First to axe more bus services – including the 178

First is planning to axe the 178 Bristol to Radstock bus route next month in the latest round of service cuts and revisions. Altogether more than 30 routes will be scrapped or be subject to timetable alterations.

The 37 Bristol to Bath service via the A431 (Hanham, Longwell Green, Willsbridge, Bitton) has already been decimated this year and from the end of January will simply become a school bus service for pupils at Oldfield School. The news follows the sudden withdrawal of the 18 (Kingswood-Bath) and the 5 between Downend and Bromley Heath.

The 178 not only provides an additional service between Bristol and Keynsham but also links East Keynsham and villages south of the town such as Marksbury. First is now proposing to operate a new service (172) which starts in Bath and travels south to Radstock before returning via Midsomer Norton, Paulton, Timsbury and Marksbury. The theory then is that passengers transfer to the 349 to Bristol at Keynsham.

Details of how this interchange will work (the Bristol-bound 349 does not serve Ashton Way) or where the new 172 will turn around to head back up the Wellsway have not yet been published. For people living south of Keynsham who work in Bristol, or students attending St Brendan’s at Brislington, life will become even more complicated on 30th January than it currently is if they rely on public transport.

The 37 service has already been reduced to the point where leisure or shopping trips to Bath from Longwell Green for example were not practical. Next year they will simply be impossible without complex bus changes and lengthy journey times.

The 17 service from Keynsham to Southmead Hospital came close to being axed this year until a last-minute reprieve. Next month’s timetable revisions will see the route amended with some of the dog legs through housing estates removed. The most significant of these is in Longwell Green where Court Farm Road and Ellacombe Road will no longer be served.

The primary reason is funding, or rather the lack of it. Since the pandemic hit last March, bus services have been supported financially through the government’s Bus Recovery Grant which is administered via the West of England Combined Authority. The Week In reported in August (Issue 693) that the final grant received to last through to next April was cut by almost two-thirds. The apparent reason for the grant reduction was the government’s assertion that bus passenger numbers had recovered to 80% of pre-pandemic levels, whereas in fact fare revenues in the West of England had only recovered to around 60%.

Local transport campaigner David Redgewell, from Bus Users UK, says the changes planned to come into force on 30th January are no surprise. He told The Week In: “The money has run out. First are going to cut any service which has funding removed. People who rely on these services for work or study need time to work out what their alternatives are, if any.”

But he also said many of the service cuts were probably also a reflection on First’s driver shortages and difficulties in maintaining its current timetable.

While it might appear counter intuitive to be cutting bus services at a point where everyone is busy trying to reduce car use, there is also a problem of timing. Next April sees the launch of the government’s £3bn Bus Transformation Fund, a key part of the plan to ‘build back better’. The concern presently is with no more grant funding to help bus operators recover from the pandemic, the bus network may not be in a position to be transformed by then.

In September, when West of England Mayor Dan Norris wrote to the Transport Minister Baroness Vere to point out that the last grant settlement fund had been calculated on the basis of passenger numbers recovering to 80%, that letter was co-signed by Conservative and Labour MPs in the area together with Bath’s Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse.

Now, the three Conservative MPs – Chris Skidmore, Jack Lopresti and Luke Hall – have written again to Baroness Vere expressing concern that the money available from next April from the Bus Transformation Fund may not be used to support existing bus services that cease to be viable when the Bus Recovery Grant ends.

They fear even more services could be impacted during the transition and have requested a meeting with the Minister.

Thank you for reading this. The Week In has been publishing local news free of charge for the last 12 years. That won’t change in the future but we are changing the way we run our business. Until now, we have been solely dependent on advertising revenue but we have now set up a cooperative to oversee the future development of the publication. The Week In Community Ltd is a community benefit society, owned not by shareholders but individual members. By becoming a member at £3 a month you will not only be contributing to the future of local interest journalism but will also have a say in the future of the organisation. To find out more, click on the button on the right of the banner at the top of this page if you are on our website or select Premium Membership in My Profile on the app.