By Joe Ventre, digital campaign manager
In March 2020, a vehicle dealership in Hounslow, London posted an unusual listing on their website. At 61 feet long, with 38 seats and a pivoting joint in its midriff, this colossus is none other than an articulated bus - more commonly known as a “bendy” bus. With the words “Swansea Unibus” inscribed on its side, this particular vehicle is a long way from home. Only three years prior, this very bus could be seen (albeit always near-empty) carting students back-and-forth along Swansea bay. How then did it come to pass that after only eight years in operation, the ten-strong fleet would find themselves put out to pasture? The answer is all too common these days: council incompetence.
At the dawn of the millennium, Swansea council planners observed that the volume of traffic in the city was increasing exponentially; and sought a solution to persuade local residents to leave their cars at home. As Ronald Reagan once said - “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help."
After scrapping plans to reintroduce a tram system to the city, the green-light was given to a fleet of articulated buses - similar to those introduced in London. The then council leader of Swansea Chris Holley proclaimed the idea “a terrific project that aimed to create a real alternative in the city to the car.”
Years of planning ensued, and with the fleet procured by First Cymru, the council set about the arduous task of reconfiguring the road systems to accommodate these gargantuan vehicles. What followed would be two years of disruption to the city centre that some businesses would simply never recover from - at the cost of an eye-watering £14 million to local taxpayers. Nigel Cole, a director of the beloved (now sadly closed) store JT Morgan was quoted as saying “the roadworks crucified us overnight”.¹
The seemingly never-ending roadworks and subsequent changes brought about the ire of Swansea residents. Before the buses had even driven their first mile, they were more often than not referred to as “bloody bendy buses” - or worse.
When the fleet finally hit the tarmac in 2009, the shiny, air-conditioned buses were initially well received. The excitement of these somewhat sci-fi-esque contraptions soon waned however, and their popularity would follow suit. The much heralded bendy buses soon became the butt of jokes - their emptiness only exacerbated by their ridiculous length.
After only six years, the fleet was retired from regular service, with First Cymru blaming running costs. Fuel consumption and other burdens aside, the buses’ case was also marred by two separate tragic incidents where pedestrians were killed on a road in the city centre. Swansea’s senior coroner would later condemn the “counter-intuitive” road layout as part of an inquest.
With the buses sitting idle and £14 million of taxpayer money down the drain, the city centre road system would again face reconfiguration - at the further cost of £1.6 million - and work is still ongoing. Current Swansea council leader Rob Stewart has been quoted as calling the bendy bus debacle “one of the worst schemes ever”.
The plight of these vehicles has been no less stark across the country. In London, claims of the buses being dangerous, too big for roads and accommodating for fare-dodgers led to the then London Mayor Boris Johnson scrapping the fleet in 2011 - famously branding them “cumbersome machines”. At the time, Transport for London predicted it would increase its income by £7.4 million thanks to fare-evasion becoming harder on regular buses.² The following year, the TPA would celebrate Bristol City Council’s decision to abandon plans to use the buses on the city’s rapid transit routes.
At the time of this piece being published, despite being listed at a fraction of its original value, this artefact of council incompetence remains unsold. Let’s hope other councils steer well away from these sort of omnishambles, and remember their duty never to risk taxpayers’ money in this way again.