Local press in Manchester have described what they call 'astonishing scenes' as the region's biggest bus operator First appeared before traffic commissioner Beverley Bell on Monday (6 February).
I'd previously blogged with the news that First Manchester had been summoned to appear before the commissioner after an investigation by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) last year into the company's time-keeping. You could sense that it was going to be difficult meeting.
But if a local reporter's version of the dialogue that took place at the hearing is accurate – and I have absolutely no reason to assume it isn't - then it would seem that the commissioner tore a row of hapless First directors to bits. I'm about to quote the interchanges just as they appeared in the Manchester Evening News, just to give you the full flavour of it all.
Firstly, it transpired that VOSA's inspectors had been monitoring more than 860 bus journeys in Eccles, Swinton, Worsley, Royton, Trafford and Stalybridge in January and February last year, and they discovered that some 26 per cent of those buses turned up either late or early.
As I explained last week, bus firms are required to ensure that 95 per cent of their services are no more than one minute early or five minutes late. Under section 155 of the Transport Act 2000 a traffic commissioner is allowed to impose a fine of up to £550 per vehicle on firms that fail to hit that 95 per cent target.
In mitigation, First explained that the company was operating in ‘difficult economic circumstances’ and they laid much of the blame for their poor time-keeping on roadworks. But this simply didn't wash with the commissioner.
“I don’t think I would be saying it’s difficult economic times if I made a profit of £14m,” she observed, pointedly.
“You are wasted in the bus industry. You should have gone into politics.”
Richard Soper, strategic development director north for First, admitted that services that were consistently unreliable would not survive. Ms Bell quickly - and forcibly - confirmed this.
“They damn well won’t survive,” she said. “Because I will take them off you.”
She asked the First directors when they thought action should be taken over late-running buses, and Mr Soper replied: “You should take action straight away.”
“That is a smooth answer, but it doesn’t answer my question,” retorted Ms Bell. “It is not a trick question. You’ve been running buses a very long time. You know you have a problem and when you haven’t. How long do you wait before you say we need to do something? You should be on Question Time, Mr Soper.”
He said: “It should be done in the shortest time. I am not trying to be evasive. I am trying to give you a straight answer.”
Asked why one particular service had not improved, the company's service delivery director Kenneth Poole, said: “They hadn’t got round to it.”
Ms Bell responsed: “So when I go out to get a bus, in the freezing fog, on my way to a doctor’s appointment, it is in the knowledge that First Group with £14m profits hasn’t got round to it.
“Were you not bothered about coming to a public inquiry and facing the wrath of the regulator? Don’t you think you should do something about it? This has been going on for a year. It is failing badly and you have done nothing about it.
“If you hadn’t got round to it when you are facing the regulator, when are you going to get round to it?”
The hearing was adjourned until March, no doubt much to First's relief. In the meantime, the company will be expected to produce a detailed schedule showing the punctuality of its services and a plan of action for dealing with those that were not on time. Ms Bell reckoned it should be more than sufficient time to get their act together, but I doubt if the directors at First will agree.
It's an astonishing show of force from a regional traffic commissioner who clearly is not to be messed with, but this is really quite serious for First. To begin with, they face fines of up to £550 per vehicle and given that they operate around 900 vehicles that is potentially a hefty fine by anyones standards.
Add to that the fact that the commissioner could indeed simply take away more than a quarter of the services they currently operate in Greater Manchester and, presumably, offer them to their rivals, you can see how their financial position could be seriously compromised.
I expect all the other bus operators under Ms Bell's purview will now be carefully scrutinising their own timesheets.
Interesting times in Manchester, then. Watch this space. In the meantime, you can read the full sorry tale as it appears in the Manchester Evening News right here: