First plans for a cashless future in Bristol

Having simplified its fares structure in Bristol, First is now concentrating on speeding up boarding by offering alternative ways to pay.

Giving his opening address as this year’s president of the Omnibus Society, First West of England managing director James Freeman revealed a plan to eliminate on-board cash collection by 2018/19 and showed a video in which a volunteer busload took 10min 25sec to board using cash, but only 2min 30sec when using mobile tickets.

Last October, it raised cash fares to be 20p dearer than the mobile equivalent, which overnight lifted the proportion of passengers boarding using m-tickets from 10% to 20%. A contactless card trial introduced on park-&- ride routes in January this year saw a take-up of 10% in the first week. The cash premium will be increased to 50p in April.

This followed First’s earlier decision, led by First Bus MD Giles Fearnley, to introduce substantial fare cuts, which have generated 25% more passengers in a city where Freeman says First hitherto had a ‘septic reputation’. That reputation is being turned round by encouraging staff to think better of themselves, with positive results on customer relations.

These measures all support the £100million investment in the Greater Bristol Bus Network, a partnership with Bristol City Council that has seen First add 100 new buses over 18 months, with the rest spent on infrastructure to give buses better priority on the road.

However, Freeman admits that the growing number of passengers is adding to service unreliability, as dwell times at stops are increasing. Congestion in the city also has a huge impact on timekeeping, with traffic commissioner Sarah Bell holding a public inquiry into reliability figures of under 80%.

Freeman praised the city council for the evidence that it provided, which showed that it is impossible in the city’s traffic to operate within the commissioner’s usual 5min window of tolerance. That led Bell to conclude to take no action against First.

■ The Competition & Markets Authority is to review the undertakings covering FirstGroup and local authority tendered services following the 1989 merger of Badgerline and Midland Red West Holdings, which owned the City Line business in Bristol.