Are Suffolk buses fit for purpose?

(This was published as a letter in the East Anglian Daily TImes 15 Feb 2010)

Passengers suffer, thanks to unreliable bus services

So it took a ‘covert investigation’ by the Department of Transport to reveal what Suffolk passengers have known all along – that First Eastern Counties bus services are frequently unreliable, with 1 in 5 buses leaving early or late – or not appearing at all (EADT 11/02/10 Bus Operator Told to Improve) We’re not surprised at that. What we do find surprising is that a commercial service should be proven to behave in such a cavalier fashion to its passengers. Its as if First Eastern don’t care whether it carries passengers or not. So much for the basis of ‘commercial viability.

In defence, their spokesman said that many First Eastern Counties routes and timetables ‘were improved’ after this report was compiled, on November 15. Now, I remember November 16 very well – it was the Monday morning I and several others waited for an hour at a Woodbridge bus stop for a First bus that had been ‘improved’ out of existence without warning the passengers. Or their County Councillor. (See http://carolinepage.blog.suffolk.libdems.org/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=20) Of course, this is only one example of the generally poor information given out by the bus companies about their services. Can you think of a company that expects to sell their products without advertising? Again, the term ‘commercially viable’ seems far from appropriate!

I do hope the DfT inquiry finding will interest  the Conservative run County Council- which  is is keen to replace scheduled rural bus services with their pet ‘demand responsive transport’ – a door-to-door service that needs booking well in advance. Their rationale?

Many rural bus services are not commercially viable …. Alternative services are required to meet the needs of local people.”

But with bus services operating as described above, how can you possibly establish what services ARE commercially viable ? Back in 2005 the National Audit Office identified the most important factors that were needed to support successful country bus services. These were, not demand responsive transport, but positive action:

  • commitment to achieving growth in bus use;
  • investment in a package of measures to increase demand for bus services;
  • strategic planning, partnership working between local authorities and bus operators in a deregulated market and effective procurement of local bus services;
  • the provision and administration of concessionary fares; and
  • regulation and monitoring of bus services.

The people of Suffolk deserve a viable bus service that they can rely on. But until they are given a chance to use such a service it is impossible to define whether it might be commercially viable or not. What is currently on offer is not fit for purpose!

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Contacting my landline: apologies!

Who else has had major problems with spam faxes? I’ve been having a horrible time with them.  When you link this nuisance with  a line which only accepts incoming calls (so you can’t ring back and find who was calling)  and these TWO factors with an answerphone  that gets filled up with beeping noises and so can’t accept peoples’ messages you get total chaos and a major democratic deficit. Your constituents just can’t reach you…

Sincere apologies for any one who has tried and  failed to contact me via my council landline over the last few months. An extract of an email I had to write to the officers at Suffolk County Council might help explain:

This is in back-up to a call I made to your office last Friday, asking your urgent assistance in eliminating the problems with my council line – eg the stream of unwanted spam fax calls that arrive at all hours and block up my answer phone and which have not abated in 18 months.

My issue is:

  • First and foremost – it must be stopped! I may be a publicly elected individual but I deserve my sleep and my constituents deserve to be able to leave messages. At the moment, I generally have my answerphone switched off because it gets filled up with fax calls and it is hard to identify the one genuine caller that might be on it. My suggestion is that BT change my number. In a business context I have done this with total success with personal phones which received fax spam in the past
  • CSD (to whom I was pointed) tell me that they cannot do much about it because changing the number may involve the council in potential expense (because they might be charged for two lines!!!!!)  I am puzzled by this as a response
  • Instead they suggested that the unwanted calls can be dealt with by ringing 1471. This fails to recognise 2 simple facts:

a          Its impossible to phone up 1471 – or indeed any number – on a phone that is blocked for outside calls as mine is.

b          If I were to contct all the nuisance callers who ring I may have to ring 1471 several times a night.

  • CSD  has very cleverly identified that my number was previously associated with a local company . As they say it would be removed from their website in future weeks CSD felt that this would resolve the problem.
  • However if you google this (my) number you will see it is also listed on a range of other websites – and who knows in what other offline reference manuals, cold calling and contact lists it is in! I have lived in my house for ten years and I am still getting junk mail for the residents who lived there as much as 20 years ago.
  • CSD  also pointed out that after a fax failed the faxer would be unlikelty to call again. In which case there will be an extraordinarily large number of places where this number must be listed, because people have not stopped using it over 18 months
  • Additionally, I’m finding that having a number that can only accept incoming calls causes an additional nuisance because my home is in a mobile black spot, As with all councillors, I can’t call out on my council line,  only on my blackberry, but when doing so I have to roam the house finding a place where the signal works (hanging out of my bedroom window is best – it is difficult to refer to paperwork in such a situation!) In effect this means I often use my home line for convenience, or ask callers to phone me back on it. This means I have no protection for my private versus public life!

I recognise CSD has to consider expense, but my view is that my constituents are paying their council tax for these services; they elected me to represent them and deserve to be able to contact me efficiently.

I’ll keep you all informed

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“One in five journeys unreliable”: Suffolk bus service damned

Bus Firm is in Court

(p5, Evening Star, 10 Feb 2010)

EAST ANGLIA:  A bus operator was called before a court after an investigation found one in five journeys in Ipswich left early, arrived late or did not turn up at all.

A covert survey into these services by First Eastern Counties was undertaken last year by the Department for Transport after complaints over punctuality.  Of 454 journeys studied in between March 16th and July 16th, eight never arrived, 19 left more than a minute early and 83 were more than five minutes late.

As well as this, in 18 cases the front of the bus displayed the incorrect destination.

This mean that almost a quarter of journeys fell outside the strict limits imposed by the traffic commissioners office, which oversees bus licensing, forcing it to arrange yesterdays hearing with representatives from the firm.

Despite the damning report, First Eastern Counties Buses claimed at the inquiry to have “reasonable excuses” for many of the problems highlighted, including unannounced road-works which delayed drivers and several breakdowns.

Many routes and timetables in Ipswich were updated an improved on November 15th last year, including all but one of the ones investigated, after the report was compiled.

The public inquiry was heard by Sarah Bell, the deputy traffic commissioner for the eastern area.  Although commissioner has the power to remove an operator’s license, or reduce the number of services it can run, she chose to adjourn the matter for review later in the year, following further covert tests to be arranged this summer.

But she made clear that further improvements would need to be made before then, despite the firm’s ongoing efforts.

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Woodbridge Town Council report: February 2010

Boundary Committee update

I can almost not bear to continue  more or less repeating the same old mantra. The deadline for responses to the Secretary of State’s proposals has passed. Now, as we know, the Secretary of state has a number of options to choose from including:

  1. Select a new structure of local government in Suffolk, consisting of a whole Suffolk Unitary, their preferred option for a new structure.
  2. Select an alternative new structure of local government for Suffolk, consisting of a North Haven Unitary comprising of Ipswich and Felixstowe, and a Rural Suffolk unitary.
  3. Refer back to the original proposal, of a sole Ipswich Unitary.
  4. Take no action.
Don't we live in a lovely town! You can see all of Woodbridge from Sutton Hoo

So…

We now carry on waiting to hear what the Secretary of State will decide; however, there is still no set date for announcement . There is recess from tomorrow to 22 February, so unless they’re announcing it now, it is not likely to be until late February or early March, which could make elections this year extremely difficult.

Parking in Woodbridge I have just been contacted today by the  Sub Team Leader, Integrated Transport (East) about Suffolk Coastal’s proposal to introduce Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday charges for parking at the Avenue, Woodbridge. She is minded to reject this proposal because “This car park is currently well used during these above times as it is adjacent to the recreation area, tennis courts, riverside recreation area. You will be aware that the recreation ground is widely used for football matches on Saturdays and Sundays, as such even with the car park free at these times, overflow vehicles park on nearby adjacent roads, restricting the parking available for residents. Introducing charges will exacerbate the problem as drivers will seek free parking first on the residential roads. This will again cause problems for the residents of these roads and will increase the number of roads and consequently residents affected.” If Woodbridge Town Council have opposing reasons and see merit in introducing charges, perhaps they could contact Ms Rapley urgently. The Woodbridge proposed TROs (parking) are now being written up before being put before bothe Woodbridge Town Council and the public for final consultation. Rail Services The railway between Ipswich and Lowestoft via Saxmundham is known as the East Suffolk line. Once a double track main line, it was reduced to two sections of single track in the early 1980’s, which is why the train service is generally of a two hourly interval. However in recent years there has been a renaissance on the route with passenger numbers increasing by around 16% each year An hourly interval service will operate between Ipswich and Saxmundham from December 2010 and when a passing loop is built at Beccles, there will be an hourly interval service between Ipswich and Lowestoft from December 2012. The East Suffolk Line Development Group (ESLDG) has been formed consisting of officers from Suffolk County Council, Ipswich Borough Council, Suffolk Coastal District Council, Waveney District Council, Network Rail, National Express East Anglia (NXEA) and members of the East Suffolk Lines Community Rail Partnership. The ESDLG has published the Draft East Suffolk Line Stations Investment Plan. The document describes the method used to audit facilities at each station plus the Felixstowe branch line and contains opportunities to improve facilities at each of these stations. The East Suffolk Line Stations Investment Plan can be viewed by using the following link: http://www.suffolkonboard.com/rail/east_suffolk_line_stations_investment_plan. There is also a comments form should you wish to respond to this consultation. The closing date for responses is 29th March 2010. Comments received from this consultation will be taken into consideration when an Action Plan for investment on the East Suffolk Line stations is produced later in 2010.

Budget The County Council announced that the Council Tax would be increased by 2.4% over the next year. Areas that are being prioritised for extra spending include:

  • £1.5m as a one-off payment for roads maintenance to help deal with the effects of the particularly harsh winter
  • £1.7m to continue the investment in social workers to help support vulnerable children and their families
  • £1.6m to pay for the additional numbers and more complex placements of young people coming into the care system
  • £4m to help care for older people who most need specialist support
  • £1.6m to pay for extra landfill tax

There are still areas within the budget that are overspent, including Children and Young Persons by £2m, mainly due to the increasing cost for Home to School Transport and for Adult and Community Services by £1.7m due to the increasing demographic. In addition to this within the capital budget, SOR will be costing over £100m The budget will be approved at a special meeting on the 18th February. The particularly worrying bit from my point of view.is that the budget appears to suggest a gradual transfer of subsidised rural bus services from regular services to demand-responsive, booked-in-advance services without adequate consultation. Despite huge budgetary pressure, I notice a very large sum (£1,269,000) is allocated in the Environment and Transport Capital Programme 2010-11 for the “Demand Responsive Transport project”). I questioned this at the pre-budget Council meeting and was told “The £1.269M in the budget proposals will introduce a new system for booking, planning and managing demand responsive transport, with benefits to users from increased “opening times” to take bookings, and bookings able to be made closer to the time of travel.” All rural parish councils north and west of Woodbridge as far north as Aldringham and Sternfield are being surveyed. Unfortunately replacing scheduled bus services here will impact severely on the services – all of which pass through Woodbridge. I’m thinking here of the 62a and b, the 64 and the 65 services. These are represent almost all the buses that serve Woodbridge, which could potentially become the end of the line, rather than a stop on the way to multiple destinations. This would inevitably lead to a reduction for our residents.. I’m calling on Woodbridge Town Councillors and relevant district councillors of all political parties to join with me to look at this problem urgently.

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Caroline Page, County Councillor for Woodbridge