People power saves the 51 bus
Published on: 26 Aug 2016
THE 51 bus service has been saved – after a rival operator stepped in when First Bus claimed it was not economic.
Wessex will take over the 51 route, considered a vital link between Hengrove, Whitchurch and parts of Knowle to the Broadwalk, when First ends its service on September 4.
Not only will Wessex run more buses on the route than First, but they will also offer lower fares, starting at £1. First’s lowest fare is £1.50.
News on August 2 that the 51 would be cancelled with only four weeks notice to the public brought a storm of protest.
A hastily-arranged protest meeting at the Broadwalk shopping centre on August 13 drew around 100 people, and 4,000 people signed a petition against the change.
Many voiced their outrage at what they saw as First’s focus on profits above providing a service.
Maria Homer of Kingshill Road told the Voice she had given up a job in the city centre because the bus service was so bad, and had chosen to take a worse-paid job closer to home. “I’m so angry about this,” she said. “It seems Clifton people breathe different air to us, when I see all the 8 and 9 buses go past Temple Meads empty while I wait for a 51.”
Kelvin Wyatt of Denleigh Close, Whitchurch, said the loss of the 51 would mean he couldn’t get to his bank, but older people could be cut off from all the services in the Broadwalk. “They have not thought this out very carefully,” he said.
Tim Maloney, manager of the Broadwalk shopping centre, added his voice to the campaign, saying Knowle’s shops and businesses depend heavily on good bus links.
Cllr Gary Hopkins said First thought they could force people to accept the changes because they had a monopoly.
His fellow Lib Dem councilor Tim Kent told the crowd: “I’m horrified at the idea that our bus service can be ripped away. This is not an acceptable way to run a bus company, or an acceptable way to treat a community.”
Cllr Hopkins said: “I think it will do the service a lot of good now that there is some competition.”
Cllr Kent added: “People do need to use the 51 if they want to keep it running!”
Wessex will receive an initial subsidy to help it establish the service, which it will guarantee to run for 12 months.
At present, most South Bristol routes are in First’s hands, but Wessex is eager to take on its competitor locally. It has also promised to donate money to local community projects if it hits its targets for the route.
The deal with Wessex was set up within a few days by Cllr Kent and Cllr Hopkins, who represent Knowle and Hengrove respectively.
Both were angry that the proposals for the axing of the 51 – and many other route changes by First – were delivered to the council by the Traffic Commissioner on July 8. But they were not publicised until details were released by First on August 2.
This made it much harder to secure a deal in the short time available, said Cllr Hopkins.
Neither Cllr Hopkins nor Cllr Kent were named in the council statement revealing the new deal for the 51. The statement quoted only mayor Marvin Rees and his fellow Labour cabinet member for transport, Cllr Mark Bradshaw, who finalised the deal on August 19.
Cllr Bradshaw said the subsidy for Wessex was a one-off. The money will not cause cuts in any other service, he said.
Karin Smyth MP said: “All those who lobbied and campaigned deserve great credit for this outcome.”
Paul Churchman, chief, executive of Wessex told a celebratory gathering outside South Bristol hospital on August 22 that he was pleasedWessex could offer a service every 15 minutes at peak times, every 45 minutes on Sundays and hourly after 8pm.
Fares will be £1, £2 or £3 for an all-day ticket. First’s cheapest fare is £1.50, and a day ticket is £4.
Asked how Wessex can under cut First and expect a profit on a route their rival said was uneconomic, Mr Churchman said: “We are smaller and our overheads are not so high. We ae more dynamic in terms of marketing and flexibility.
“I would rather have a bus with 40 people on it each paying £1 than a bus with 10 people on it, each paying £1.50.”
A spokesman for First said the firm had not seen the details of the proposals for Wessex to run the 51 route, but pointed out that the service is getting a subsidy from the council for six months.
"We haven't seen any details but we are looking forward to them with interest," he said.