Wednesday night's inaugural meeting of the Frome and Villages Bus Users Group (FAV BUG) was intended to launch the group, giving all interested parties a chance to meet, and also to clarify what the aims of the group should be, and think about the best ways of achieving those.
AIMS AND STRATEGIES FOR THE FAV BUG GROUP
It was agreed that the general purpose of the Frome and Villages Bus Users Group should be to give a voice to bus users in the local area, by determining the issues which cause problems to the greatest number of bus users in the area, and the potential improvements which would be of greatest benefit. We will liaise with bus operators, councils, and other relevant bodies to present our findings and work towards a better bus service for Frome and the villages.
To achieve this, we will need to implement methods for surveying bus users for their opinions and ideas. We have already made a start on this approach, with a simple poll on our website (http://favbug.blogspot.co.uk/) , and we will aim to extend and refine this in order to reach greater numbers of bus users, and to discover passengers' views and needs in greater detail. Ideally we would do this using a variety of methods, including face-to-face surveys of other passengers, as well as online.
Jon Barnard outlined First's position, which is that FAV BUG could most effectively influence operators by suggesting prioritised improvements, which would be of interest to large numbers of passengers - since these will be the most likely to be both financially attractive for the operators, and of greatest benefit to passengers. It would be beneficial to think of service changes in the context of a coherent network of integrated transport, including all operators and both buses and trains.
There may also be value to us in identifying changes which may not be profitable to operators as such, but could have other benefits - either more general economic benefit to an area, or a quality of life benefit to potential passengers. These could then be considered by local authorities as possible candidates for subsidy.
Another aspect of our work would be to promote bus transport in general, as an alternative to driving, with the aim of encouraging more people to use public transport where possible. One idea could be to encourage greater bus use among people who aren't currently able to get to a bus stop, by setting up volunteer-run feeder services from unserved areas to the town centre, where passengers could pick up onward connections. This sort of service already exists to some extent, in the Slinky Bus (on demand service), although there are some issues with it (need to book well in advance, difficult to get through on the phone to book). There are some plans to make this more of a scheduled service rather than purely on-demand. Other ideas were to promote Frome (and villages) as destinations to visit by bus, and perhaps even to work with operators to lay on special services on Independent Market days.
We would also like to be able to act as an information provider, drawing together timetables and other details on bus services, which are otherwise scattered across the internet and various printed materials. We have made a start on this by providing links to all bus operators' timetable from our website - however, not all bus users have internet access, so we will need to think about ways of making this information more widely available - perhaps by producing printed versions which can be made available at locations such as the library. We could also provide information on aspects of travel which may not be immediately obvious from the timetables, e.g. ways of getting between locations which have the best accessibility, or pointing out quirks in the timetable e.g. where choosing bus changes which minimise distance travelled may actually increase travel time.
We also need to acknowledge where the current service is not of an acceptable standard, due to poor reliability and punctuality. Sometimes it's difficult to encourage others to use buses in good faith, when we know that a particular service is frequently late or unreliable. It is possible we might be able to make practical suggestions to the operators on how to make improvements, but sometimes it might just be a case of pressuring operators to invest adequately in services. Jon pointed out that in cases of poor services, passengers have recourse to the Traffic Commissioner, who enforces operators' responsibility to provide an acceptable standard of punctuality, reliability, fleet maintenance etc. Complaints can be made directly to the Commissioner, which may result in a Public Inquiry, whose verdict may be that an operator should be fined or lose its license. Managers at operator companies are held personally liable and may ultimately face criminal prosecution.
We can also acknowledge that there is a political dimension to the problems we see in the local bus services - that running a public service as a profit making enterprise, in the context of significant council cutbacks to subsidies, will inevitably lead to these problems. However, it was felt that political campaigning to reform privatised public transport would not be the primary focus of this particular group.
'FROME AND VILLAGES'
We discussed the fact that the group is intended to represent both Frome and the surrounding villages. This is linked to Frome Town Council taking on some responsibility for the area beyond Frome. Transport is one aspect of this.
It isn't quite clear how far 'and villages' extends.
It is likely that there will be some difference of opinion between bus users living in Frome and those living in the villages as to what constitutes a good bus service (e.g. a fast service to Bath may be favoured by the former, one that stops off in more places along the way by the latter).
There are also likely to be logistical problems with arranging meeting times and venues which will be practical for both Fromians and villagers to attend - largely because of the sparseness of the bus timetables (particularly in the evenings)!
One possibility would be for the villages to form their own Bus Users Groups, with their own autonomy, but under the umbrella of FAV BUG. They could then hold their own meetings as is convenient for them, and send one or two representatives to the FAV BUG meetings.
SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS TO CURRENT BUS SERVICES
Various ideas and observations of current bus services were discussed. These could each be a potential focus for FAV BUG to investigate:
Sometimes there are changes to bus services in the context of particular events which disrupt traffic, e.g. Frome Super Market, or Half Marathon. These changes are typically not advertised at all - there doesn't seem to be any way of finding out what changes have been made, either on the website of the bus operator, or on the bus stops themselves. This could potentially be a shared responsibility between the relevant council and the bus operator. Simply putting up paper notices on the bus stops would be an improvement. This sort of unavailability of vital information is one reason why some people are unwilling to rely on local bus travel, particularly for important journeys, e.g. to link up with a train.
As well as planned service changes, it is also difficult to know when a bus which is running late is likely to show up. There is technology for real-time updating bus stops (as in London, and to some extent Bath). However these do not always work well, and are highly unlikely to be invested in locally anyway. Mobile apps are available in some places, but these can be hit and miss too. Having an information line phone number available on all bus stops would be a start!
The 184 service has been unreliable, with some passengers in Holcombe in particular reporting being stranded for hours .
It is suggested that the group meets quarterly with two meetings: one with the local community, focussing on research around bus needs and ideas for further integration and improvements; the second with the bus companies and community representatives focussing on strategic issues and improvements (backed up by our research).