Demands for council control, fare reductions and more radical solutions are gathering support in the face of First Bus' chaotic service, reports Nathan Street
Braving the misery of soaking rain and cold they know too well from their regular waits at the stop, well over 100 bus users demonstrated in central Bristol on Saturday at the beginning of what promises to be a serious campaign against the chaotic state of the bus services in Bristol and the surrounding areas.
The protest was initially called by local commuter Frankie Langeland having become fed up with the buses one too many times after being left to breast feed her baby at a bus stop when the return bus from the nursery didn’t turn up.
The spontaneous pitch of the protest captured the mood of the city who have had enough of First Bus, whose unreliable service has escalated into a crisis in recent months with shortages of hundreds of drivers leading to numerous buses cancelled or late each day and significant coverage in the local media. Despite all the service failings, First Bus have still had the audacity to recently put up many of the fares in the city by around 20 – 30%.
Since it was called, there have been a number of well-attended open organising meetings for the protest and the creation of online groups, a Take Control of Bristol’s Buses page and a major petition, gathering thousands in support. There seems an awareness in organising meetings that this is a campaign that needs a sustained mass effort.
Bristol’s Mayor and council have also found themselves subject to pressure to intervene, but they are yet to make any incisive political case aimed at central government changes to powers of local public transport ownership, and their only initiative as regards First Bus has been the controversial general levelling up of charges to a flat rate (with only a couple of long fares coming down in price).
On Saturday, a varied set of speakers given a platform at the rally included members of the Labour Party, a Local GP/member of Extinction Rebellion, a representative from PCS Union, a bus driver representative and the former TUSC and Green Party Mayoral candidates.
A Liberal Democrat speaker, former MP and Metro Mayor candidate Stephen Williams, called to adopt a council-controlled franchise system to find other private providers attempt to navigate Bristol traffic and to profiteer from the city's commuters. He was heckled by some in the crowd having ran a deceptive campaign that potentially contributed to a Labour loss in the Metro Mayoral election, a role which oversees local public transport and could help to change the current model.
The more radical calls from the platform emphasised a nationalised or publicly owned service and integrated campaigns beyond just a local campaign, a free bus service so as to reduce stoppage times and encourage travel, and the introduction of congestion charges for cars in the city centre. Some placards also highlighted the significant problem of air pollution in Bristol, and the wider issue of tackling climate change through expansion of public transport.
The current four demands agreed by the campaign are:
1An improvement to the working conditions of drivers, including the support they receive
2Demand council control of the buses, leading to nationalisation
3A reduction of fares, a fair price for Bristol
4A service that works - as promised in the current timetables
The campaign should hopefully continue and grow, but it is important that it stays both united and radical in its aims to help to be a force in getting a city the size of Bristol the public transport system it needs.
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