Bath Voice News: concerns over the Westlink minibus service as changes are planned in April

By John Wimperis, local democracy reporter: Major changes to the Westlink minibus service are planned next month to stop commuters from “abusing” the scheme writes Alex Seabrook. The dial-a-ride minibuses operate across the Bristol region but some users are booking trips far longer than intended, causing the service serious issues.

Westlink was launched in April last year, and is known as “demand responsive transport”. Passengers book a trip on an app, and a bright green minibus picks them up and in theory takes them to existing bus routes, for a £2 fare.But the service, set up by the West of England Combined Authority, has faced several problems including a shortage of drivers. From this April, the transport zones will be made much smaller, to stop passengers from booking excessively long trips, such as to Bristol Airport.

Bob Scowen, interim head of integrated transport operations at the combined authority, said: “There are changes to zones, and there also changes to what you can do. If an alternative bus service exists already, then you have to take that rather than take the whole journey from A to B on the minibus. There’s also some improvements to through-ticketing arrangements.”

He was speaking to councillors on the West of England audit committee, during a public meeting on Monday, March 4. Through-ticketing means passengers will be able to book just one ticket for a journey involving more than one bus ride, instead of paying for each ride.

The scheme was “launched at the worst possible time”, according to Mr Scowen, due to a lack of bus drivers across the country. At the same time, almost half the subsidised bus routes in the West of England were withdrawn. These routes were unprofitable but received public funding, until local councils decided they could no longer afford to support them.

Mr Scowen said: “It wasn’t a direct like-for-like replacement and there has been confusion, quite understandably given its timing, about what Westlink was designed to do. It was never designed to and never can replace the withdrawn fixed services in rural areas.

“It was designed entirely differently, for a different purpose. That’s to complement the existing network, which many rural areas had no connection whatsoever to. It’s been unfairly blamed in many ways, for something it could never deliver in the first place.

“We launched it at the very worst possible time, it was quite ambitious to launch it in three months. The truth is there was a national shortage of bus drivers, which is still actually an issue. To try and launch it when First Bus, the principal operator in the region, had 250 agency drivers was obviously quite challenging. It’s now vastly more reliable than it was when we launched it.”

While the combined authority has denied Westlink replaced the cut bus services, the scheme was introduced at the same time the services were withdrawn. Westlink faced teething problems from its outset, with some passengers struggling to book trips and a shortage of drivers. Transport bosses were only granted an operator licence days before the scheme launched.

The West of England did not run a full marketing campaign to promote the scheme, due to concerns that the shortage of drivers meant the service would not be able to meet the increased demand that a campaign would generate. Seven per cent of journeys taken so far have been over 10 miles in distance, but “very long journeys should not have been possible”.

Labour Councillor Tim Rippington, representing Brislington East, said: “The impression I get was that DRT wasn’t really ready at that point and it was rushed in. You didn’t really have enough drivers, the vehicles had to be prepared very quickly, and part of the fallout from that was the service didn’t really work in a way that it was supposed to. A lot of people couldn’t get the journeys they wanted, and so you kind of had a loss of confidence early on in the service.”

Liberal Democrat Cllr Toby Simon, representing Bathwick, added: “My understanding is that there were a number of users who were effectively abusing the service. Somebody was commuting from Keynsham to Clevedon.”
Another issue is that Westlink will run out of government funding in two years. The scheme is funded from the Bus Service Improvement Plan, which expires in March 2026. After that, the combined authority will have to make the service pay for itself, but there are “potentially pretty huge” risks that it could be scrapped after the government cash dries up.

Conservative Cllr Geoff Gollop, chair of the audit committee, said: “One of my concerns is that this is coming from funding that runs out. What’s envisaged to replace this? It seems to me that the risks of service delivery to our residents are potentially pretty huge. Continuing a scheme that only solves the problem while the scheme is in place raises a large number of questions.”

Full details of the planned changes to the scheme have not yet been formally announced. Councillors urged the combined authority officers to give them advanced warning of the changes to Westlink.

Cllr Rippington said: “The recent bus changes that First Bus has announced, I learned about them through the press rather than through WECA. It would be really helpful, as local councillors, if we could learn about those changes in advance of them being in the press. That would be a plea that I would make.

“We talk to our residents regularly about our conversations with WECA and how we’re trying to help improve things. And then to suddenly find out about something when you read about it in the press does make it awkward.”

Bath Voice and Local Democracy Reporters

The journalists are funded by the BBC as part of its latest Charter commitment, but are employed by regional news organisations. A total of 165 reporters are allocated to news organisations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland including Bath Voice. These organisations range from television and radio stations to online media companies and established regional newspaper groups. Local Democracy Reporters cover top-tier local authorities, second-tier local authorities and other public service organisations.

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