Preston's bus timetables are branded 'meaningless' with services regularly showing up late - or never
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That was the message from city councillors as they called for action to address what they say is a growing problem for passengers.
A Preston City Council meeting heard tales from members about how they and their residents had been “let down” by buses which had not managed to recapture pre–pandemic levels of reliability.
The stories provided a backdrop to a notice of motion by Labour’s Ribbleton ward councillor Jonathan Saksena, who won cross-party support for his call to bring the main bus operators before the council’s overview and scrutiny committee for a candid discussion about what was going wrong.
He said that firms were struggling to maintain their advertised timetables – even though these were subject to frequent alterations.
As somebody who catches more than two dozen buses a week, he said that he did not want to blame bus operators – just to make the situation better.
“A lot of people do feel that the bus timetables are non-existent – you just…hope for [a bus] to turn up.
“There are other issues as well. A particular service in my ward…has now been reduced to two or three per hour and people who work in the city centre who finish at 5.00 suddenly find that the bus has gone at 5.00 – and they have got to wait until 5.50 for the next one.
“Surely with situations like that, common sense should suggest that you [would] have [a service at] something like ten past or quarter past five to give people a chance to get to the bus.
“People are getting to work late, people are getting home late…and we found also that people, particularly late at night…are stranded and there [are] safety and safeguarding issues involved as well,” said Cllr Saksena.
He added that some of the services that were not operating were those on routes that are subsidised by Lancashire County Council – and asked what was happening to the money in that scenario.
Preston Rural East ward member Harry Landless said he had recently had to help an elderly man who was left distressed after the last bus to get him home from Goosnargh to his city centre home failed to appear.
“The guy was seriously upset and worried…and we had to actually arrange for a lift for him to get home,” said Cllr Landless, who also told the meeting that he knew of someone who had to abandon a plan to ditch their car and travel around the city by bus. They lasted just three months.
Cllr Jade Morgan, who represents the St. Matthew’s ward said that with bus fares “going up quite frequently”, passengers wanted “service standards to reflect that”.
She stressed that residents relied on buses for a whole range of reasons – including attending medical appointments – and said that unreliability would have a “negative impact” on people.
Cllr Morgan said that when she was a Lancaster University student a few years ago, she had been able to commute by bus to and from her home – a distance of 21 miles – in less time than it had recently taken her to get four miles across Preston during the evening.
Speaking to the Lancashire Post after the meeting, she said that the journey to Lancaster used to take her 90 minutes – but one midweek trip from Preston docks back to Fishwick had trundled on for nearly an hour and three quarters after both buses she needed were late.
“I can’t speak as to whether this was an unfortunate one-off or whether this a more frequent occurrence, but it was definitely a very long time for what should have been two short bus journeys,” Cllr Morgan said.
Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council were recently awarded £34m after successfully applying for government funding for a “bus improvement plan” which will see them play a more active role in setting ticket prices and timetabling.
While Preston City Council’s deputy leader, Martyn Rawlinson, said that any improvement would be welcome, he added:
“We all know why the buses are so bad – it’s not really to do with Covid or Brexit, it was deregulation [in 1986] by Thatcher and privatisation . That’s why public transport in general in this country is so bad.
“You have to actually invest the money and that’s where the problem lies – profiteering companies will invest as little as they can get away with. They are taking profits from this while services are so poor.”
In a statement issued after publication of the notice of motion, but before the debate, Preston Bus, which operates a fleet of around 100 vehicles under the ownership of Rotala plc, acknowledged that its services were not up to pre-Covid standards of reliability.
Commercial manager Thomas Calderbank said the firm was struggling with staff shortages which had their roots in the pandemic – but was hoping to get back to normal by the summer.
“When the first lockdowns happened, we reduced our service levels and a number of drivers went on furlough.
“As time has gone on we’ve noticed a lot of drivers have, whilst on furlough, had time to reflect on their lifestyle and decided they don’t want to continue in the industry.
So we have lost a lot of drivers through retirement, or early retirement, or moving to other industries where they’re not working anti-social hours.
“Over the months since we came out of lockdown, more people have left than have started and so we have a general shortage.
“We have looked at the numbers we have and the services we can reliably run with that number of drivers.
“The plan is to continue to recruit until we can put services back to where they used to be.
“We‘ve been advertising online and on vehicles to attract drivers. We’re looking at family-friendly rotas where drivers can work the hours that suit them.
“In terms of comments that we are not running services as reliably as we should I would accept that. But it is a temporary thing.
“I think that within the next couple of months, certainly by the summer, we will return to being in a fully-staffed situation,” Mr. Calderbank added.
Responding to the issues raised in the Preston debate, a spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said: “”We are monitoring the impact on services, and passengers, caused by the current shortage of drivers within the public transport industry and will continue to work with operators as they consider options to improve reliability while new drivers are being recruited and trained.”