Western Greyhound services update August 2014
Western Greyhound has been having severe problems with its operations across Cornwall and particularly in this area on the 550/551 and 522 services. Buses are frequently running very late, some services are being cut short, e.g. not going to Treliske, and some services have simply not run at all.
Thank you to all those residents who have told me about the specific problems that they have had. I have had conversations with Western Greyhound's managing director, Mark Howarth, about the general problems and also the specific issues in this area.
My analysis of the issue is as follows:
The problem is quite simply that he is losing money on running his bus services. First have also been losing money in Cornwall for the past few years, but at least they have a parent company that is able to support them. Western Greyhound's problem is that it is a small company without the deep pockets of First.
Some of the bus services in Cornwall are what as known as commercial. On these routes, the bus operator sets the timetable. Its only sources of income are the fares paid by the passengers plus the reimbursement that it receives from the Council for carrying those passengers with concessionary passes. The Council has over the past few years reduced the rate at which it reimburses the bus operators for these passengers. Although the government will claim that it pays for this, in practice it merely includes a notional sum within the overall grant that it provides to the local Council. The Council is left to fund any shortfall from its own resources. So, although the Council has tried to reduce the reimbursement rate to the bus operators, the number of journeys on concessionary passes has continued to rise and so the Council is out of pocket.
On some routes where no bus operator is prepared to run a commercial service, the Council puts out to tender the route and suggested timetable. Then the bus operators bid to run services on those routes and the company making the lowest bid gets to run the service. So, on those routes the bus operator gets the fares, the concessionary fare rebate plus a sum of money each year from the Council as an overall subsidy. The budget for the subsidised routes has been cut over the past few years. Each year there has been a desperate scrabbling around trying to juggle the budget that we have against the bids from the operators and trying to find a bit more money under the mattress to plug the gaps.
In 2011, Cornwall Council was subsidising the 550/551 service to the Roseland to the sum of about £75,000 per annum and the 522 through the Clay country to St Austell to about £30,000 per annum.
After the latest tendering round, all of the 550/551 and 522 services are being run by Western Greyhound commercially without any subsidy from the Council. Therefore, Cornwall Council has no powers to intervene in any problems with operation of these routes. The only body with any powers is the Traffic Commissioner who issues authority for operators to run routes.
When WG first indicated to me that they were going to run the 550/551 and 522 services through to Treliske, I questioned this decision. First used to run the 27 service to Treliske. About a year ago, they stopped going to Treliske because this was the part of the route that caused the most problems in sticking to a timetable. They now turn the buses round at Truro bus station and their reliability has improved dramatically. WG have the additional problem of not having any slack built into their timetables anywhere and so any traffic problems mean that they are not just running late on one particular service, but it has the knock-on effect on all subsequent services. Then there is the problem that WG simply do not have enough reliable vehicles to provide any backup when a bus breaks down. I don't think that Mark Howarth has done this because he has forgotten how to run reliable services; rather it is that the financial constraints mean that he has no choice but to try to work all buses to the maximum all day long and to have no slack in the system.
I fear for the future with Western Greyhound. But if they do not survive, the Council does not have the resources to plug the gap and it is very unlikely that any other operator would do any more than just cherry pick a few of the WG routes. If WG does not survive, we will end up with a much reduced rural bus network.
There is one way of plugging the financial gap at nil cost to the Council. That is to ask concessionary pass holders to pay a flat rate fare of, say, £1 per journey. The overwhelming majority of passholders would be happy to do that. But central government expressly forbids bus operators or councils to implement such a measure. I am looking at ways whereby we could get government to change its policy. However, it is a long shot.