'We are committed to developing reliable public transport', says First Bus chief

First West of England managing director Doug Claringbold (inset). One of the new low-emission double-decker buses. 

First West of England managing director Doug Claringbold (inset). One of the new low-emission double-decker buses. - Credit: FirstGroup/Archant

The managing director of First West of England has said he is 'committed to providing a reliable, clean and efficient' bus network across the South West.

Bus chief Doug Claringbold has maintained First Bus has the 'expertise, skills and knowledge to make the right decisions for passengers' amid criticism for axing services in North Somerset. 

Mr Claringbold also said recruitment in the industry is near an all time low, and suggests the damaging effects of Brexit and Covid has meant the business is struggling to maintain its services at current levels. 

Last month, First Bus announced massive changes to its network in Weston which included axing routes 2 (town centre - South Road), 4 (town centre - Bleadon), 5 (Worle - Holm Road) and 6 (town centre - Worlebury) from April 24.

In the plans the 7 and 3 routes - which service Worle, town and Haywood Village - will be temporarily reduced. As will the X8 between Nailsea and Bristol.

First West of England managing director Doug Claringbold.

First West of England managing director Doug Claringbold. - Credit: First Bus

Mr Claringbold said: "We never take these decisions lightly but we have to make sure these services are financially sustainable.

"All of us are genuinely sorry we have to do this but we have to make sure we have sufficient ability to run our more reliable routes.  

"First is absolutely committed to developing a public transport network, getting people out of cars and investing in communities, but to do that we need to run reliable, high quality services.

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"In Weston we're only getting around 70 per cent of our pre-Covid passenger numbers so it was decided that to avoid spreading our services so thin, some were needed to be cut."

READ MORE: North Somerset secures £47,000,000 to improve buses

The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK (CPT) has estimated there are over 4,000 vacancies for bus and coach drivers across the country at present.

First Bus will give people a chance to ride for free next week. 

First Bus will give people a chance to ride for free next week. - Credit: FirstGroup

"A combination of factors has made recruiting new drivers intensely challenging," Mr Claringbold added.

"We're looking to recruit people in the retail and hospitality industries and targeting those who may have never thought about a rewarding career as a driver. 

"It's all about flexibility in what we offer to staff. You can become a driver part-time whilst studying and let the job fit around your lifestyle.

"There is a bus out of Weston's depot seven days a week, 22 hours a day, so we really need to staff those hours.

"We're also seeing many people who left for HGV jobs come back to us after they found it wasn't as rewarding as they thought."

To apply for a job as a driver, visit the First Bus website at www.firstbus.co.uk/about-us/careers.

Mercury reporter Charlie Williams tried his hand at driving a double-decker bus.

Mercury reporter Charlie Williams tried his hand at driving a double-decker bus. - Credit: Archant

First West of England has also rolled-out its new fleet of 27 low-emission double-decker buses, which will hit the roads over the course of the next few weeks, as part of its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035.

Each bus cost around £250,000, taking the total spent on the new fleet almost £7million. 

READ MORE: Council searches for First Bus replacements

Mr Claringbold added First Bus is looking to recruit at open days and even driving days for the public to get a chance to learn how to drive a bus, saying 'it's not as daunting as people expect'.

Reporter for The Mercury, Charlie Williams, test out that claim and drove one of the new fleet. 

He said: "Once I performed my first lap, I soon got the hang of it - it's a lot more simple than you'd think."

Mercury reporter Charlie Williams tried his hand at driving a double-decker bus. 

Mercury reporter Charlie Williams tried his hand at driving a double-decker bus. - Credit: Archant

On public ownership, Mr Claringbold said: "I think it's a sterile debate.

"Rather than trying to create a model which cost millions to implement and create a huge bureaucracy in the process, First Bus is in a prime position to provide the excellent expertise on running a sustainable network.

"The longer that debate continues it distracts from where we can put better bus services and how can we encourage more people to actually use the buses - that way everyone wins.

"If we can get cars off the road and convert people to public transport, that’s surely a good thing - who owns the bus is irrelevant."