‘You should feel as guilty as hell’ - First bus chief confronted by angry passengers at open forum

The forum was attended by more than 120 passengers unhappy with changes to routes across the city

Regional bus chiefs came face-to-face with more than 120 angry passengers unhappy with imminent changes to routes across Bristol and surrounding areas.

Chaired by Metro Mayor Dan Norris, the question-and-answer session took place in a packed room at St Peter’s Methodist Church in Brislington.

The forum attracted so many people that it was standing room only by the time Mr Norris kicked off the meeting, flanked by Chris Hanson, operations director at First West of England and councillor Steve Hogg, a member for Highways and Transport at North Somerset Council.

Emotions are running so high across the city about the unreliability of the buses that the Mayor and his panel were never going to be given an easy ride by members of the public who feel let down by the service.

Mr Norris highlighted the problems faced with buses in the West of England, notably a shortage of drivers, a drop in passenger numbers and rising inflation.

On October 9, several Bristol bus services are being scrapped altogether or routes altered, meaning many local people will struggle to get to work, school and college, shops or doctor surgeries and hospitals.

The meeting in Brislington was packed with bus users putting across their views on local services

Many people speaking at the packed public meeting told of their experiences with buses not turning up, last minute cancellations and general unreliability.

First Bus chief Mr Hanson said: “We are 150 drivers short and we’re struggling to recruit staff and that means there have been short notice cancellations. I am truly sorry to everybody experiencing unreliability on the First Bus services.”

He went on to say that in an attempt to recruit more people as drivers, the company was looking at further ways to recruit people as drivers, including students, more women and also teaching people to drive as well as teaching people to speak English.

He said: “We’ve got thousands of students coming into the area so there’s a big opportunity there.

“We’re also going to teach people to drive a car as well as a bus and we’re going to teach people English who aren’t able to speak English proficiently enough to pass a theory test.

“We’re working with Bristol Women’s Voice to encourage more women to become drivers. Our female drivers currently account for 15%, which is rubbish, and we need to make that a lot better.

“I take it very seriously and I really want to apologise to every single person who has been let down by our buses because we haven’t got any drivers, we are taking this problem really seriously and I’m very sorry.”

Dozens of people at the meeting questioned the panel about the current bus services and the ones being cut next month.

Brislington resident Jeffrey Osborne told the panel that he was disabled with an artificial leg and that he was concerned about how he will manage when the number 36 bus no longer travels near his home.

Graham Morris, councillor for Stockwood, described the connectivity in south east Bristol as ‘the worst in the city’.

He said: “There are areas in Brislington and Stockwood that were very poorly served by buses before the changes come in. What you need is a complete review of the bus routes.

“Not everyone wants to go into town but people do want to go to Avonmeads, Imperial Park and South Bristol Community Hospital in Hengrove.”

There was standing room only for the bus forum chaired by Metro Mayor Dan Norris

Mr Norris said he has been promised around £660m from central government for ‘new and innovative ways of doing things’ but the money doesn’t start to arrive until April 2023.

He said: “I actually have money now to deal with some of the problems we’re talking about and the services affected but there simply aren’t enough drivers. It’s a difficult and frustrating problem.”

Brislington resident Malcolm Field, an ex-bus driver of 14 years, told the meeting that he is now totally reliant on public transport and, like other retired people, the cuts to the buses would be a further blow to the community.

He said: “What we’re looking at is the complete decimation of a community. We’re going to see the disintegration of quality of life.

“Local people who can’t get to local places. They can’t get to hospital, college, Imperial Park, Avonmeads, people in West Brislington can’t get to East Brislington - the list goes on.”

Mr Field told the First West chief: “You should feel as guilty as hell. What you’re denying people here is getting to the pharmacy and getting to the surgery. This is going to affect so many people.

“A neighbour of mine is 83 and walks with a tri-walker but is adamant she’s going to retain her independence. She can get to the end of the road but there are no buses now - what will she do now?

“The silence from some of our elected representatives and from Bristol City Council from the Mayor down is deafening. We don’t need meetings to arrange more meetings, we need something done and something done now.” That remark generated a huge round of applause in the room.

As the meeting drew to a close, Mr Norris reiterated that the driver shortage was the biggest problem facing the bus services and that recruitment was a priority as the winter sets in. He even asked people to spread the word about the vacancies.

“If you know anybody interested in driving, then tell them to get in touch,” said the Mayor. “We need to get any possible person who’s interested in driving, whether that’s women, people with disabilities, anybody.”

And there was also one glimmer of light for bus users when the Metro Mayor was asked if there were any plans for capped bus fares, as there are in other parts of the country.

“You’ll have to watch very carefully, that’s all I’m prepared to say,” smiled Mr Norris before leaving the church hall and heading to his car as other people went off to wait for their bus home.