture and attitude.

When Mr Freeman arrived in Bristol in October 2014, he found two companies that had lost their confidence in what they did. He felt that the changes would accelerate in the next year.

For example, telling the public to accept a lower frequency on services which the company could deliver. That had already been done in relation to Service 5, which had increased the compliance rate from 66 to 92%. 

David Alexander, Divisional Director of First Bus, said that what Mr Freeman and his team had faced over the last 18 months was unique and they had done some fantastic work. However, the changes made did not produce results overnight.

The aim was to get to 95% compliance. They were doing more and more and they were not making the same mistakes that were made in the past. The environment around some of the routes was changing all the time which did not help, and the local team needed to come up with local solutions.

The TC said that she did not feel she needed to take any action and the matters would “lie on the file”. She would ask the DVSA to take another look at it in 12 months’ time. “We will see what happens,” she said.