By Mike Ribbeck, Business Editor / firstname.lastname@example.org
BRISTOL’S biggest transport company said it wants to run the city’s controversial bendy bus scheme on one condition – the buses are not bendy.
First Bus has been holding talks with the city council about coming on board as operator of the planned rapid transit scheme and is prepared to invest just under £7 million in the project.
But the transport firm has made it clear it would want to operate a fleet of “ultra-modern single-decker buses” rather than controversial bendy buses preferred by the council.
As reported in the Evening Post a formal bid has been submitted to the Government for the £200 million project which aims to ease congestion in the city.
The plan is to build three routes; the £50 million Ashton Vale-to-Temple Meads station, the £102 million north fringe-to-Hengrove package and the £45 million south Bristol link.
Bristol City Council and the neighbouring authority has repeatedly stated this is the final chance for major government funding for a much-needed transport scheme in Bristol.
A decision on the scheme is expected in December but the city council has already held talks with six companies over operating the service.
Justin Davies, who is in charge of First Bus operations across the South West and South Wales, has been involved in the talks.
He said: “We are very interested in the rapid transit schemes – it should be remembered that we already operate similar schemes in Swansea and Hampshire. Everyone talks about having a tram system in Bristol but that would be far too expensive. You only have to look at Edinburgh which has got itself into a terrible financial mess trying to fund a tram system.”
He added: “There is a big travel market in Bristol but we actually think that the scheme does not have to use a bendy bus.
“What we are talking about are very modern buses that are comfortable and convenient to use and very efficient. We are talking about leather seats, air conditioning and plenty of space for passengers. There is a temptation to get fixated on the actual bus but we believe a dedicated bus route and the infrastructure is the most important aspect of the service.”
First said it is looking at investment just under £7 million on a fleet of 30 to 40 of the buses.
Mr Davies added: “What we saw in Swansea was there was a lot of opposition to the rapid transit scheme before it was introduced but now it is up and running users really like it. There has been a complete turnaround.”
First believes single-decker buses would be a much cheaper and more economical to operate and maintain than a bendy bus. The system is expected to use the latest technology including smart cards and mobile phone technology.
Mr Davies said: “Around 80 per cent of us now have a mobile phone and within a generation that will be closer to a 100 per cent. Thanks to smart phones and GPS technology people will be able to know how far away the next bus is before they leave their home.”
Tim Kent, cabinet member with responsibility for transport, confirmed talks had been held with six bus operators.
He said: “The important part is not the type of vehicle but the infrastructure. The dedicated bus lanes, the technology and the stations will make the difference. However, the council feels that the bendy bus or articulated vehicles would be the best option because they can carry more options. If we were to use smaller vehicles then we would have to increase the frequency of services.
“We would be prepared to look at another vehicle but we would have to improve the capacity on the system. We are talking about a cashless system with services running every six minutes.”
Mr Kent also revealed that earlier plans to close Baldwin Street in the city centre to all traffic had been ditched after complaints from businesses.
He added problems centred around Temple Meads station were linked to the cost of removing the Temple Gate roundabout.
The area is in the heart of the new Enterprise Zone – which won the backing of David Cameron last week on a visit to the city.
Mr Kent said: “We see the rapid transit system as a vital part of the Enterprise Zone. This will be a major area of employment and it is vital that there is a station serving the area.
“We want a transport hub next to the station and the talks with Network Rail who manage the station are going well.”
Talks are also taking place with businesses about a £40 million shortfall in the project. The extra cash will have to be found in one of two ways; an increase in business rates or a charge on parking spaces at businesses.
If the Government gives the go-ahead to the funding in December the project could be completed by as early as the spring of 2015.