Can’t get a first without First
First Bus Group changed their UniBus provision on September 2nd, removing the U1 service from the city centre and redirecting the U2 from Lower Oldfield Park to Twerton. The changes were announced on the First Bus website on the 27th of June and were met with shock from members of the Local Authority, and received criticism from students and the SU.
The U1 now avoids the North Parade, the Abbey, and Dorchester Street, according to the First Bus announcement, the Corn Street stop, opposite Avon car park is now the main stop for the city centre. While this is the closest stop to the West side of the centre, it is not the closest to North Parade, Second Bridge Nightclub and Po Na Na’s. To access the U1 from here, bus users are save time by going to the Lyncombe Hill bus stop.
The U2 has also been adjusted to incorporate Twerton and Whiteway into it’s route, extending its service further west. The U2 previously completed it’s routes via Lower Oldfield Park.
What are the effects of these changes?
First Bus advertise the U1’s city centre stop to be Corn Street, which they informed us “can be accessed from the City Centre on foot using pavements that are fully lit and road crossings that are protected by traffic lights or belisha crossings”, highlighting that this is an easy to reach on foot in 5 minutes from the previous Dorchester Street stop. However, as earlier mentioned, there are clear safety issues caused by the fact that the closest stops to popular clubs Second Bridge and Po Na Na’s require students to cross the River Avon via a footbridge or a roadbridge. From Second Bridge, the route takes students through tunnels by the railway station, dimly lit walkways, and across the Halfpenny Bridge, which has barriers no taller than one metre in height to protect students returning from nights out from falling into the River Avon. If students are then returning to Oldfield park, they must cross the 4 lane road to access the Lyncombe Hill stop. In his response, Mr Freeman, the Managing Director of First Bus Bath, describes this bridge as “a very substantial metal bridge with protection on both sides which is very heavily used”.
When the route change was initially announced in July, the vast majority of students were committed to housing contracts, many of which they had chosen for their proximity to the bus routes. These changes therefore undoubtedly caused backlash and prompted criticism across the student population. These consequences were even greater for disabled students, many voicing their concerns back in July, one student telling us that disabled students “may have chosen a house purely because it was close enough to a bus stop for them to live off campus, but now they may have to arrange alternative transport – getting the funds for this at very short notice can be extremely difficult”.
Issues of accessibility do not just affect those living away from campus. Many students living on campus depend on the U1 for access to the city and the services it provides, the previous chair of the University’s Disabled Students Group told us that “Bus stops closer to the city centre can be vital for students to access areas of town, so removing those stops at such short notice could be detrimental”, highlighting that “Bath is already quite an inaccessible city for students with mobility issues”.
Roadworks at Brougham Hayes isolated the Lower Oldfield Park loop from the U1 route. As a result, there was only the St James’ Cemetery stop to provide Lower Oldfield with access to the service. Mr Freeman did state that “Unfortunately we were not consulted about the closure of Brougham Hayes which has been forced on the local authority, so we understand, by the urgent needs of their highways construction programme”. It was also pointed out that had First Bus been made aware of these closures, they would have recommended avoiding term time for these road changes.
Firsts’ monopoly of the Bath bus market gave them room to decide its prices without having to take any competition into account. Therefore, adding on top of the diversion of the U1 and U2 routes which has distressed commuters during Freshers’ Week and the first week of term, the company has also arbitrarily hiked fare prices. In particular, the £2.50 uni day ticket that allowed commuters to travel for a whole day on U1 and U2 buses has disappeared, the next cheapest option being the Bath Inner Zone ticket which costs £3.00. Although this ticket covers all First buses in Bath, and not just the U1 and U2, most students commonly only use the U1 or the U2. Commuters can still purchase Uni tickets only, but in the 10-ticket bundle, the price of which has risen from £10 to £12.50. In the 2017/2018 academic year, Uni year ticket costed £279 and it covered all First buses in Bath and Bristol outer zones. This year, there has been a drastic change in which a £299 year ticket will cover all First buses in Bath – adding the Bristol outer zone entails an extra cost of £50, bringing the cost of the overall year ticket to £349.
The effects of these changes were not fully understood until term began again on the 1st of October. Students waited for up to 1 hour and 45 minutes, often missing their first lectures and other engagements.
“This morning I set off at 8.45 for my 10.15 lecture. Of the 5 U2 buses that were supposed to arrive, only two turned up, and both drove by without stopping. I ended up missing the first lecture of the year.”Alice
Many resorted to paying up to £25 for taxi services to campus or walking up Bathwick hill despite paying for the annual £299 bus pass. The SU Bath started a Facebook group to collate feedback from students using the bus service. Waits of up to 1 hour 45 minutes were reported, alongside claims that up to 5 full buses drove right past stops while others reported seeing up to 6 buses parked up in the same location for over 15 minutes.
“If you guys are wondering where all the buses are, there have been 3 U1s and 3 U2s just sitting on campus for the last 15 minutes” – Oliver
Some students also stated that buses stopped mid-route, being abandoned by drivers, meaning students had no option but to walk home, often late at night.
Stories were also told of buses driving the previous U1 route through Dorchester Street, another student posting that a U1 bus driver asked passengers “Does anyone know where the bus stop for uni is”
One student, Elizabeth, had a conversation with one of the bus drivers. They told her that on the 1st of October, there were only 2 U2 buses operating the route, when there is a requirement for 4, First Bus are short staffed for UniBus routes, and this is why some bus services have been stopping mid-route.
In response to these comments and the issues that ensued at the start of term, Chris Hanson, First Bus’ Head of Operations for Bath, issued a statement. Mr Hanson apologised for delays and overcrowding, stating that they “have seen a higher number of customers travelling on both services than we have in previous years”. Mr. Hanson went on to explain that managerial staff have been operating buses to deal with extra demand, and vehicles from other coach operators have been hired, the cumulation of this was 10 additionally vehicles providing above “900 seats per hour” to the U1 and U2 routes.
Mr Hanson’s response went on to identify that “buses having to cease operation mid route … which is distressing for our customers and is totally unacceptable”. Modifications are coming to the service next week which aim to tackle these issues, assures Mr Hanson.
Mr Hanson closed his statement with the following:
“We would like to offer our unreserved apologies to all who have been waiting long periods for their bus to and from university and we are confident that the significant extra resource we are now able to provide will ensure smoother journeys moving forward.”
Why were these routes changed?
In First Bus’ announcement, back on the 27th of July, they initially quoted 3 different justifications of these changes. The first of these was the visibility of the buses, the announcement stating that “the bus operator has attracted criticised [sic] for operating on this route as the buses are very visible”, the announcement did not provide further explanation of this point, or state where this criticism came from. In response to this Mr Freeman stated that: “It is a fact that local residents, as opposed to students, often tell us that they dislike the presence of so many large vehicles in the city centre streets. The Unibuses are very high-profile and we get regular complaints about the impact that the buses generate not just by passing through but also by the noise that is generated at stops by the operation of the service as people get on and off the buses – for example, from local residents living in North Parade”.
In a quote from Mr Freeman, the announcement went on to justify these changes because of “pressure to improve congestion and air quality in the centre of Bath”. This is stated despite NO2 levels falling by 10% in the previous year and, as acknowledged in the route change announcement, the moderns UniBuses are “equipped with some of the cleanest EuroVI diesel engines, driving NOx emissions down by up to 95%”.
The announcement then went on to state that “in recent discussions with local authority officers looking at the forward air quality agenda in particular it was suggested that we should look to remove these University buses from the city centre”. In response, Mark Shelford, the BaNES councillor for Lyncombe with a responsibility for transport in the area, informed us that “as part of a wider-ranging discussion with First and others about improving air quality in Bath city centre, all operators were asked to consider whether there was scope to re-route some of their bus routes out of the city centre…but without detracting from the overall bus network provision”. Councillor Shelford went on to explain that they “were very surprised” when First Bus notified them of these changes, and that as part of earlier discussions, when the council asked First to consider removing some routes from the city centre, First Bus were reluctant because of the demand experienced on Dorchester Street and the easy interchanges this stop provided “was something that First actively “sells” to students”. In response to First Bus suggesting they had made these changes at the councils “request”, Councillor Shelford responded “That was incorrect and First’s MD has acknowledged that, and apologised”. Responding to this, Mr Freeman told us “It is perfectly true … that at no time have we been instructed by BaNES to alter the routes. This is our decision” and that “We have indeed been in discussion with officers of BaNES about how to confront the very real problems of air quality in the city centre area in particular the idea of changing the route of the U1 came initially from an officer of the council at one of those meetings”, Mr Freeman then went on to highlight that it was fair to state this followed discussions, but that BaNES did not directly instruct these changes.
Bath buses in context
First didn’t used to be the only bus service connecting the University campus to the various residential areas. Most people will remember the single-decker buses that used to stop alongside the purple U1s and U2s in the Arrival Square, belonging to Wessex Buses, the second largest bus company in Bath and Bristol. Already at the beginning of the 2017/2018 academic year, the Wessex bus released a statement that they would withdraw their operations from Bath. The students belonging to the 2018 intake have not seen a single Wessex bus going through the city, or the University, because the company officially stopped serving the Bath and Bristol area as of September 2nd, the day when the infamous new U1 and U2 routes made their debut.
Far from being an out-of-the-blue exit, Wessex has been driven to the sidelines by its competitor company, First, for years.
Wessex buses use to serve, alongside First, the route between the University and Oldfield Park, as well as a circular line 20A/20C that covered Twerton, Fox Hill, Odd Down and Combe Down, before reaching the University. Bath Time reported, back in 2017, that Wessex was going to stop serving the route between campus and Oldfield Park, citing “aggressive marketing strategies, larger capacity buses, and extra provisions” from First. The 20A/C route was going to continue to be covered throughout 2017/2018 as Wessex was under contract with BaNES Council.
This begs the question of whether the total withdrawal of Wessex from Bath was already set in stone when the University-Oldfield service was monopolised by First. The fears of the students with regards to First becoming the only public transport company in the city became true at the start of September, when Wessex quietly withdrew from the city and First increased its reach to the void left.
It is clear that without competition, for how bland it was, First had the chance to single-handedly rule without the fear of commuters choosing an alternative transport method – this largely explains the unjustified rise in fares that has taken everyone aback. The SU President, Eve Alcock, who has been in contact with First since beginning her time in office, has been working with them since she took over the position and been met with little regard from First, which seems to be driven by their profits more than providing a safe, regular, and reliable public transport service for students,, locals and staff members alike.