Give us a fair deal say rival bus bosses

ALL LINED UP: Blackpool's heritage buses on display
ALL LINED UP: Blackpool's heritage buses on display
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All’s fair in love and war but Blackpool’s battle of the buses has taken a turn for the worse for a new operator in town.

All’s fair in love and war but Blackpool’s battle of the buses has taken a turn for the worse for a new operator in town.

ClassicBus North West, which operates refurbished and re-engineered London buses along the seafront seasonally, and a new Catch 22 service all year, claims it is owed £28,000 by Blackpool Council for NOW concessionary pass using 
passengers .

The local authority withheld the payment after surveyors boarded ClassicBus NW services to check passenger usage over a week in August.

ClassicBus NW chief Phil Higgs says inspectors came up with a figure roughly half that claimed by his company.

He adds: “We’ve had an interim payment but are owed £28,000. If we don’t get it we will take the local authority to court. The debt equates to 24,560 journeys or passengers.

“We get £1.14 reimbursement from the council per concessionary passenger. We carried more than 120,000 passengers in summer – including concessions. Blackpool Council is 
effectively telling us almost 25,000 journeys never happened.”

Mr Higgs formerly worked as a transport consultant who reviewed Blackpool bus services about 10 years ago – cutting the service he has just revived.

Catch 22 is the old No 22 route, a 55-minute 13 mile service from Cleveleys to Mereside, flat fare £2, £1 for smaller hops.

Mr Higgs now heads ClassicBus NW, trading arm of Lancastrian Transport Trust, a Marton charity which owns 20 heritage buses and trams - including some at Blackpool Transport’s Rigby Road depot.

“Blackpool Council voted to charge us £1,000 a month storage for trams at a time when charity donations had plummeted in recession,” adds Mr Higgs.

“It doubled our costs so we decided to raise the money through the bus company, registered in July last year, and legally separate from the charity. It helps support the charity by operating bus services.

“Blackpool Transport has the monopoly locally although Stagecoach operates in the area too.

“But we introduced seven classic London Routemaster buses and open toppers along the Promenade. We’ve got an operator’s licence so registered the service with Traffic Commissioners and gave notice of the service. Our seafront service ends when the Lights season finishes and starts again in Easter.

“We have also revived a service route I reviewed about 10 years ago - the old No 22 service dated back to about 1936.

“I cut the 22 and 22a as other services could cope but some links were lost. Some areas still don’t have buses. We call it Catch 22 because it’s popular with older passengers and students as it passes six out of Blackpool’s eight high schools and a college.

“Now we’re looking at two other routes along with college contracts and under 18s discounts.”

ClassicBus NW has created 11 full-time jobs and summer season employment for four bus conductors.

Mr Higgs adds: “When I worked in transport consultancy I managed concessionary fare reimbursement payments for local authorities such as Surrey and Northumberland. In Surrey’s case I managed payments of over £8m per annum dealing with 11 districts and 34 bus operators and never experienced the issues I now face as a bus operator in Blackpool.

“I fully understand the need to be accountable with public money, but sampling a tiny percentage of our journeys and paying us on the basis this is representative will not stand up to independent scrutiny in court.

“They say our data is wrong, their surveys are right, yet we have electronic ticket machines recording journeys, everyone issued with a ticket. Bigger operators use Smart Ticket machines which download data direct via electronic chip but we were told we were too small an operator to use these. We’re now being penalised. Blackpool Council needs to accept there’s a new operator in town and we deserve a fair deal.”

John Donnellon, Blackpool Council’s services director, responds: “The council participates in the concessionary fares scheme operated by Lancashire County Council, both on buses and the majority of tramway services, so residents and visitors receive maximum benefit in travelling on public transport in Blackpool.

“To protect public money properly, we must put in place checks to find out how often these concessionary fares have been used.

“Major operators find electronic scanning of NOW cards a convenient and accountable method provided they make the up front investment in ticketing machines. Where claims are based on an operator estimate the council use sample surveys to verify the claim.

“Without checks, the system could be open to abuse, costing tax payers extra money. We’ve found a few machines ClassicBus can use to do electronic monitoring if they want to hire them.

“If they justify claims about the number of concessionary passengers, we would be willing to revisit the figure paid, and which has been paid previously.”