Metro Mayor Dan Norris has revealed he has struggled to book travel on his flagship WESTlink minibus service.
The demand-responsive transport service was launched in April by the West of England Combined Authority and neighbouring North Somerset Council, with a fleet of minibuses which do not follow set routes but can be booked to take people between any bus stops in a set zone.
Responding to claims that there had only been 10 of the minibuses in the Somerset area of the scheme — the “South zone” — on Wednesday June 7, Mr Norris told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “While I haven’t got official figures, I agree that Wednesday was a difficult day as when I tried to book a WESTlink myself, there were none available.
“But I’ve always said this would be a gradual roll out and that WESTlink will need more minibus drivers – the national and local shortage of drivers remains a major hurdle.”
The on-demand buses were intended as a way to supplement the existing bus service, but bus cuts across the West of England — after a funding row between the Metro Mayor and local councils saw publicly-supported bus services slashed — have left many people in rural areas forced to rely on WESTlink.
One of the areas worst hit by the bus cuts is rural North East Somerset, where three more buses were removed last week. Most supported buses in the area had been cut at the start of April, but Bath and North East Somerset Council continued to fund these into June “to ease the transition to the new arrangements.”
Sarah Warren, Bath and North East Somerset Council’s cabinet member for climate emergency and sustainable travel, said: “Residents are anxious about the provision of public transport and their ability to access work, services and leisure.
“WESTlink is supposed to be the Mayor’s flagship public transport solution for areas with fewer commercial bus services. However, the pilot is only for two years and we are already nine weeks in — if services don’t start to ramp up soon, the whole scheme could fail.”
Despite fears from some that WESTlink was facing a drivers shortage, with bus companies able to offer longer-term contracts, Mr Norris said: “Anecdotally I have heard some drivers have gone from other bus companies to WESTlink, but again, I haven’t been passed official stats to back that up.
“But I can say we are starting to see progress locally on this issue – with support from my West of England Mayoral Combined Authority, over 150 driver roles have been filled since the beginning of the year alone. But there is still a significant way to go.”
But Bath and North East Somerset has said not enough has been done to make people aware of the scheme. Ms Warren said: “With such a new concept, we expected a communications programme to explain the service to the public — to potential customers — but none has been forthcoming, despite our repeated requests. I have written again to the Mayor this week to urge him to properly promote the service.
“The Mayor has at his disposal a £57m fund, dedicated solely to improving buses. It’s astonishing that the Mayor has chosen a reckless gamble, with failure potentially baked in, through a lack of publicity, rather than using the money to support regular bus routes that were already familiar to residents.
She added: “If B&NES had control over the government fund for bus services we would use it to reinstate lost bus routes instead.”
Mr Norris said: “My Mayoral Combined Authority ran dozens of face to face and online community, parish and pop up meetings with residents across the areas covered by WESTlink, and I’m pleased we’ve got big companies like Aerospace Bristol and others signed up to promote it among their workers.
“So there has been a lot of work to make sure locals are talking about and using the WESTlinks on the roads right now.”
He added: “I’m thrilled that here in the West of England, we’re aiming high and have started rolling what will become the biggest scheme of its kind in the country. We will be adding more and more WESTlinks to roads later in the weeks and months ahead until we reach our first milestone of 30 full-time minibuses.
“Stop-to-stop travel is new to us all – it was never going to be plain sailing, but we are learning as we go along. I would encourage locals who haven’t already tried WESTlink to please give it a go so we all can make it the best scheme in the country.”