Congleton is a market town located in the South East corner of Cheshire with a population of approximately 27,000
Known as the Beartown due to that fact that the town’s bear, which was a major attraction at the town’s Wakes, in 1662, died suddenly just before the Wakes. It was essential to have a replacement bear straight away, and some money to be used to buy a new town bible was allocated to this. There is no evidence whether or not the bible was eventually bought but the memory lives on.
Bus services in Congleton
Since deregulation local bus services within Congleton have been abandoned by the big groups with various traditional independent operators providing a mix of commercial and contract services over the last 20 years.
Over the last ten or so years the services had settled to a mix of low quality commercial operation and low price supported services. It had long been felt that the town deserved and could support better services.
Route and branch review
Cheshire County Council are undertaking a Route & Branch review of all passenger transport provision across the County and Congleton’s turn came in early 2007. Such reviews had been implemented very successfully in other areas of the County in partnership with commercial operators.
We had concerns over the commercial viability of those elements of the network which did not receive subsidy so arranged to visit the operator providing these services in the context of the “Route & Branch Review” and to discuss the long term future of the services.
It was confirmed that the services were not really sustainable with returns insufficient to provide investment in newer more accessible vehicles. The services being run around and supported by a number of school contracts were seen as a public service to the people of the area in which the operator grew up rather than a commercially viable business.
It was agreed that in allowing the whole network to be considered as one the operator would get an opportunity to tender for it and earn a reasonable financial return and the travelling public would get an improved and sustainable service.
Having the go ahead to look at the whole town network we undertook extensive surveys and found there to be a mismatch between service provision and usage.
These surveys showed that a some areas were over provided for and that in other areas there was latent demand which could justify a higher level of service.
In replanning of the services we were able to match usage to frequency and also to provide a uniformed clockface timetable throughout the day.
Out to tender
Once the timetables and revised routes had been drawn up and agreed by the District Transport Liaison Committee we issued a tender for the network. In this we specified low floor accessible vehicles.
We did not insist on new vehicles as we did not want to force the cost up unnecessarily, feeling that the level of service, accessibility and reliability would provide the growth we hoped for. Due to the expected level of growth we only sought tenders on a Minimum Cost basis, where fares are credited to the County Council and they could reap the benefits of any improvements.
On receipt of tenders the contract was awarded to Bakerbus of Biddulph taking best value in to account as they had offered to provide new vehicles at small premium over the lowest tender offering second hand vehicles and had given some very positive and encouraging answers to the questions we had posed.
As we did not have the specialist marketing experience needed we engaged FWT to ensure a good brand image was developed and marketed. We found the strongest image connected with the town was that of the at this point Beartown Buses was born.
After the launch all services were provided free of charge for the week. As would be expected the week of free operation saw a significant increase in the level of patronage on the network (76 per cent) but more interesting was the second week of operation which showed an increase in passenger numbers of 45 per cent.
Fortunately these increases were not just due to the novelty value of having a modern reliable service with the last figures showing an increase of 98 per cent in passenger numbers and equally importantly a 62 per cent increase in on bus revenue. The previous operator had charged very low fares with a maximum 70p for an end to end journey of nearly 2.5 miles. Whilst we did not want to put people off using the new service we felt that the market could stand more than this so opted for a flat fare of £1.00, however significant discounts could be have been included with a day return at £1.50, Day ticket offering unlimited travel at £2.20 and a Ten Trip “Bearnanza” ticket at £6.00.
The week before the launch we arranged for 15,000 leaflets to be delivered to household within a reasonable distance of the new network. This was undertaken by the distribution team of the local paper at a very competitive price and was not undertaken as part of the paper delivery but as a separate exercise.
Whilst this scheme has been very successful we were always conscious of the need to bring in the scheme within our current budget. On reflection there were certainly areas where we could have offered more and contributed to the longer term sustainability of the services and to traffic reduction in the area had we had the benefit of Kickstart funding from Central Government.