Exclusive interview with First bus bosses in Norfolk

Changes to the bus network in Norwich have come in for criticism in recent months.

We spoke to bosses at the area's main operator, First, about the state of the bus network in the Norwich area. Here is what regional commercial director, Steve Wickers, and general manager for Norfolk, Colin Booth, had to say.

David Freezer: I really have to start by asking about the state of the bus network in Norwich at the moment. What is it like?

Steve Wickers: It's very difficult economically. We will see a cut in the BSOG (Bus Service Operators Grant) grant, which will get a 20pc cut from April, meaning our fuel costs go up 21.7pc from then.

Insurance costs are affecting everyone, the council funding for services have all been cut dramatically. Concessionary income was cut from April onwards, so we are still worse off than we were two years ago as far as the reimbursements, and this isn't just our company, it's for everyone across the country and it is a big problem. We've done everything we can in terms of procurement savings, in engineering, efficiencies, looking at our back office, and we did that a year ago anyway, we did that a year ahead of all the councils.

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DF: Do you think that is an oversight from the government then?

SW: Well it's interesting on the BSOG grant, for example, that aviation and rail both get a 100pc reimbursement.

DF: Well, if they want the economy to grow and they want people in the bars and restaurants of Norwich at night, which is one of the areas which is getting scaled back because of all this, do you think the government would be better off to help people do that through better bus services?

SW: Well we don't get an awful lot of funding. We're one of the main operators in the area, however, we do offer evening and weekend services. Other services we can only offer from seven until seven. However, what we have done and what will commence from April, is to look at that service against demand, and we're not saying we are cutting off those frequencies, but we have seen from that analysis that from 9pm things tail off. So what we've done is not chop it but reduce the frequency and in most cases they are moving from after 9pm from half-hourly to hourly.

DF: Are night services something you have had to agonise over? I often get the late bus back to where I live, but there are often only about seven people on there.

Colin Booth: We are a private company and there is no getting away from it, we are looking to make a profit. But what happens on the night services is that everything you actually make through the day, if you don't at least hold your own in the evening, all that profit, you're just giving it back.

So it ends up that with business starting to become unprofitable and the cost reductions in tender work through the council, and we accept that the council has hard decisions to make, if that little bit of tender money is taken away from us to help us run the services, then we are actually operating at a loss.

Would Marks & Spencer open on a Sunday if they were making a loss? No they wouldn't.

DF: So you still feel there's some positives then? You are admitting that things are difficult, but maybe not as bad as some people might think?

SW: I agree with that and I think people should experience travelling on a bus. There are lots of people who have never caught the bus and I think they would find that it is a good experience. It is stress-free and in most cases it's just as fast as taking the car.

There are decent frequencies for Norfolk and people should get out there and try it. That would protect the network, because it would increase the demand.

CB: From an operational point of view, in the past five years our reliability has increased to 99.8pc. And punctuality, which is a start time, from the bus leaving the terminus, is way over 99pc as well, and I'm not just saying that is First because there has been a big improvement from all operators.

DF: Obviously you are a business and you want to make a profit, do you think it is possible to reverse the trend for cuts to services in recent years? Do you have a plan in place that you feel will allow you to improve again?

SW: Of course. I've got to say we have been on a bit of a downer when it comes to costings.

We take on what the media says and we are not ignoring it, we want to work with people. But we can't get away from the fact that unless it is profitable then it is not worth running because we are not subsidised for it.

If it was different then yes, we would do that, but it is a very difficult time at the moment.

DF: So do you think buses can have a strong future? Is a focus on getting people on the buses needed?

CB: Well I think things are getting better and certainly in the five years that I have been in Norwich, our work with Norfolk County Council has gone a long way in helping the bus industry.

They are very pro-active in looking at bus priorities and different things to help buses get in faster in the morning and out of the city quicker at night. That's got to start to become attractive to people with the rising cost of fuel for their cars.

DF: Going back to January when the changes came in, some of them have since been reversed? Do you feel some of the changes weren't quite right?

SW: The topical one is the UEA. We have a good partnership with the UEA and the hospital and we had actually spoken to both of those prior to those changes. Okay, that was stakeholders rather than the wider audience, but they didn't have any issues particularly with that.

That's not to say it was the right or wrong decision but what I'm saying is that we have informed them and since then we agreed to have a forum with the students, which we did, in January, and we also held a similar one with the hospital as well.

Albeit there was a lot of media attention about those changes, actually there wasn't an awful lot that came out of those discussions.

Now, obviously before we make those changes we dig into our data, our ticket machines tell us where people board and alight, which is not precise per bus stop, but it gives us a good handle on where people are getting off.

In this case, because we knew it would be quite a controversial decision, we actually did some manual monitoring as well and actually had people out speaking to customers to find out where they board and alight, to confirm our data, but also to be a bit more precise. So all that work was done in advance and like I say, what we are actually trying to do is match service to demand. Obviously there is demand there and there will be people that board, but not enough to run a service because we run it commercially, it's not subsidised. There are alternatives, there's the connect service, it's about a 10-minute walk to get that connection.

DF: Like you say, that one did get quite a lot of attention and the students were quite vocal, but the Lakenham one, for instance, that's one of the ones which has been partly corrected. Are the drivers involved in these decisions?

CB: Yes the drivers did feel that the route we had gone down didn't help some of the people in Lakenham. When we actually looked at it, and we had meetings with MPs and councillors to discuss the Lakenham moves, no one was actually more than 300m from actually catching a bus. That decision to make a change has been based on a couple of junctions which are proving difficult for drivers, so it came from more of a safety aspect than a commercial one.

SW: And the government, when they allow for a new housing estate, it is recommended that it is 400m walking distance, that's their benchmark.

DF: But the Lakenham one is maybe a good example that the thing that ticket machines can't tell you is that there are a lot of old people who live in Lakenham?

SW: Yes I think that was the issue and we were asking the elderly to walk that bit further and I can understand that was more of an issue.

DF: Obviously we are focusing on Norwich and Norfolk, are you finding this is the same everywhere, Ipswich and the rest of the east of England?

SW: I've got 22 networks to look after and the same is happening across the country. In fact, in some areas it's worse.

CB: We've had lots of meetings with people who have formed committees and had meetings with councils to explain the position and if we are missing something, we are willing to listen. I've had meetings with Chloe Smith and Simon Wright and we've listened to the complaints they have received. We'll even listen to individuals if that's what it takes.