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80 All Out

80 All OutIn 'Bus Background' we gave the background to a story that has had villagers throughout rural Fylde hopping mad over Christmas.

The new No 80 Service registered to Classic Bus Northwest Limited suddenly stopped operating after only 11 days on the road, and over Christmas it caused havoc with the lives and transport arrangements of many folk in the rural Fylde.

We concluded 'Bus Background' by saying that the EU's financial standing test seemed chiefly designed to ensure the service operator has the money to be able to properly maintain the vehicles. There appears to be no formal requirement to assess the scale and resources of the company making the application to run a bus service.

So it is in the brave new world of de-regulated bus operations, it seems you can form a new company, buy - or maybe even lease - a bus or two, and provided you have capital of 7,400 for the first, and 4,100 for each subsequent each bus, and you aren't a person with inappropriate convictions, Ding Ding, its off you go.

We also said that - unlike the EU - *we* thought financial standing requirements for contracts to run a bus service should show that the company has funds in place (or a guarantee of funding availability) to operate for a period that extended at least to the value and term of the contract it is bidding to undertake. In short, we thought a license to operate a bus service upon which people depend should only be grated to businesses of substance.

We had a look at the business arrangements of Classic Bus North West Ltd, but found them a bit confusing to follow.

Classic Bus North West Limited was a company that was created in July 2011 and has Company No. 07716856. Its business category was "Other passenger land transport"

According to its website, it seems mostly to have operated old buses that could be hired for promotions or weddings and so on.

However, the form used to obtain quotations to hire its buses has a statement saying the company operating the buses is actually called "Oakwood Travel Services Ltd of Brinwell Road in Blackpool". That Company No. is 06002703 and it was incorporated in 2006. It is also classified as providing "Other passenger land transport"

But then, confusingly, the Classic Bus website - in a link that's not so easy to spot - it also says "Legal Notice. Name of Company: Totally Transport CIC" and gives its registered office as being "Off Burton Road 4, Blackpool FY2 9GJ" and having Company No. 06057334

We suspect CIC stands for Community Interest Company and, if it does, this company might actually be "Totally Transport Community Interest Company" of "Apt 11 Admiral Heights Queens Promenade Blackpool" The registration at Companies House shows this business to have Company Number 06057334, and it is categorised as "Maintenance and repair of motor vehicles" and "Other passenger land transport" It was incorporated seven years ago on 17 January 2007 and it appears to have an active proposal to strike it off.

Curiously, that same apartment number and address is also given on a page on the Insolvency Service's "Individual Insolvency Register"  where details of an Individual Voluntary Arrangement Dated 17 December 2012 are published.

Furthermore, another blog  shows a picture of a bus depot and says "The BusWorks was established in 2007 as a restoration and refurbishment centre for classic and modern buses. In a short space of time we have completed over 150+ projects and our portfolio of services offered continues to grow. "The BusWorks" is now a trading name and operated by Classic Bus North West Ltd."

By now we were very confused by a business that seems to have more names than you can shake a stick at.

Then the Gazette (13 Jan) quoted "Classic Bus boss Philip Higgs" saying that "that 16 jobs had been saved after a deal was struck with Oakwood Travel, of which he is a director."

Adding that "Oakwood Travel Services Ltd has acquired the goodwill and assets of Classic Bus North West in a pre-pack administration deal to protect jobs and bus services." and "The deal has meant 16 jobs have been protected and the only bus service casualty was route 80 following the surrender of the company's operating licence." and "Eight driving jobs were lost as a result and six jobs from the loss-making bus refurbishment side of the business."

The first of those statements seemed to us to say that jobs had been saved after he struck a deal with himself with a different hat on, but what do we know?

We find the linkages, the logic, and the arrangements in this matter are quite difficult to grasp.

However, whatever the interconnections are between these companies, it would seem that Classic Bus North West Ltd met the licensing criteria, and it was granted a license to register and operate a new service called Service No. 80 between Blackpool and Preston via Poulton and Great Eccleston by the Traffic Commissioners who regulate such matters, and decide who should be granted licenses to operate bus services.

This newly registered service was not allowed to be in competition with services that were subsidised by Lancashire County Council, (and, it would have been in such competition on the existing (subsidised) 80 and 82 services between Fleetwood and Preston via Poulton and Great Eccleston and which, depending on which number you caught, went via either Catforth or Woodplumpton).

That meant the 82 service had to be revised so it only operated between Fleetwood and Poulton. (In order to remove the subsidised 'competition' stretch of what had been its route).

In bus operator parlance - 'the introduction of the 80 service took that section of the 82 route commercial' (ie it ceased to operate as a subsidised service)

There were also changes to other services, notably the 75 and 76.

So the former 80 and 82 service was truncated, other services shifted around, and the new 'Classic Bus' service was given the opportunity to do the Blackpool - Preston via Poulton run on seven days a week, without competition from County Council subsidised bus services but *with* the County Council subsidising the Classic Bus evening and Sunday services between Poulton and Preston. (They didn't subsidise to Blackpool, probably because, administratively speaking, Blackpool - which is a Unitary Authority - isn't part of Lancashire).

We don't know how much 'due diligence' the County Council did on the need for this new service, (or on the ability of the operator to deliver it) before it decided this was a service it wanted to subsidise.

We also don't know the exact extent to which the County Council subsidised the former 82, 75 and 76 services. But, given the way the County is retrenching from providing public transport, we wouldn't be surprised to find the change wrought by the introduction of the No 80 meant it was costing them less overall. We heard it was 45,000 a year but haven't been able to confirm that.

Whatever the saving, it's likely they at least saved the money they were paying for the 82 daytime service on this section.

Having disrupted the other services to squeeze it in, The Classic Bus North West Ltd service began on 9th December.

Then simply gave up and stopped operating on Friday, 20 December after being there for only 11 days.

The operator terminated the service without giving the required 56 days notice to the Traffic Commissioner.

They also broke their contract with Lancashire County Council to provide an evening and Sunday service, (which required 12 week's notice).

It seems that LCC were left trying to figure out what to do, and the picture was worsened because it was not clear whether Classic Bus was going into administration or not.

We understand staff were terminated at almost no notice.

Blog Preston got a copy of the letter given to drivers announcing the firm was short of money. It said "the letter - dated Wednesday 18 December - states: "Due to persistent problems with late payments, I have decided to simplify the business over the next few weeks and from next week we will only operate service 22 on the Oakwood Travel Services licence. The Red Rocket and service 80 will cease to operate."

That's sad for the staff. It's also sad for their passengers who were left waiting at bus stops with no bus to pick them up. School trips, work journeys, medical appointments for many folk in the rural area simply dropped off the edge of the bus universe.

Even worse - because of the service disruptions to the other services (82, 75 and 76) which cleared the way for Classic Bus to operate - it meant that there too, passengers had been inconvenienced and had lost connections to the 80 service that was no more.

Classic Bus North West Ltd did go into administration on 31 December 2013, but the matter did not become public knowledge until 8th January 2014 when administrators were appointed.

Classic Bus North West Ltd's blog site says "On 18 December following consultation with the finance company that underwrites our VOSA financial standing and invoice discounting facilities, a decision was made for Classic Bus North West Ltd (CBNW Ltd) to suspend trading. The services being operated on the CBNW Ltd licence were therefore suspended, affecting services 80 (Blackpool - Poulton - Preston) and the Red Rocket Express (although the operation of this was going to be paused after Xmas).

The decision was taken against a background of increasing amounts owed to the business and losses on the bus refurbishment side of the business, affecting cash flow and our ability to keep pace with payroll obligations. Some staff have been laid off and it is likely that there will be redundancies."


The Bus and Coach Buyer website added that the statement had also said "The decision does not affect service 22, which operates on the Oakwood Travel licence, and we are now working closely with our principal stakeholders to develop a fresh and sustainable operation through Oakwood Travel Services Ltd.'

The B&CB website also said "The operator has terminated the 80 service without the required 56 days notice to the Traffic Commissioner. It has also broken its contract with the Council to provide an evening and Sunday service, which would require 12 week's notice. The service was scheduled to run seven days a week, with the county council subsidising evening and Sunday services between Poulton and Preston. Lancashire County Council announced its intention to inform the Traffic Commissioner of Classic Bus North West's actions."

Unhappy bunnies abound.

It's also becoming clear that the County Council is reluctant to restore the services to those that existed before the Classic Bus service 'muscled in' on the previously LCC subsidised daytime 80/82 service.

We're hearing arguments that they don't now have the money to do so, because they've snaffled what was there to take as 'savings' on this year's budget, and they're no longer prepared to subsidise anything they can get out of subsidising as far as evenings and weekends are concerned.

Worse, we're also hearing they have said that because the 11 day wonder bus 'took that route commercial', and the County's new policy is not to subsequently fund ANY route that goes commercial, they now oppose the restoration of subsidy in principle.

Using that logic, if you set up a commercial bus service that operates for just one day then gives up, it will mean LCC won't subsidise that route at all after that first day. That's plainly a nonsense.

Thanks to St Paul Hayhurst and the generosity of Elswick, Inskip and Great Eccleston residents through their quick acting Parish Councils, a temporary service was arranged as a stopgap bus service to get youngsters to school and so on.

We were then delighted to see that Archway Travel began undertaking a short term reduced service, and that will no doubt be welcome for the few weeks that they have said they will run it. Unfortunately, we suspect it won't run as a permanent arrangement without the restoration of the subsidy which the County Council appears reluctant to provide.

Frankly, it's a mess, and it needs sorting out.

We believe the County Council has at least a moral responsibility to restore the services to those which existed before the change. Their budget - at least to April - has not changed in real terms albeit they have presumed a level of savings.

More importantly, we believe the Traffic Commissioner needs to be held to account for granting permission for a service to be run by a company that was - de-facto - not of sufficient financial standing to operate it.

We argue that situation calls for nothing less than a Public Inquiry to restore confidence in the process by which operating licenses are allocated - and we believe those adversely affected by this debacle should call for one.

The Traffic Commissioners can call a formal public inquiry in a court to get more evidence to help them decide if they should:

  • grant or refuse licences for HGV or PSV operators
  • take action against a vehicle operator, bus service operator or driver of a bus, minibus or lorry

This might be if someone has objected to a licence being granted or the traffic commissioner thinks an operator may have broken the terms of their licence.

We think those badly affected by this debacle might want to ask her to hold a public inquiry. the contact details are:

The Traffic Commissioner for the North West
Beverley Bell
Suite 4
Stone Cross Place
Stone Cross Ln
Golborne
Warrington
WA3 2SH.
Tel 0300 123 9000
Beverley.bell@otc.gsi.gov.uk

Or if you prefer her main office is based in Leeds at

Office of the Traffic Commissioner (North West of England)
Hillcrest House,
386 Harehills Lane,
Leeds
LS9 6NF

Ultimately, the solution to the underlying malaise of this debacle - as with much of the trouble afflicting our society today - is to extricate ourselves from the constraints that prevent this country from running proper public services, and that means parting company with the organisation that imposes such constraints on us.

So, if we want to return to having bus *services* we can run for the benefit of our community - and not for the benefit of the EU - the path is clear.

The other articles in this bus trilogy are Bus Background and No Night Service

Dated:   16 January 2014


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