Controversial WESTlink launches as 42 bus services axed

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Demand responsive transport is always a contentious subject and is often met with mixed reactions from the travelling public. Richard Sharman takes a look at a new scheme in the West of England to see if it has the potential to attract car users and keep bus users connected to the wider network

Demand responsive transport (DRT) began in the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) area at the beginning of this month in the form of WESTlink. From 3 April residents were able to download a mobile app or call a phone number and book a minibus to pick them up anywhere in one of three operating areas and travel within them, but not travel between them, on the new minibus service.

WECA is headed by Metro Mayor Dan Norris, and covers the three geographical areas of Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol, and South Gloucestershire. The Combined Authority also supports the business-led Local Enterprise Partnership and covers the four West of England councils, including North Somerset Council.

Short lead time

The introduction of DRT to the WECA area is not something that has been in the planning for years, although it has been tried in various forms over the years in Bristol itself, but never with any longevity.

Whilst the marketing hype seemed to start around January this year, the actual tender notice to operate the DRT contract was put out in November 2022 and valued at £10 million. The description for this two year contract, based on a proposal in WECA’s Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP), was as follows: ‘The project is a key deliverable in the Government’s ambition to grow bus usage and to deliver better bus services. The project will also contribute towards National and Local Decarbonising Plans to achieve zero emissions fleet vehicles. The main aim of the DRT service is to support the local bus network by offering more service flexibility to parts of the region not directly served by the high frequency services available on the main corridors.’

It was also announced in January by WECA that 42 bus services would cease to be subsidised two days before WESTlink commenced, although WECA said that this move was unconnected with the introduction of WESTlink, and it is not designed as a replacement – something not allowed under the rules of the scheme’s funding. This move follows a raft of bus service changes in recent years throughout the region that has given rise to significant changes to the bus networks. The latest service withdrawals have not been received well by passengers and some operators, many of whom stepped at short notice to ensure bus services kept running after the collapse of HCT Group-owned Bristol Community Transport on 26 August.


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The controversial aspect of WESTlink’s introduction, from the travelling public’s point of view, is that WECA can afford to fund it, but not retain the traditional bus services. The reason for this is that the Unitary Councils within WECA previously paid a transport levy, which paid for everything transport related. Due to increased costs to provide statutory services post-Covid, and the prospect that the transport levy would need to be tripled to cover costs, the Unitary Councils declined to continue to make this payment as pressure mounted in all other sectors of their responsibilities.

To support the introduction of WESTlink, as it fell into the ‘new and innovative category’ rather than as a replacement, WECA was awarded £3million through the Government’s Bus Service Improvement Plan fund. Additional funding was awarded by Department of Transport for the ‘Future Transport Zone’ that skirts the edge of Bristol to the West.

The interior of a new WESTlink Treka Mobility model. ROGER FRENCH

Better than regular services?

Talking about the introduction and the reason behind WESTlink, Metro Mayor Dan Norris said: “Everyone knows the buses don’t currently work as well as we need them to, so it’s time to try something new. I know change is difficult and people will be concerned about other cuts to supported bus services funded through local councils. But WESTlink will provide a much-needed new public transport option to help people get out and about to their destinations.

“I hope we can encourage many people to use WESTlink as a feeder service to connect to more high frequency bus or rail services. It should also provide access to a wider range of destinations and support local travel essential to many communities. The status quo doesn’t work and many individuals and communities are suffering. For those impacted it is a really big deal so things must improve. We also need to encourage more people out of their cars if we’re going to meet our vital and ambitious 2030 Net Zero targets.

“Revamping buses at a time of such horrendous driver shortage is going to be really tough, but change is essential if we are to get our bus services back on track and thriving in the future. These important changes will be disruptive, take time, and we will have to learn lessons as we work hard to get things right, but I urge people to try WESTlink and embrace this positive opportunity to shape our transport future for the better.”

However, the Metro Mayor admits that it won’t be a smooth journey from the start: “This is a major investment for a key project, and it’s new to us all, so it certainly won’t be plain sailing. Undoubtedly things will go wrong, but we’re ready to learn as we go along. But I’m determined we get on and try something different, because the old solutions to our transport problems are not up to the challenges of the modern world post-pandemic.”

Putting the idea into practice

The original plan was for 14 different DRT zones, but since the original specification this has been simplified to three: North, South and the ‘Future Transport Zone.’ The North Zone covers the largest area including some of Weston, Nailsea, Clevedon, Portishead, Bristol Airport and Chew Valley.

Thirty green-liveried minibuses operate under the WESTlink brand to deliver DRT in these areas. An important aspect for users will be that the scheme is not just mobile app based – passengers will also have the option to ring up and book a bus to pick them up, which is particularly important for elderly users.

Ticket prices are £2 adult single and £1 child single, with no return fares available. As with other DRT schemes, the technology has been designed to use algorithms to best join up several people’s needs, combining their journeys to make the service as efficient as possible. It operates between 0700 and 1900hrs Monday to Saturday.

Steve Hogg, North Somerset Council’s Executive Member for Highways and Transport, said: “WESTlink will make a positive difference to communities that no longer have a bus service available to them, reconnecting people to key train and bus services, offering them public transport to medical appointments or even a trip to the cinema with a friend. This service won’t solve all our bus problems, but it will make a positive difference to those that need it the most.”

New York-based Via, along with Portsmouth-based WeDRT, is responsible for the technology behind the service with Jonathan Hampson, Head of UK Partnerships at Via, commenting: “Via is thrilled to partner with North Somerset Council to introduce WESTLink, an innovative demand-responsive minibus service. Via’s intelligent software will work to fill transport access gaps in remote areas and make it easier for locals to travel without a private car.”

Blue: North Zone
Green: South Zone
Dark Orange (Keynsham): North and South Shared Zone
Orange: Future Transport Zone (FTZ)
Pink: FTZ and South Shared Zone

No operator details

Information surrounding the finer details of WESTlink have been short on the ground, right up until the final days prior to it launching. CBW attempted to contact the press office of WECA on multiple occasions to find out the full details about who would be actually operating WESTlink in the lead up to the launch. WECA did not answer these requests for further information, and there was no official information available on any websites associated with WESTlink. North Somerset Council did respond to a request for further information, but would only confirm that Via would manage the Northern Zone and WeDRT would manage the Southern Zone, with still no confirmation of who would actually supply and drive the minibus fleet.

However, CBW has been keeping an eye on proceedings since the tender was announced and noted that Surrey-based E-Zec Medical Transport Services, a provider of specialist transport, healthcare support and clinical services across the UK, started advertising in January for ‘CPC Community Transport Assistants’ to join its new DRT team to drive accessible vehicles of up to 16 seats in Bristol and South Gloucestershire. E-Zec had also applied for a number of Operator’s Licences with operating centres based in and around the WESTlink operating area. So it became fairly obvious that it would be operating WESTlink, despite WECA declining to respond to confirm this.

A further surprise, announced by the company via Twitter the evening before operations commenced was that Brighton-based The Big Lemon would be involved in the operation. CEO, Tom Druitt told CBW: “We are delighted to be working with WeDRT, Via and E-Zec Medical to help supply demand responsive services across the whole of the West of England region, including Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

“It will take some time for everyone to get used to the new DRT services, but these are potentially a great solution to ensure there is public transport provision in areas where traditional bus services are not financially viable and they offer a vital lifeline to many people who no longer have access to timetabled bus services.”

Mercedes-Benz Sprinters

The original tender specification stated that: ‘All vehicles used on the contracted service will be low-floor and have adequate capacity to meet demand.’ The document also requires that: ‘At least one vehicle in operation in a region must be wheelchair accessible with a side ramp and not a rear tail lift’ and ‘all vehicles to be used on this service must comply with all the requirements of Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2000.’

It is a known fact in the industry that there are currently long lead times for low floor van-derived minibuses of this specification. Given that, it would be impossible to source 30 of this type of vehicles within four months.

Thus the vehicles that have arrived are a mix of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter conversions, including by Treka Bus, with the larger Mobility model featuring a powered side entry door and a PLS Access rear-mounted underfloor wheelchair lift and ranging in age from 2019 to 2023. The other model in use is the Mobility+ dating from 2015 to 2021. The vehicles have been wrapped in the green WESTlink livery and drivers use a mobile phone application which features mapping to tell them the most direct route and where the passengers needs picking up and dropping off. A small handheld ticket machine is used to issue tickets and scan concessionary bus passes. It was unconfirmed at the time of going to press if any further vehicles are on order for this contract, which is funded until 2 April 2025, though sources suggest a fleet of low-floor minibuses has been ordered.

The lack of low floor vehicles, coupled with a rear mounted lift, is not ideal for a DRT service that will carry a vast demographic, a rear wheelchair lift not being the easiest thing to deploy at the roadside, where their may not be a dropped curb nearby, especially given the nature of DRT and its ability to stop anywhere. Time will tell with feedback from passengers in this respect.

The operator of WESTlink, E-Zec Medical Services, is better known for operating patient transport and associated services, and has a high profile in Bristol. RICHARD SHARMAN

Service cuts

Whilst much of the attention in the WECA area has been focused on WESTlink, the fact is that the travelling public lost 42 bus services on 1 April, which certainly wasn’t an April Fools Day joke for them, and the local newspapers and social media have been full of stories about how they now feel cut off.

The service withdrawals have had the biggest impact on small independent operators; one such operator being Citistar. Owner Andy Fear told CBW: “My business, effectively, is now excluded from the local bus market. WECA put a stipulation in their new contract terms for the services which began on 2 April that no operator would be permitted to have more than 50% of their turnover with the Authority. As my turnover in the past six months has been pretty much exclusively with them, I was effectively barred from any bid I had made being successful.”

An extract of WECA Citation reads: ‘Contract limit is the size of contract that is considered ‘safe’ to award to a bidder, based on a simple comparison of the estimated annual contract value to the annual turnover of the organisation. This gives an idea of financial strength to ensure that the bidder can cope financially with this size of contract. The Authority assesses the capacity issue of whether the bidder has the resources to carry out the work and also considers whether the bidder will become over-dependant on the contract in question. The Authority requires a bidder to have a turnover of two times the annual value of the total or sum total of the routes for which it is bidding.’

“As a result of the above and many other issues with the irrelevant nonsense required through the tendering process,” Andy continued, “it pretty much ends my involvement in local bus services and probably any form of PSV operation. I haven’t surrendered my licence, but once the two Optare Solos are sold I have no plans for acquiring any further vehicles in the near future. Operating effectively on my own for the past couple of years has been a pretty lonely experience. Despite the fact that Citistar has been financially stable for over a decade and consistently growing a bottom line on each year’s accounts, we are apparently too much of a risk. I wonder how many of the Combined Authority’s new contractors will manage a journey cancellation rate of below 0.2% as we did in the past six months.

“Route 178 that I had been operating is one of only two withdrawn contracts which were replaced by a new facility (First’s route 522), apparently something the Combined Authority had managed to smuggle past the DfT without them noticing it was pretty much a carbon

copy of the existing and previous services with an extension to Bath. Most of the passengers were fairly satisfied with the offering, although the Tesco superstore at Paulton will no longer be served.

“The cancellation of a lot of services that I’ve previously had connections with are rather more difficult to stomach, particularly those in the Chew Valley area to the west of the A37. There has been absolutely no consideration of the social aspect that the weekly shoppers services in this area represented. Given the lip service paid by politicians and public sector bodies to social inclusion, it seems highly disingenuous to then obliterate whole areas of bus services where many regular passengers do their only socialising on board. There could have been many things done to preserve these services and reduce their costs – in particular the blanket specification of Euro VI for all services was completely unnecessary on these routes. There could have been a really sound one bus operation put together to cover the majority of the services, but there seems to be nobody in WECA who has the slightest interest in – nor understanding of – them. We also seem to have staff and elected representatives giving out conflicting information about whether the WESTlink DRT is intended as a replacement for them or not.”

WECA insists that WESTlink is not a replacement for these services, but is designed to complement main bus routes and train services to get to those stops to connect with them. But, clearly, any service withdrawals will ultimately have a negative affect.

Alan Peters, owner of Abus, told CBW: “I had been operating the 96 from Brislington Square to Hengrove Park for the last six months when it was due to be withdrawn. The service carried 50 to 60 school children morning and afternoon, and then shoppers during the day. It operated every two hours, but was the only service to serve the estate through the Hungerford Road in Brislington. Residents now have to walk over a mile to the Bath Road as there are no other services and it is not in the DRT zone. The revenue on the service was very low, but the £200,000 tender money paid for the cost of running it, and it was a lifeline to those local residents and students.”

Hundreds of those local residents signed a petition for the 96 to be saved, but it was to be one of the 42 services withdrawn. The other service operated by Abus is the 22 from Twerton to the University of Bath. On the Friday 31 March when it was due to end, WECA and Bath & North East Somerset confirmed it did not have funds to continue operating the service. Alan then spoke with the university directly, and secured funding to run it until the end of term in June, so that students could still travel to the university.

The Big Lemon’s CEO Tom Druitt said on the company’s website: “It was a great shame to see some of our services in Bristol and Bath go to other operators and others be discontinued altogether, but we are delighted to have secured long term contracts for route 20 in Bath and route 515 in Bristol and are committed to working with the local communities in both cities to develop these services and make the transition to zero-emission operation.

Transpora, which stepped in to operate former Bristol Community Transport service 52 from 12 September last year, will now operate a revised route following the withdrawal of funding. The service formerly served Hengrove Park, but has now been curtailed to Imperial Park from Cabot Circus. New service 25 has been introduced to cover former First West of England service 47, which was withdrawn due to low passenger numbers from 2 April. The city centre to Horfield Common service also has some extensions to Southmead Hospital.

Transpora Managing Director Rhys Hand told CBW: “We are continuing to provide route 52 around existing contract work. Route 25 has been introduced in partnership with WECA too. Routes 680, 963 and 967 will be run by us from 17 April.”

A Citistar Optare Solo on the now withdrawn 178 service. ANDY FEAR

Group operator changes

Whilst the service withdrawals affected many independent operators, the region’s service changes also affected the bus scene for First Bus and Stagecoach. Whilst Stagecoach West operated services 513/514, 622, 633, 665 and 948 were withdrawn, its Bristol depot did gain services 505 and 525, but significantly also won the tender to operate the park & ride service between the Brislington and Portway sites formerly operated by First West of England. The cross-city service is now numbered 9, and operates up to every 12 minutes.

Commenting on the tender gain and the days leading up to the start of the service on 2 April, Operations Manager for Bristol Joe Beckley said: “I have to express how proud I am of the team around me. After several weeks of long hours, hard work, determination and ambition to succeed we delivered our new services today without fault.

“In recent weeks since the announcement of WECA tender awards I have seen this amazing team connect with one another from experienced drivers to the newest of recruits all with the same aim. All staff have been extremely focused, from drivers, controllers, engineers and operations admin. So much work has been done, from route learning, risk assessments, type training, fleet swaps, trainees to induct, recruitment. Everyone here in Bristol has worked exceptionally well through so much disruption around us as our depot progresses through the redevelopment stages, from parking cars off site, to walking through mud, floods and constant noise from demolition to working out of temporary accommodation. We have seen constant changes to which we are having to adapt to but still carry on working and delivering the services without fuss.

“Many of our services operated for the last time yesterday as they had not been awarded in the latest round of tenders. Again we’re so proud of the team here who worked these routes on small rota groups. This has kept our complaints to almost zero each week, and that speaks volumes. We have now commenced operating a new network of routes including a frequent park & ride cross-city service using some high quality E400MMC double deckers. We are really pleased to be having a more frequent and visible presence in the centre of Bristol. This has also increased our Clean Air Zone fleet to 75% of the Bristol allocation, another great step forward.”

Meanwhile changes at First West of England from 2 April added over 3,000 hours of bus journeys to routes across the region every week, with 1,600 of those reinstated hours being in Bristol, following the temporary suspension of some journeys in November 2022 due to staff shortages. The increased frequencies and punctuality improvements represent a significant investment from First West of England in service improvements. In addition, WECA and North Somerset Council are contributing Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) funding to enhance a number of key routes. The combined package includes additional buses into Bristol and Bath city centres.

Despite the improvements to many services, passenger numbers are still down by around 20% on pre-pandemic levels and although many services are reported to be showing good growth, some have shown no signs of attracting sufficient users to cover their costs. As a result, services 23, 47 and 91 were withdrawn from 2 April.

Doug Claringbold, Managing Director of First West of England, said: “These new timetables will significantly increase the service we offer our customers and I’m confident that our investment in new technology will also continue to improve punctuality. We will also be reinstating journeys in Bristol that we had to temporarily suspend last year, as we are starting to see the effect of our major driver recruitment and retention campaign.

“We’re delighted that the West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset Council’s successful BSIP award means significant investment in a number of important routes, which together with our own investment in our commercial network will bring improvements for many customers.”

The increase of First services saw a mass movement of vehicles between its West of England depots, with a number of Weston-super-Mare-based vehicles moving to Bristol, and vice versa. Badgerline-livered Wrightbus StreetLite 47558 is seen operating Bristol service 4. RICHARD SHARMAN

Turn up and go

Whilst many areas are facing mass service withdrawals, residents in the Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) area will be enjoying ‘turn up and go’ services in Bath. West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris announced a £7m package of improvements that will see First buses running at ‘turn up and go frequencies’ during rush hour on five key routes. In addition, First buses will run every 15 minutes on more main routes that serve passengers changing from a WESTlink minibus.

Commenting on the news at the end of February, when it was announced, Councillor Sarah Warren, deputy leader and cabinet member for climate and sustainable travel, said: “We welcome the increase in the number of buses due to operate from April and which the Mayor and First have announced today. I’ve called previously for the Mayor to invest in ‘spine’ services that complement his proposed demand-responsive minibus services, such as to serve Keynsham, so it is good to see proposals from him that reflect this. However, we are still yet to hear from the Mayor about his plans to support spine routes in other areas within Bath and North East Somerset, particularly to serve the Chew Valley. The clock is ticking on the launch of his demand-responsive services. We urgently need clarification on how all these services fit together, and more engagement with local communities who rely on local buses.”

Although the Combined Authority is the local transport authority for the area, Bath & North East Somerset Council has earmarked £280,000 from its own budget over and above what it already contributes to the WECA buses ‘pot’ – an approximate uplift of 36% in the supported bus services budget. In Bath, where DRT will not be introduced, the council’s additional funding will safeguard current supported bus services; where DRT is being introduced in April, the council will continue to fund some supported services outside of Bath until June, to ease the transition to the new arrangements.

One particular service that will continue until 30 July is the 672, after being allocated up to £70,000 of extra funding from Bath & North East Somerset Council. It runs to and from Broadmead and Bedminster in Bristol out to the villages of the Chew Valley, including Dundry, Chew Magna, Stanton Drew, West Harptree, and to Blagdon, Redhill and Bristol Airport.

WECA agreed in January to extend five services in North East Somerset, including the 672, until May 31 to help the transition to the new WestLink demand responsive transport service. Since then, B&NES heard concerns from passengers who rely on the 672 route about the impact of the service ending on May 31.

Now, Councillor Sarah Warren, B&NES cabinet member for climate and sustainable travel, and Councillor Richard Samuel, cabinet member for resources, have agreed that up to £70,000 of Bath & North East Somerset Council money will be allocated as a matter of urgency to fund the service until July 30 as a one off payment.

Councillor Warren said: “Bus services are vital for our local communities and for many people living on its route, the 672 provides the only way to access work, education, shopping and health appointments. The Chew Valley is rural and geographically spread out and is the only part of B&NES where the WestLink demand-responsive services will not be complemented by any commercial or BSIP funded bus services. This funding will mean that the contract can be extended until the end of July 2023 to help manage the transition to WESTlink and protect critical journeys until the end of the school term.”

Councillor Samuel added: “I’m pleased that we have been able to dedicate funding from the council’s limited remaining public transport reserve which would keep services running on this route for an extra two months, on top of the £280,000 we added into our budget last month to extend five routes in North East Somerset for two months. However, the Combined Authority is responsible for contracting socially necessary bus services and we provide more than a million pounds for this through the Transport Levy. This funding can only be a one-off whilst the Metro Mayor gets his demand-responsive transport service up and running.”

First West of England 39449 is seen operating new service 522. RICHARD SHARMAN

Some way to go

WESTlink now has two years to grow a big enough passenger base to keep it running. The mobile app seems to work well, and when I tried it in a variety of areas, the quickest ride was available within four minutes, with others in the region of between 22 and 40 minutes from booking; former Brighton & Hove Buses Managing Director and DRT sceptic Roger French has blogged at length of his experience using WESTlink on its first day of operation in his Bus and Train User blog, offering another perspective on the operation. The app also offers alternative travel suggestions by train or bus in the area selected.

WESTlink was put together on a very short time scale, so whilst all involved in the DRT scheme should be proud of the achievement – especially given the contract was only awarded to Via Technologies Europe and WeDRT on 3 March – one month until the launch date leaves little room for error or for the operator to source the low-floor vehicles originally mooted in the tender specification.

It will be interesting to hear the passenger figures from WECA in the coming months, but sadly, the 42 lost bus services will almost certainly not be seen again, given the ever decreasing budgets of unitary authorities.