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Anger at revamped bus services in Weymouth
A BUS company accused of running a poor service in Weymouth and Portland is under fire from angry passengers.
People are rallying against transport firm First demanding: ‘We deserve better’.
Changes are being made to the timetable from March 24 which will see some route improvements while other communities will be cut off. Protest meetings are being planned.
The timetable overhaul aims to improve reliability and punctuality.
But there is concern about the changes as well as the company’s ageing fleet of vehicles.
Problems with vehicle heating mean drivers are sometimes working in freezing conditions, it is alleged. It has apparently become so bad on certain mornings that staff have refused to get behind the wheel.
One First driver told the Echo that morale at the Weymouth depot was low, amid rumours the company is selling its local bus division.
He said: “First is going backwards instead of forwards. We’re driving buses with no heating on them.
“One driver was out for four-and-a-half hours with no heat on the bus and he was on the verge of hypothermia. The company won’t invest in the buses when things go wrong.”
The concerns follow a Dorset County Council report last month which criticised First for not fulfilling promises to improve services and vehicles as part of the Weymouth Transport Package for the 2012 Olympics.
Campaigning mum Jackie Isbell, 45, from Westham said: “We deserve better. We’ll have to wait and see what this new timetable will bring but the service we’re getting now is diabolical. The frequency of my local bus is being changed but I don’t know how they’ll manage because sometimes we’re lucky if we get a bus an hour.
“We’ve got an old bus fleet. I’m told the heating breaks down regularly and drivers are refusing to drive them from the depot if it’s too cold.
“I feel sorry for the drivers because they’re getting abuse from passengers for being late when it’s not their fault.”
Mrs Isbell set up a Facebook forum last year when there were regular complaints about the local network. First acknowledged problems and publicly apologised. It also invited passengers to a ‘meet the manager’ event.
Mrs Isbell said services improved slightly but more buses were now running late.
Her Facebook group ‘First Buses Weymouth Complaints’ has seen a surge in members.
Mum Alison Carter, 32, from Littlemoor, said: “The bus is unreliable in the morning and I’m frequently having to wait in the cold because one hasn’t turned up, it’s a nightmare.
“The buses are old, they stink and they break down.”
READ BELOW FOR FIRST’S COMMENT AS WELL AS DETAILS OF A PUBLIC MEETING AND A PROTEST
FIRST’S COMMENTS IN RESPONSE TO CONCERNS
“To address existing concerns about the punctuality and reliability of some services we have taken pro-active steps to improve things locally. We are making a series of changes to our services in March which will improve the punctuality, reliability and frequency of some a number of our routes and will restore some evening journeys.
We are also aware though that some customers have expressed some concerns about the loss of some routes and route variations from March. We understand that some people are frustrated by these changes - and we recognise why that is the case. We regret the impact that these decisions will have on local people however operating buses in the current environment is very challenging. The decisions affecting these routes have been considered carefully. As things stand where routes are being amended or lost it is because very few people are carried on board them and the revenue taken does not match the costs of operating the journeys. This is an issue that is further compounded by the fact that of those people using the affected services many are concessionary pass holders and at present the level of concessionary fare reimbursement that operators like First receive for those travelling is relatively low. This makes it much harder for us sustain these journeys.“Decisions like this are never taken lightly as we do understand the impact they can have on local people - particularly where older people rely on the routes - but in the current financial climate we are unable to sustain loss making routes and so have had to take steps to address this.
“Delivering punctual and reliable services is our core objective. We are aware of some issues that have occurred recently impacting on our ability to deliver services to the standard we expect but we are taking pro-active steps to address this. We have registered some changes to the routes we operate which will lead to improvements. For instance more time has been added into the timetable of some services to address punctuality concerns. In addition we have taken steps to put additional resources into our engineering team to ensure that any vehicles presenting with defects are fixed quickly - with root causes addressed first time round - enabling us to put the buses back into service as soon as possible.”
Age of the fleet:
“The Weymouth and Bridport depots currently operate 63 vehicles. The company as a whole is committed to investing in its fleet and while the average age of the Weymouth and Bridport fleet is currently around 11 years we continue to look at ways of bringing newer vehicles into the area where it is commercially viable to do so. We are also actively working towards the 2015 deadline set by the Disability Discrimination Act, which will ensure that all single deck vehicles are super low floor and DDA compliant by then.”
Heater problems on buses:
“Where a problem is identified with a bus this is logged on a vehicle defect card and is then highlighted to the engineers for them to fix. Any serious issues mean a bus would not be allowed out of the depot onto the road as the safety of our staff, customers and other road users is our number one priority. Keeping a bus off the road does have an impact though as it means that there may be a gap in the service and that people wanting to travel, who may be standing at bus stops, may be left disappointed. To that end, where a problem with a bus' heating system is noted while this would be dealt with as soon as possible, the desire to not cause inconvenience those who are relying on our buses mean that we occasionally take steps to put these vehicles out on the road even though the heating is not working to its full capacity. We understand the impact that decisions like this have and we realise it is not ideal, but faced with the alternative ie disappointing people who need to travel, it is a decision we sometimes make. We are working on the long term solutions to problems like this ensuring that the heating issues are resolved, making journeys better for everyone.”
Thoughts on Jackie Isbell's Facebook page:
“We are aware of Ms Isbell's Facebook page, and we have been in touch with her previously to discuss it. We welcome feedback about our services but would encourage people who wish to raise concerns about our local services to contact us directly. We have our own Facebook Page which is a forum where people can ask questions, raise concerns and ask for clarification on issues. This can be found at: facebook.com/FirstDorset. Customers can also log complaints or offer feedback directly by emailing, phoning or writing to us. Every customer complaint is investigated individually (customers should allow 10 working days for a response to a formal customer complaint).” Rumours of First being sold: "The vast majority of our UK Bus division generates good returns with opportunities to improve further. As previously announced, however, there is scope to reposition our portfolio to concentrate on those markets that offer the greatest long term potential. "We are now developing opportunities for a number of disposals of our bus operations. At this point, more information about these plans is not being disclosed for commercial reasons and to ensure that we are able to fully consult with any employees and other stakeholders that may be affected."
Dorset County Council report on Weymouth Transport Package:
“We were incredibly disappointed with the findings of the Council's report looking at the impact of the Weymouth Transport Package, not least the criticism that was levelled at First - which we were given no opportunity to respond to prior to publication. Overall we do not believe the report offered a fair and accurate portrayal of the issues affecting public transport in the region. “Specifically in relation to the criticism regarding the level of investment in Dorset: The biggest single issue impacting on our ability to deliver newer buses into the area is the level of concessionary fare reimbursement offered by the local authority for the carriage of older or disabled passengers. While reimbursement rates vary between different local authorities the amount received per concessionary passenger in Dorset is significantly lower than elsewhere in the South West. This impacts heavily on our ability to invest in new buses, our commercial networks and our staff. We have raised these concerns with the local authority before but they are unable, it seems, to do anything to resolve the situation. “Overall though we remain committed to improving public transport in Dorset and believe the best way to achieve this is in partnership with the local authority. We continue to talk to them, having constructive dialogue about how to achieve our mutual aims and objectives.”
A BUS stop protest is being organised against First’s decision to pull out of a Weymouth estate.
County councillor David Harris, pictured, is organising the demonstration after being inundated with emails and letters from residents.
Service 5 and 5a to Southill and Lanehouse is being withdrawn. First said the route has operated poorly and efforts to make it viable had failed.
Coun Harris claimed First had run down the service over the years.
He said: “We will gather at the bus stop to hear what people have to say and show the strength of feeling. This protest also aims to give us ammunition to press Dorset County Council which we hope will talk to other bus firms interested in providing a bus in Southill.
“Southill is a community of 2,000 people and I’d put it on a par with local villages which get subsidised services. I see no reason why we shouldn’t get a subsidy.”
He added: “The service has been slowly withered down over the years. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Coun Harris said funding given to bus companies from the government as part of the concessionary bus pass scheme had been reduced so he understood First’s position.
But he added: “I’m angry there are people that will be left stranded as a consequence of this decision.”
The protest takes place at the stop outside the John Gregory pub at 1pm on Tuesday.
A PUBLIC meeting is being held in Sutton Poyntz in response to the area losing its bus service.
Borough councillor Ian Bruce, pictured, said the meeting would try to seek solutions after it was announced service 4 to Preston was being altered and 4B spur service to Sutton Poyntz was being removed.
A First spokesman said the firm thought ‘long and hard’ before the decision was made but wanted to ensure viability of the route. Buses find it challenging to operate at Sutton Poyntz due to narrow roads, parking concerns and a tight reversing manoeuvre.
Coun Bruce said: “The logic of pulling out of Sutton Poyntz seems strange given there will be a bus going almost all the way there (to Preston Road).
“I am arranging for an audit to be done which I suspect will show that schoolchildren and workers are using the bus from Sutton Poyntz in the morning and elderly people are using it throughout the day.”
He added: “I’m aware there are highways issues but I’m sure councils will be happy to hear representations about how the problem can be eased.”
Barbara Harrison, 76, of Sutton Poyntz, faces a walk of about half a mile for the nearest bus if the service is axed. She said: “The bus is a lifeline. I believe the decision to axe it will have a detrimental effect on the community. In an age when we’re being encouraged to use public transport, how can First justify this?”
Everyone is welcome to attend the meeting in the Mission Hall, Sutton Poyntz, at 11am, on Saturday, February 23.