First West of England MD drives bus for a day and shares extent of congestion issues

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James Freeman drove the 349 service on Saturday, which was repeatedly held up despite leaving on time

James Freeman: “Bristol deserves a better bus service, but we at First West of England cannot do this on our own.” ANDY IZATT

 James Freeman, Managing Director of First West of England, decided to take on driving duties for a day in order to better understand complaints about cancelled, late or overcrowded buses.

Of late, passenger complaints have been on the rise – with one resident planning a protest against the level of service in Bristol.

This has recently been blamed on a driver shortage, combined with the struggles faced by school traffic and the operator taking on new routes.

Writing an open letter to Bristol residents, James described his experience of driving the 349 route between Bristol and Keynsham – and relayed some of his concerns.

“To the travelling public of Bristol and the West of England,” he begins.

“I am very concerned, like you, the people who use our services every day, along with my fellow team-members from First West of England, about the reliability of our buses at the moment and the effect that this is having on us all.

“As some people may know I hold a full PCV licence, so I availed myself of the opportunity to do a day’s bus driving on Saturday. It was very instructive and supported what so many members of our driving team at First West of England have been saying to me recently.

“Much has been made recently of our current driver shortage, but I am really worried that this is obstructing our collective appreciation that the real problem is congestion.

“That is not to down play the driver shortage problem, which is clearly our immediate concern, but it is essentially a short-term issue and we are already making great strides to deal with it.

“But what I experienced as a bus driver on Saturday worried me a lot, so I wanted to share this with the wider public.

“I did three round trips on the 349 service from Bristol Bus Station to Keynsham starting at 1100hrs, and following a break I did two more trips on the same route, finishing at 2000hrs.

“On each trip I was careful to leave ‘on the button’ and get away absolutely on time, but each time my progress was hampered by events that we couldn’t have foreseen or by the road system itself. This meant that for almost all the people waiting for the bus, it was late!

“To give you all a flavour, during the day several things happened. Firstly, I was stopped entering Rupert Street by a minor road traffic collision which was cleared away quite quickly but delayed me by several valuable minutes.

“Negotiating the traffic system at Temple Meads, where the road system is being radically changed in a series of stages that is lasting two years, added an unscheduled seven minutes to the journey as we crawled through the sets of repeated traffic lights more slowly than you could have walked it.

“In Keynsham, I was confronted with a set of pop-up traffic lights, courtesy of Wessex Water who were presumably doing some essential maintenance, which held me up towards evening for several minutes but had disappeared by the time of my next trip!

“The inbound section of the A4 in Brislington was terrible on every trip except the last one, adding five to seven minutes to the journey each time. And everywhere there was congestion and slow-moving traffic coupled with long delays at traffic lights for no very apparent reason. Despite this, I did manage to accomplish all five trips because the route has seventeen minutes’ relief time to catch up after each round trip.”

In conclusion, he added: “As a bus operator we have apologised and take full responsibility for those issues that are within our control that have contributed to the reliability issues of late, and we are working hard to resolve those.

“But traffic congestion is the single biggest obstacle to running a reliable bus service. The causes of traffic congestion in our region are complex and manifold, and they need both a constructive mindset and joined-up action from all parties involved.

“Bristol deserves a better bus service, and I fully intend to deliver it – but we at First West of England cannot do this on our own.”