A new demand responsive service is due to launch this summer in the Bristol area to provide links to main bus and rail routes, reports Bristol Live, following the securing of a £3 million investment by The West of England Combined Authority (WECA). The ‘West Link’ service will run between 0700 and 1900hrs from Mondays to Saturdays and serve large parts of North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Bristol. The operating area will be divided into eight local zones, and ticket prices will match the recently reduced fares on local buses.
The local authority said it hopes that smaller minibuses will be more attractive to drive and train on than traditional large buses, making it easier to recruit more drivers in the region, which has a reported shortage of more than 250 bus drivers. West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris told local media: “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 West Link 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 West Link 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 shortages 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.”
Meanwhile, Bath & North East Somerset Council has stepped in to protect a number of supported bus services following the decision by WECA to stop funding some services from April and the Metro Mayor’s decision to introduce the new DRT scheme.
Although WECA is the local transport authority for the area, the council has earmarked £280,000 from its own budget over and above what it already contributes to the WECA bus fund, which it says represents an approximate uplift of 36% in its supported bus services budget.
In Bath, where the DRT scheme will not be introduced, the council’s additional funding will support 12 bus services. Where DRT is being introduced in April, the council will continue to fund a further five supported services outside of Bath until June to ease the transition to the new arrangements.
Councillor Sarah Warren, Deputy Council Leader and cabinet member for Climate and Sustainable Travel, said: “The system for bus provision is broken, both nationally and locally, following many years of funding cuts and deregulation and needs an overhaul. We welcome the fresh thinking that has led to the new demand responsive services being introduced, and very much hope that it will provide a flexible and sustainable way for people to access jobs, leisure and work, despite the speed of its introduction by the Mayor.
“Costs across the industry have been rising at a time of reduced funding, and this new model is the only way we are able to retain services for our residents. That’s why, even with the financial challenges we are facing, we are proposing additional council funding for buses. In Bath, where the Mayor is not providing DRT, we will use the council’s own money to ensure all existing supported bus services can continue. We will also be supporting some services across North East Somerset for an additional two months to help with the transition and will continue to work closely with WECA and the other local authorities to embed the new services successfully.
“DRT has the potential to improve access and contribute to our net zero targets, however given that DRT on the scale being proposed by the Mayor is untested, we are asking that communities be involved in shaping the next steps for its implementation.”
Whilst an operator for West Link is yet to be announced, Surrey-based E-zec Medical Transport Services, a provider of specialist transport, healthcare support and clinical services across the UK, is currently advertising 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.