Picture the scene: it’s another day and another long and tedious wait at the bus stop. You’re cold, soaking wet and wishing you had spent the last of your student loan on a warm winter coat rather than that extra round at the pub last night. The Ulink you were expecting didn’t show and the next one is ten minutes late, despite only being a few metres away. Staff and students alike are cursing under their breath as they watch a group of bus drivers laugh and joke inside the warmth of the red and white bus, smoking, chatting and reading the paper.

 

When the drivers eventually disperse to their own buses, students begin to prowl around the bus stops like circling hyenas, watching intently as the sign on the bus changes – are you going to get lucky? Is your number going to come up?

 

The lucky ones breathe a sigh of relief and move towards the curb. Several curse the buses, the drivers, the University and public transport in general, threatening to change sides and pledge allegiance to First buses. Naturally there is a large crowd of people waiting to get on this bus and a very uncivilised game of push and shove happens as soon as the bus approaches, with students practically crowd surfing to claim their seat. Sound familiar?

 

To say I’ve been there, done that and got the t-shirt is an understatement. But while I too stand around cursing Steve Ward, Mother Nature and the rare, blink and you’ll miss it U3, I don’t once think about trading my Ulink pass for a First pass. Why? Because Ulink is better than First. Controversial as it may seem, I genuinely believe students are better off with Ulink and to demonstrate this I have provided a brief history lesson…

 

The FirstGroup, initially called FirstBus was created in 1995 to bring together a collective of transport services including buses and trains. It is now the largest service provider of buses in Britain, dominating the transport industry as well as operating in several other countries. Over the years the buses have become run down, the drivers ruder and the prices have risen.

 

On many occasions over the years students have threatened to boycott First due to the high rise in ticket pricing and the need for a better service. Demonstrations have also been popular and there are now several websites and Facebook groups dedicated to the hatred of these buses, several of which have been created by UWE students. In 1996 the SU successfully campaigned for student fares on First buses.

 

In summer 2008 First got rid of their popular and student friendly 99 and x84 routes. In the past First have blamed traffic congestion and the four year development of Cabot Circus for their poor timekeeping. Fares vary drastically depending on the driver (a single from Frenchay to Cheltenham Road has cost me anywhere between £2.20 to £2.80 in the space of two weeks) but the price for an all day student ticket currently stands at £3.20 with a valid NUS card.

 

Run by Wessex Connect, the introduction of the Ulink buses in September 2007 was initially fraught with complications but additional services were added and although crowded, the new, low emission buses were cheaper and the drivers arguably more friendly than the tatty, expensive and rude First buses. A U5 route was added when First withdrew their popular, if slightly unreliable 99 service.

 

Demand for the service grew and despite promises to iron out the problems, this September the Ulink services seemed to have gotten worse, with poor timetabling and severe over crowding. Ulink complaint groups have sprung up on the ever popular Facebook, giving people a place to vent their frustrations at late and inadequate services. Travel plans and timetabling adjustments have been made to increase the frequency of each service and currently an all day ticket costs £2.50.

 

History lessons aside, the Ulink, for all its faults, is still in its very early stages. It was created for us by the University to provide a better service for students – a direct result of the appalling service (or lack of) offered by First. Over the summer a single fare was reduced to just £1 to encourage users and, if anything, the service has become a victim of its own success.

 

There are still many problems within the service but the University, SU and Wessex Connect are listening to students and trying correct their faults to make Ulink the best it can be, acting as an underdog in a overly dominated First world. While Ulink strives to better itself, First seem to be heading in the opposite direction as their quality of service slips and they do little to listen to the concerns of their passengers, often pocketing the difference they make in dodgy ticket sales.

 

Perhaps First will reform and change their ways and in another years time there will be an article on these pages singing their praises. But until that time where, if you look very carefully, you will also see pigs flying in the sky and the abolition of all tuition fees, I’ll be keeping hold of my red bus pass and looking longingly into the distance for that damn U3.