Folkestone and Hythe Lib Dem Council Group Leader Tim Prater has written to Stagecoach regarding the changes to the district wide timetable implemented today. He ain't complimentary.
[Updated with reply, and reply to reply, below]
Notwithstanding the huge disappointment around the timetable cuts you have made themselves, following the changes today your own twitter feed makes the point today that you are not even providing close to that level of reduced service.
How is it possible to cut a service that much, then not have sufficient drivers to deliver even that? Is there some form of apology from Stagecoach that can be offered for this service failure to local residents, and any assurance that you are on top of this and the same will not occur tomorrow and on subsequent days?
Another issue raised with me is that timetables area wide at bus stops have not been changed. So, for example, on Sandgate High Street right now we have the bus timetable pictured (attached) showing the 16 bus to Canterbury, which as of yesterday, no longer runs from Sandgate At All. That is, shall we say, unclear to those stood at the stop waiting for the bus you have cancelled, permanently.
So we have a serious service cut, including impacts NOT consulted on such as services starting later and ending earlier, without the revised service being promoted at stops, and for which you've cancelled most of the buses as you have insufficient drivers anyway.
Apart from that, how's the plan to attract people back onto the bus going?
To be fair, within 30 minutes, Joel Mitchell, Managing Director of Stagecoach South East replied. You can wait for a bus longer than that today. He says:
The good news is that there's still a bus service and we've not had to take them off the road despite the huge financial losses we have been facing. I appreciate that won't come as much consolation to our customers today however.
As part of the closure, we have had to take circa 150 colleagues through the redundancy process, as is the law. We didn't want any of them to leave in the short term, in spite of the reduced headcount requirement to enable us to be financially stable to continue to operate. We increased the parking provision at Dover to try and encourage former Folkestone colleagues to make the move. We built a shuttle bus into the roster so that former Folkestone colleagues didn't have to travel at their own expense, again to encourage them to stay with us. I committed to finding the headcount savings through natural attrition and to remain over establishment in the short term and absorb the cost to protect jobs.
A number of colleagues have chosen to take redundancy, as is their right. We have the correct amount of drivers for the work although we do require colleagues to learn routes they've not driven previously. This will take time but the local team are on it. In the short term we will cover the work using our standard processes.
This is the first weekday operation following the closure of a garage that has operated for more than 100 years. It will improve from here on in and we will grow back from this baseline.
To be very clear, I didn't want to shut Folkestone depot, remove routes, make people redundant. None of us did. This is another example of the human cost of a pandemic and economic crisis that no-one asked for, and we're all having to live with the consequences of.
The point you make about the roadside information is fair. Again, a constraint of the industry processes. We're not able to simply print what we register with the traffic commissioner. If we did, it would all be up by now. Frustratingly (but understandably), we have to deregister services before we can understand whether KCC want to tender the work that's not able to be run commercially. This has been the case with Folkestone. The good news is that we've ended up running much more than we originally registered with the traffic commissioner, protected with KCC funding support. The bad news is that the time this takes prevents the roadside information from being up to date from the go-live of the new timetable. My team advise me that all the roadside information in Folkestone and Hythe will be updated over the coming 4 weeks.
It's a complex problem with plenty of moving parts. I appreciate that you're after solutions rather than explanations, but I assure you we couldn't work any harder to try and get back on the front foot here. I can't over emphasise how close we've come to not being viable, so this has been a huge milestone for us and we will improve from here on in. I meant what I said about regrowing moving forward, but in the short term we will prioritise bedding in the massive change that's happened this weekend so that we can regain some of the trust that's understandably been lost.
Some fair points, from someone who clearly seems dedicated to bus services. However, some points I don't accept too. So, a reply to the reply...
I'm grateful for your frank reply Joel, and I appreciate the difficulties of the environment you are working in.
Trust me, as a business owner, employer, and Councillor, I see all the same frustrations each day in a range of different worlds. I get complexity. I also get delivery of service change. Sometimes it is done well. Sometimes it is not.
Given Stagecoach Group made a £44m profit last year, including a 6.5% return on outside London bus operations (up from 3.7% in 2021), it does seem that your business was recovering at least some ground https://www.stagecoachgroup.com/~/media/Files/S/Stagecoach-Group/Attachments/financial/agm/annual-report-2022.pdf There will always be new challenges, requirements to drive the business harder, and concentration on lower performing routes. However they really don't look on your public accounts reporting to be existential.
When you first met with Jim Martin a very few months ago he offered to work in partnership with you on a bus service usage promotion scheme. That might (might) have helped you recover some additional volume at least in the pass user market. We wanted to try that as an alternative to service cuts, and a relocation that was always going to cause massive short term and significant long term pain. I'm afraid I don't feel you gave that a chance.
I think it would be of help to you to issue some form of public statement regarding the below, urgently. You want trust to start to rebuild: so start here. Acknowledge today has been terrible, tomorrow won't be much better, and things will only start to come back on-line incrementally from there. And an apology to affected service users would also help.
I also think it would take little time to get at least some form of "there have been timetable changes - new timetables are coming, but until then check the website at..." message onto bus timetable boards, and doing it now. You could do more on stops where services have been withdrawn entirely. I have heard numerous instances today of people waiting for advertised buses that simply were never going to come. I get you have a statutory period to consult / react. However, so do we all, trust me. I also do a lot of emergency printing on 24 hour turnaround, and that's what you need here. 4 weeks?
I really hope you can turn this around. We need more people on more buses, and to do that we need to be able to rely on them. Today, that feels a long way away.