The Sutton Bonington (SB) hopper bus service, which cost the University just under £1m this year, has come under fire from University of Nottingham students and staff. The University has been accused of threatening student safety and academic study in order to cut the costs of the bus service.
Impact conducted a survey of 119 SB hopper bus users to investigate UoN staff and students’ accusations against the University.
One student maintained that the SB hopper bus service “was always mentioned as a selling point to outweigh the isolated nature of SB”, while another said, “I was assured by staff and students at the University that there was a very good bus system that would ensure that we could make the most of the city without disturbing work”.
Although the hopper bus is advertised to arrive every 30 minutes, 78% of those surveyed by Impact said they had to wait 30 minutes and 45 minutes after the allocated time for the bus. 25 students said they had to wait over an hour for the service.
DELAYS PUT STUDENTS IN DANGER
The School of Veterinary Medicine and Science sent out an email dated 25th October 2013, after three men approached a student and asked them twice to get in their car. A second email was sent a month later by the School of Bio-Sciences dated 19th November 2013, which again warned students against walking to and from Kegworth as another UoN student had been asked by a man to get in his car, following the student down the road when they refused.
“There have recently been several attacks and one attempted rape, but I have been forced to take this route many times because of bad bus services”.
Currently, the 17:10 and 17:40 buses are the only evening buses from University Park that drop off in Kegworth (there is no 17.40 bus during non-term time) and 106 students admitted to Impact that they would not feel safe walking home alone if there was no SB hopper bus. One respondent commented: “There have recently been several attacks and one attempted rape, but I have been forced to take this route many times because of bad bus services and no alternative way home”.
Another expressed concern that Station Road was an unlit and narrow road. There have also been reports of attempted muggings in and around Kegworth. One student recalled: “My friend was pushed into a bush and attacked in Kegworth”.
Two offences took place on or near Station Road in October 2013; one of which was a sexual and violence offence.
In terms of reported incidents in and around Kegworth in October 2013, the Leicestershire Police logged a sexual and violence offence on or near The Croft, one on or near Jeffares Close, one on or near the Sports/recreation area and on or near Thomas Road. Two offences took place on or near Station Road in October 2013; one of which was a sexual and violence offence.
UON OVER BUDGET BY HALF A MILLION POUNDS
In previous years, UoN has spent an average of £860,000 per year on the University hopper buses with over £400,000 allocated to the SB hopper bus service.
The bus company that UoN were contracted with originally went bust in January 2013. The University therefore had to find another bus company to take over the hopper bus service within the space of a couple of weeks. As a result, UoN went over-budget by £500,000 as it sought to bring in a bus company which could run the published timetable.
UoN went over-budget by £500,000.
Chris Jagger, UoN Head of Estates and Facilities, told Impact that the University then “tendered the hopper bus service in the summer to be effective from 14th January 2014. The bus company providing the interim service from January was one of the tenderers, but was not successful. So in September 2013, with two weeks’ notice to the University, they withdrew the service, which took us all by surprise”.
Jagger confirmed that the University did not have any “contractual framework” with the interim company and therefore it could not “stop them from withdrawing”.
Jagger also commented that people need to be more understanding about the effects of the traffic caused by the roadworks on the A453 and the tram works. He added, that he thinks that everyone has been surprised about how much they have affected getting in and out of Nottingham.
However one SB hopper bus user, who wished to remain anonymous, told Impact: “We are aware of the road works happening, but even then we are not able to get first-hand information on the status of the bus and we sometimes have to wait for up to two hours. This is totally unreasonable”.
“We’re already way over-budget; we cannot offer any more services”.
Impact’s survey revealed that 96 students said that the journey to and from SB averaged between 30 and 45 minutes once they got on the bus. This is not significantly more than the University’s advertised average journey time of 30 minutes.
This would suggest that the delays could be rectified by introducing more buses on the route.
However Impact has learned that the University is unable to spend more on the service, having lost over half a million pounds on the SB hopper bus service since January 2013.
Jagger also noted that UoN cannot afford any more buses to deal with overcrowding at peak times: “We’re already way over-budget; we cannot offer any more services. When the [relevant representatives] set the timetable, they used the entire budget up”.
“There was a huge bang and the bus lowered”
In order to prevent overcrowding, Jagger said that the University has therefore been unable to advertise for a reduced bus service.
However 77 students claim that the delays already lead to overcrowding. One student commented that they had been on the bus twice when people had vomited, making the overcrowded conditions even more unpleasant for passengers.
There were “three bus loads of people” on a single decker bus.
Another said that they had experienced “three bus loads of people” on a single decker bus.
Impact also learned that one bus collapsed seemingly under the weight of the passengers: “There was a huge bang and the bus lowered, but continued driving”.
DAMAGE TO LEARNING
101 students surveyed by Impact had been late for a lecture, seminar, meeting, an exam and/or another commitment, due to the SB hopper bus service. 87 felt that their academic study had been affected by the inefficiency of the SB hopper bus service.
One student commented: “It is affecting our work plans and efficiency”. Another said: “I would not have started my studies here if I knew how bad it is”.
In an email shown exclusively to Impact, one professor complained that two thirds of his students were unable to attend his lectures as a result of the poor service. For at least three weeks, a large number of students had arrived up to 40 minutes late for the relevant 9am lecture. They also maintained that the issues with the hopper bus service were not new and that the University had failed to properly deal with these issues.
“Projects are suffering because they do not want to deal with [the buses] anymore”.
One student said they “regularly have to cancel experiments”, whilst another said: “I have missed the start of several lectures and meetings due to the hopper bus not turning up”.
Others mentioned that they have avoided subjects on University Park or SB due to the unreliability of the service.
A post-doctorate student stated that their colleagues “projects are suffering because they do not want to deal with [the buses] anymore”.
Students have also complained that drivers know very little about the services that they are running.
One student asked a driver, “Is this the 5.15 service? Because that it is the one that stops at Kegworth”. To which the driver responded, that they needed to stop asking “silly questions” and were sick of people like them “making him late”.
38 students experienced verbal aggression from drivers.
Only 11 students surveyed found bus drivers to be helpful, 38 students found them to be neither helpful nor unhelpful, whereas 69 claimed that they were unhelpful.
38 students experienced verbal aggression from drivers. One student noted: “The driver was very rude when I asked if they could wait for my friend on crutches”.
Drivers have also been accused of dangerous driving by 48 students.
UON DELAYS IN TACKLING COMPLAINTS
Students have posted complaints on the official SB Hopper Bus complaints page, which was set up on 25th September 2013.
The first official complaint was posted in the University Hopper Bus group on 4th October 2013. This complaint was not replied to until 25th October 2013. Complaints continued throughout the next two months via Facebook, phone and email.
Complaints were deleted from the official Facebook page.
Jagger commented that the University has “no issues at all about the students’ voices being communicated and I fully accept many of the benefits of social media sites in doing so”.
Six students also told Impact that their complaints were deleted from the official Facebook page.
As a result, students felt that their concerns were not being addressed by the University. This led to the creation of an unofficial Facebook page for complaints, which now has 364 likes.
“I am extremely disappointed with UoN for ignoring legitimate complaints”.
The group was set up by a post-graduate fellow, who told Impact that the failure to acknowledge the poor service of the SB hopper bus was because the University “realised that prospective students will look at it… I am extremely disappointed with UoN for ignoring legitimate complaints and refusing to work towards solutions”.
Jagger responded to a complaint from the admin of the unofficial Facebook group about the SB hopper bus service in an email on 22nd November 2013. He said: “It is not in the interests of all other users or the potential carrying capacity of the hopper bus service to amend the timetable to accommodate the sporadic delays we are encountering”.
“The free hopper bus is provided for inter campus connectivity and not to guarantee transportation”.
He added: “The free hopper bus is provided for inter campus connectivity and not to guarantee transportation for any particular groups of staff or students. There are two buses running continuously between SB and University Park and we are content that the bus company is doing its best to get as many journeys in as possible when they are unable to keep to the timetable”.
Jagger then made a formal request for the unofficial Facebook group to be ‘decommissioned’ and outlined that he did “not want to be in a position… to have to revisit this issue formally”.
The University explains that the reason why they wished for the Facebook page to be decommissioned was due to it displaying private email exchanges between the University and the admin, as well as “the way the site looked, the confusion that it created with the official Facebook site which the bus company operated and the potential confusion with the use of the UoN’s logo as to whether it was the University’s official site”. The admin of the group has since stepped down.
THE UNIVERSITY RESPONDS
On 28th November 2013, a meeting was organised at 9am with Chris Jagger and Emma Kemp, UoN Senior Environment Officer, on SB Campus.
Despite complaints having been made at the beginning of October, this was the first arranged meeting to discuss the issues with the SB hopper bus service. 75 respondents surveyed by Impact were aware of this meeting, 48 were not and only five were able to attend.
One student commented: “I don’t see the need to make complaints about the service because the Head of Estates and Facilities [Chris Jagger] will only dismiss it and blame everything on the tram works and traffic”.
Jagger told Impact: “The timetable has been set by a group representing all the interests [of the users]. I have to stress that I am very hesitant to just knee-jerk and change things on a week to week basis, based on what is always going to be minority representation”.
Following the meeting, a new timetable was nevertheless drawn up and started on Monday 2nd December 2013 following “a general consensus that it would be good to try and focus on the bus services at the beginning and at the end of the day”.
This amendment means that there are fewer services in the afternoon, to allow for a ‘catch-up’ period, where bus drivers can recover from delays which have been accumulated over the day and therefore ensure that the evening services are on time. Jagger hoped that this would also guarantee the 5.15 services which go to Kegworth after concerns have been expressed about “it being dark at night and a couple of people being approached”.
The out of term timetable will resume from Monday 16th December 2013.
The University has also promised that security will put up posters about the delays at the bus stops. To remove the issue of confusion in bus timetabling, numbers will be put on the buses and the timetable accordingly so people are not “confused about which bus is the next bus”.
82% of respondents surveyed by Impact felt that the University had not addressed the issue.
55% said overcrowding had increased following the changes and 88% commented that they were concerned about how well the SB hopper bus service will run from January 2014.
In a second Impact survey, about half of respondents said that the SB hopper bus service had got better since the revised timetable was enforced on Monday 2ndDecember, and about half said it had not. 55% said overcrowding had increased following the changes and 88% commented that they were concerned about how well the SB hopper bus service will run from January 2014.
The University was forced to approach the company that had made the successful tender – Nottingham City Transport (NCT)/Barton – for the service from January 2014 onwards, and ask them “to accelerate their plans and see if they could take over with literally a couple of weeks’ notice”.
NCT/Barton did, however, explain to the University that they would be unable to offer the hopper bus service that they had promised in the tender until 14th January 2014. The company agreed to “try to help [the University] out and try to run to the published timetable, but it is meant that they have had to subcontract buses and drives from other companies so again that’s provided us with a few weaknesses in terms of being able to maintain the higher standards of conduct”.
Jagger promises that the SB hopper bus service will improve from 14th January 2014 when NCT/Barton will officially take over, providing new buses equipped with Wi-Fi as well as digitalised timetabling displays, which will ensure that the University is notified in advance if the bus is running late – provisions which were “all built into the tender”.
The University confirms that it will improve the complaints and timetabling process, as well as monitor services through a series of meetings and reviews next year, including a separate meeting just for dealing with the SB hopper bus service.
Dave Cordell, SU Community Officer, told Impact: “‘The Students’ Union has been collating feedback on any hopper bus issues we have received through official channels and through our officers. We take our members’ comments very seriously and are working closely with the University to resolve concerns. I would ask any students who have issues with the buses to let us know so we can make sure that we can represent them to the appropriate people who can solve these problems”.
Kateryna Rolle and Emily Tripp
Additional research: Beth Rowland, Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu and Penniana Permal
Photo: Matt Buck (Flickr)