Central Connect deregisters ECC services after scheduling dispute

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Vectare-owned Central Connect ceased operating a number of council-funded local bus services in Essex in mid-April, with A2B Travel Group and Stephensons of Essex stepping in to run the services from 15 April. The operator said that it acknowledged the concern that had arisen following the announcement of the withdrawal of its local services 301, 316, 318, 319, 320 and 321 in Uttlesford, which were fully funded by Essex County Council, and that it shared residents’ concerns that replacement services had ‘not been arranged in a timely manner.’ The operator said it formally notified Essex County Council of its intention to cease operating the routes in question in February giving it two months in which to arrange replacement services.

Central Connect said that following the change of ownership in September 2023, which saw it sold to Vectare, the new owners’ management team undertook a review of all work operated by the business, and identified a number of bus services operated under contract to Essex County Council (ECC) where the timetables, created by ECC, were deemed to be unachievable as a result of increased traffic congestion following the return to normal after the pandemic.

“The impact of this was severe delays and unreliability on this bus network, which has been the subject of much understandable passenger frustration,” the operator said, “This is something that as a business we wanted to resolve. We reported the concerns to ECC in September 2023, and then maintained a continual dialogue with them throughout autumn and winter 2023, but unfortunately received no engagement.

“Our concerns were heightened in January 2024 when ECC published their local bus tenders to be operational from July 2024 with exactly the same timetables which we had already told them were unachievable. This, to us, demonstrated that they were not intending to take any action, despite us making it clear to them that the timetables they required us to operate to were simply impossible.

”We wrote formally to ECC in January 2024 as a final attempt at engagement, setting out our concerns and reminding them of our obligation to operate services compliantly, which they were preventing us from doing. We also told them that if no further engagement was forthcoming, we would be forced to deregister the services. Receipt of this notice was given by ECC, but no response has ever been provided.”

Vectare says it issued statutory notification ECC on 4 February, starting the 10 week process to deregister the local services, and on 12 February wrote formally to ECC terminating its contracts from 14 April on the grounds that they could not be operated punctually.

”We do feel that the engagement actions undertaken above gave ECC ample time firstly to attempt to resolve our concerns and allow us to continue operating the routes to achievable timetables,” Central Connect said.

In response, Essex County Council said only that it apologised for the distress caused to residents ‘by the disappointing actions of the bus operator’ and advised that the services would be operated by either A2B Travel Group or Stephensons of Essex, with travel free until registrations were completed. ECC directed anyone with ‘any concerns about Central Connect (who communicate as Vectare) and the current position,’ to ‘please contact the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency.’