Bus watchdog investigates Stagecoach Devon

The bus industry regulator is investigating complaints about the reliability of Stagecoach Devon services and has been told public confidence in the operator is at an all-time low due to its ‘dire’ customer service and handling of complaints.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

The Traffic Commissioner has already held a hearing into concerns about cancellations and short-notice service changes. But a second session is now being planned after new concerns were raised by Devon County Council. The councillor in charge of public transport told the Commissioner passengers were angry about the company’s “failing” customer service.

Cllr Andrea Davis warned that changes to schedules in August amounted to service cuts, mostly in Exeter. She added that she feared that “even after these reductions, there will still not be sufficient driver resource in the Exeter depot which is likely to result in continued lost mileage.”

The councillor said she was writing a follow-up letter after the Exeter Highways Committee concluded in April that the service in Exeter was “not fit for purpose”. She told the Commissioner: “Lost mileage is still apparent and the communication of lost journeys and response to customer complaints and enquiries is dire.”

Cllr Davis added that “customer confidence in Stagecoach has never been lower, the public are angry – and I do not blame them! The customer service response from Stagecoach is failing and usually non-existent, and if you do get through to someone, they are located in Scotland with little or no knowledge of the local network.”

The second letter from Cllr Davis to the Commissioner followed a report on Devon bus services to the council’s Cabinet in July. She said “the situation has got worse rather than better” and alleged that the authority had seen no evidence of improvements claimed by the company.

Her letter also complained about local services being hit by drivers being switched to large events, giving the example of a concert at Powderham Castle and the Teignmouth Air Show. She told the Commissioner that on the day of the events “the level of failure on regular services increased substantially”.

Cllr Davis said that had led to the council deciding to no longer approve short-notice route applications. She concluded that change was needed to prevent planned improvements being “negated by the negative situation Stagecoach have forced us into here in Devon.”

Stagecoach responded that bus operators across the country are facing challenges including a skills shortage and the ongoing effect of the pandemic. A spokesperson apologised for the impact on customers and said the company was committed to working with the Traffic Commissioner on its recovery plans.

In a letter to the West of England Traffic Commissioner Kevin Rooney in June, Cllr Davis warned that services had got worse since the previous autumn which was the focus of his initial investigation. Her letter followed a meeting in April of the Exeter Highways Committee which concluded that the bus service in Exeter and its travel to work area was “currently not fit for purpose”. The committee blamed service cuts, cancellations without notice, lack of real-time information, lack of zero-emission buses, the “disappointing” level of government funding, and the driver shortage.

Cllr Davis acknowledged that bus operators had faced “a challenging couple of years” due to the pandemic. She said Stagecoach Devon was facing a “severe” shortage of drivers affecting reliability and the confidence of customers. The councillor said the authority’s transport team was working with the operator to ensure a “sustainable network” would be in place when extra government funding ended in October. She said that there was “a lack of up to date, accurate information being available” to passengers about service changes.

A Stagecoach South West spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities to deliver reliable and attractive bus services to our local communities very seriously. However, bus operators across the country are facing a difficult environment, with skills shortages affecting many sectors of the economy as well as the continuing overhang from the pandemic and other challenges impacting the delivery of local bus networks to normal high standards. We are sorry for the impact these factors, several of which are outside our control, are having on our customers. We remain absolutely committed to working constructively with the Traffic Commissioner as we progress our recovery plans.”

Earlier this week Stagecoach announced changes to its timetable across a network covering Plymouth and South Devon to build a “sustainable bus network” to meet the changing needs of customers. It said there had been changes in travel patterns following the Covid-19 pandemic, and the aim was to attract more passengers in the long term.

Since March 2020 buses have been supported by central Government funding to maintain essential services due to the impact of the reduction in passenger numbers because of the pandemic. The latest round of financial support is due to run out at the end of September. The Government has announced a two-year Bus Service Improvement grant for Devon of £9million capital and £5million revenue, way short of the £34million revenue funding requested.

Under the 1985 Transport Act, bus operators state which services they wish to run on a commercial basis, including timetables, routes, and fares. The Local Transport Authority’s role is to look at where services are not provided commercially and tender routes deemed an essential social need.

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