26 February 2006

Soap Box Sunday

"A soapbox is a raised, improvised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. Alternately, the word may be used to describe the box that soap comes in." Wikipedia

There has been a lot mentioned locally about the new Great Western train franchise starting soon which has been awarded to First. Locally First have a very poor image mainly down to their First Devon & Cornwall bus operation, which, apart from a few 'showcase' routes with new buses running in partnership with local authorities seem to be very poorly run.

12:00 - 22 February 2006 (This is Plymouth)
Cornwall County Council has condemned cuts to rail services in the county announced by the First Group in its new Great Western Franchise timetable. The proposed cuts, which will come into effect in December, will have a devastating effect on rail services in Cornwall, said a county spokesman."First is proposing massive cuts to both rural and commuter services in Cornwall, which will cause major inconvenience to rail users and damage the local economy," he said.
12:00 - 22 February 2006 (This is Plymouth)
Proposals which would see the number of three-hour rail journeys between Plymouth and London slashed from four to one are to be challeged by the city council. Rail users, business leaders, and MPs have already criticised First Great Western's draft timetable, which is currently out for consultation.The council has now joined the campaign to overturn the plans, which would see the number of three-hour journeys drop to just one a day from December. The new timetable follows First Great Western's successful bid for the Greater Western rail franchise

Cornwalls attitude to First taking over is this:

We worked very successfully with Wessex Trains, who hand over their services to First on April 1, to improve rail services throughout the county. This resulted in a level of service which was well above the minimum requirement, with significant increases in the numbers of trains on branch lines, and a corresponding increase in passenger numbers – up 40% on the Newquay branch line, 21% on Falmouth and a 16% increase on the Looe line." "All this hard work has been destroyed by First who are proposing to run the bare minimum of services to meet the Government's specification."

The changeover to First for most of our train services is now viewed as a bad one by most passengers in the local area. They see what First have done to our buses and now see them doing the same to our local trains as well - even before they officially take over. It really makes you wonder how they dare still use the slogan "First Transforming Travel" when its use down here just makes people laugh (or cry?)

To be fair to First though, it does not all look like Firsts fault. There is an item from the Times which was sent to me by 'Busing' who runs the excellent Omnibus blog.

DOZENS of branch lines and stations are to lose up to half their trains as the Government looks to cut more than £1 billion in rail subsidies. The cuts are concentrated in the West Country but the Department for Transport is also considering reducing services on the South Coast and across northern England. Even those branch lines that have recently begun to show an upturn in usage, such as the scenic St Ives line in Cornwall, are to have their services reduced. Despite ministers publicly offering support for what they have labelled “community railways”, they have privately decided that many are too lightly used to justify their cost. Passenger groups fear that the cuts, the biggest since the Beeching closures of the 1960s, are a forerunner to widespread cuts after the next election.
Commuters into Plymouth will suffer the greatest loss of services under the draft timetable published this week by First Great Western and due to start in December.

On the Great Western cuts, it (Department for Transport) said that the train operator, First Group, was responsible for deciding “when exactly trains should run and where they should stop”. But First blamed the DfT, saying: “The department provides the specification and we have to meet it.”

We now seem to be in the situation where the Government is passing the buck to the train operator and the train operator is passing the buck to the Government. And in the middle? Yep - its the passengers who will see public transport even further reduced from its current poor state. This government is very good at promising lots and delivering very little. By passing public services on to private operators it can reduce government spending on services whilst the private operator gets the blame for the poorer service, but as long as they make big profits from it they dont shout too much either. With these cuts being very much focused on the Westcountry they are a long way from London so important people wont get upset. Would they dare make so many cuts in the South East - London commuter belt areas?

Whilst I am sure that a lot of this current situation is down to central government I am not letting First off the hook! The poor bus service offered by First down here in Devon & Cornwall is purely down to First Group HQ. Its well known that Cornwall in particular is never going to be a highly profitable operation. Its just not sort of area. It cant be the easiest place to run a bus service. But people only have to look around and see how smaller companies are stepping in and taking routes withdrawn by First and running them much better and a lot more reliably to see that a decent bus service can be provided - even in Cornwall. As First withdraw from more and more routes in Cornwall you would expect them to be able to provide better buses on the few remaining routes they do run. So far though there is no sign of this happening.

What amazes me is the poor level of service provided in Plymouth by FDC. They are withdrawing from routes, putting up fares, and still not able to run services reliably and with decent buses. Very soon they are taking over Park & Ride operations in Plymouth and have already upset the council by asking to increase the fares on that service. The council have said no! It remains to be seen how well First do on that one. Park & Ride travel is certainly going to be transformed...

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