It is to be delivered in the form of four days’ free travel within the Exeter Plus ticket zone on the weekends of 10-11 and 17-18 December.
The commissioner also accepted an offer from the company to employ a new member of staff to maintain information displays and provide assistance at Exeter bus station, which Stagecoach said would cost £70,000 per year for two years.
He recorded this offer as a “statement of intent” from which the company could apply to be released “in due course if the circumstances support it.”
Devon County Council’s response to the commissioner’s decision was bland and predictable.
Conservative county councillor Andrea Davis, who co-ordinated the public complaints about the bus company and holds the transport brief at County Hall, said:
“We welcome the traffic commissioner’s decision and are grateful that they have listened to our concerns and those of Devon residents.
“We look forward to seeing an improved service offered by Stagecoach.”
Stagecoach South West said: “We deeply regret the level of service experienced by some of our passengers in recent months and we fully accept the decision of the Traffic Commissioner.
“Moving forward, our priority is to build on the extensive steps we have been taking to drive up the reliability of our services for our local communities.
“We are committed to working with our local authority partners to ensure these improvements continue and are sustained.”
Other reactions have been less benign. Barry West, RMT south west regional organiser, criticised the company’s employment contracts for new staff as “a backwards and retrograde step [that] will do nothing for staff retention”.
He also said that reductions in sick pay and annual holiday entitlements in the new contracts were paying for the £2,000 “welcome bonus” Stagecoach offers to new drivers who already hold Passenger Carrying Vehicle (PCV) licences.
Nor have bus passengers been persuaded that Stagecoach has been adequately punished for the service failings it has inflicted on them in recent years.
One member of the Exeter Area Bus Action Group said: “How is this going to make them improve the service? I would rather pay and have a bus that turns up when it is meant to thanks!”
Another said: “What about the people that buy weekly and monthly tickets? We aren’t gaining anything.”
Labour county councillor Marina Asvachin also said she was disappointed with the commissioner’s decision at an authority scrutiny meeting last week, describing the free weekend travel penalty as “atrocious”.
The decision may also penalise other operators who serve similar routes to Stagecoach on the two December weekends.
Since the end of October the Stagecoach service 5 route between Crediton and Exeter has also been served by Go-Devon services 315, 345 and 377.
Similarly, Okehampton to Exeter weekend service 6A is operated by Stagecoach on Saturdays and by Go-Cornwall on Sundays, while Dartline Saturday service 173 follows a similar route between Tedburn St Mary and Exeter.
Why pay to travel with Go-Devon, Go-Cornwall or Dartline when you can travel free with Stagecoach?
It is not clear why the traffic commissioner softened his stance after clearly signalling at the public inquiry hearing that the company’s offer of free travel was welcome but not enough.
Despite making clear that the starting point for a financial penalty in this case was between £170,800 and £234,850 he said that the company’s offer of free travel and an additional Exeter bus station staff member would “exceed the level of financial penalty I find to be appropriate”.
The commissioner nevertheless found grounds for severe criticism of the company. He said: “This is largely not a case of buses running more than one minute early or five minutes late. It is a case of buses not running at all.”
He also said: “It has taken until this summer for a really significant [pay] increase to be implemented. I accept that external funding has made budgeting difficult but progress has been unacceptably slow.”
He added that the company’s January 2022 claim that full staffing levels in Torbay and Plymouth would cover shortfalls in Barnstaple and Exeter “clearly proved not to be the case” leading to the withdrawal of more services, several at short notice.
He said: “The complaints provided by Devon County Council tell of workers being disciplined by their employers for being late for work, rent money being spent on taxis to work and important appointments being missed.
“There are complaints from parents and teachers about children not being able to get to school or waiting up to two hours for a bus to arrive.
“Some passengers with medical conditions complain of not being able to travel at all as they cannot trust a bus to arrive and cannot stand for long periods. A lack of information, even on the app, is cited by many.”
It is reasonable to assume that some negotiation took place. Did Stagecoach suggest that too costly a penalty would prompt it to cut commercial services – those run at the company’s discretion and not financed by the county council – to pay for the fine?
At the hearing Stagecoach said its driver shortage had been reduced to manageable levels and placed significant emphasis on the prospective benefits of its October timetable changes.
The commissioner’s report painted an optimistic picture, following several pay increases which he said “settled matters in Exeter”.
The experience of bus users during November suggests that matters are far from settled.
While the number of cancellations appears to have fallen, punctuality is still poor, short-notice cancellations still occur and real-time information provision is still erratic and misleading.
There is anecdotal evidence that drivers are still leaving the company, and the additional Exeter bus station staff member will be of no benefit to the many passengers who use local buses which do not stop at the station.
Stagecoach failed to respond to a request for comment on these observations.
Meanwhile Devon County Council is counting on the success of the new DevonBus Enhanced Partnership, which it describes as “an agreement between a local authority and local bus operators to work together to improve local bus services”.
Establishing this partnership is a prerequisite for further government funding under the Devon Bus Service Improvement Plan.
It will be managed by a board comprised of county council, bus operator and user representatives. Board meetings are to be held in private earlier, although minutes will be published after the fact.
A forum to channel the views of bus user groups to the board is also being established. Its membership will be drawn from established local user groups and its chair will be appointed to the board.
Its meetings will also be held behind closed doors despite the widespread public interest in these matters.