After the exciting promise of last year’s Bus Service Improvement Plan, the follow-up in 2022 has been disappointing, but there are still grounds for some hope.
Bad news is that bus use is still only 70% of pre-Covid levels, which has reduced revenue and led to timetable cuts by local bus companies in June. There may be further service reductions if current funding support from government ends next March, although timetable changes in June should have allowed for this to some extent and support could be further extended.
Some good news is that the County Council’s bid for government funding was one of only 31 bids to be successful (out of over 70); but instead of the £163m requested, just £12m was awarded.
Problems on route 25
On the 25 service from Dulverton, through Wiveliscombe to Taunton, a double-decker bus was introduced from June, which replaced the two single-deckers previously running for college students in the morning from Wiveliscombe. Initially, the new timetable from June was too late to get Richard Huish College students in on time. Many complaints were made and officers at the county council were helpful. We were successful in requesting that buses left 10 minutes earlier and for a stop at Taunton railway station to be reinstated. I also asked for the new timetables to be displayed at bus stops and for a flag to better mark the new stop outside the railway station.
Unfortunately, service timing was unreliable over the summer, which led to more complaints. When college terms restarted in September, First Bus apologised, after finding that they had scheduled the first bus of the day to leave too late from the depot. Time-keeping has been better since, but the 25 has still run late on some days.
Bus timetables and service complaints
Local and regional bus timetables are available from First Bus, Think Travel (Somerset County Council), and Traveline South West.
First Bus operates a commercial service between Wiveliscombe and Taunton. Problems with their services should be reported online at: tellfirstbus.com. If problems persist, complain at: firstbus.co.uk. If they persist, let me know and I’ll try to take further. It can help if a record of problems with dates and times is available.
Bus it campaign
To encourage greater bus use, the County Council launched a Bus it! campaign in August. This highlighted savings from buying multi-ticket bundles and making full use of bus passes.
Bus service improvements
Plans to use the government funding for bus service improvements had to be revised and agreed with the Department of Transport. The aim is now to demonstrate bus use can be increased in targeted areas and to then seek more government funding to achieve the same results in other areas.
Most improvements will be in Taunton, which started with new £1 fares for park and rides services and has now extended to other bus services within Taunton. There will also be trials for new weekend and evening services between several large towns and Taunton, but this is not yet proposed for Wiveliscombe.
Most of the funding has to be spent on capital projects, which will include new bus priority lanes and re-establishing the bus station with a mobility hub in Taunton. Work should start next summer and be completed by the end of 2024.
Bridgwater will also benefit from a new bus priority lane and bus priority detection at traffic lights.
There will be a trial to improve rural services in Somerton, with a mobility hub and a digital demand responsive feeder trial involving the Slinky service, which should be in place by Spring 2023.
New Bus and Transport Plans
There was an annual review of Somerset’s Bus Service Improvement Plan by the Places Scrutiny Committee on 11 October (item 9). I supported keeping the same improvement plan in place for now, with changes considered alongside the preparation of a new Local Transport Plan (item 8) over the next 18-24 months.
I also said basics needed to be got right, such as making new bus timetables available, and the County Council needed to look at providing more funding for bus services, which might come from new workplace parking levies (on larger employers) and reconsidering the developer funding used for travel plans, which currently seem to achieve very little.
UPDATED: 5 Dec 2022