Sam Rkaina, Local Government Reporter
FIRST has agreed to pick up the cost of a number of bus journeys previously supported by the tax-payer that were at risk of being axed.
Bristol City Council says the move will save the authority £500,000, a large chunk of the £2.2 million of savings it needs to make on transport due to a budget shortfall.
Local authorities pay subsidies to commercial bus operators like First, to help pay for certain services or journeys that are considered important but are not profitable.
This includes early morning, late evening, Sunday journeys and Bank Holidays.
The city council revealed in May that it was facing a £2.2 million budget hole after its plan to find new operators to run local buses failed.
Instead the existing contracts came back £1.2 million higher than planned, which is on top of £1 million of cuts needed because of the recession.
This meant the council has had to look at cutting services where it could, including the Easyrider, and increasing charges for the Park and Ride.
Executive member for transport Tim Kent has been negotiating with First over which services they might be able to take on that had previously been supported by the council in a bid to save money.
First has now agreed to run an unspecified number of services without help from the council, but they have yet to say which ones.
Although the exact journeys affected have not been revealed yet, some of those the council currently supports include buses before 6am and after 7pm on the 8/9 Temple Meads service.
Journeys after 11pm on the 40A from Cribbs Causeway to Old Market are also subsidised by the local authority.
The company has confirmed though that services 4, 5, 20, 36 and 51 will retain council support specifically for journeys during the evenings and on Sundays.
A full list is due to be released at a later date, ahead of the changes being introduced on September 4.
It means some journeys that would have been cut now won’t be, at least for the time being.
First has stressed that they will be “subject to regular reviews” and have encouraged residents to use them as much as possible so they can be viable in the long term.
Regional network manager of First South West and Wales Simon Newport said: “Since the bus industry was deregulated in the 1980s bus operators have been able to run services anywhere responding to commercial demand.
“Alongside this local authorities have been able to fund particular services, or journeys, that they felt were socially necessary, but which they understood weren’t commercially viable, in a process known as tendering.
“In Bristol this has most commonly manifested itself in the council buying in particular journeys on otherwise commercial services, for instance a handful of journeys that ran in the early morning, late evening, or on Sundays.
“From September the number of these supported journeys will fall, or in some cases supported journeys will be replaced entirely with commercial ones.
“We will publish detailed information about how individual services will be affected by the changes in the coming weeks, and we will make all the new timetable information available in mid August.”
Mr Kent praised First for their efforts.
He said: “Returning services to commercial good health is a key element of our strategy to improve public transport.
“First has risen to the challenge and looked afresh at their commitment to evening and Sunday journeys with very good results.
“The changes made mean that even more of their services in Bristol are now running entirely on their own, at no cost to the public purse.
“Business like negotiations have yielded business-like results – Bristol bus users will avoid the hard hit to evening service frequency.
“The focus of council financial support should be directed at helping the bus companies to improve passenger numbers.
“That means investing in good infrastructure to reduce journey times, supporting the companies with promotional activity and ensuring an attractive offer with digital bus time information and the like.”