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Friday, 22 March 2019

The Future Of Rural PublicTransport Is......

Autonomous pods, apparently.  Yes, I was surprised too, but that's what we were told at a consultation meeting today in Beccles, where representatives from Suffolk County Council's Public Transport team came to meet with the peasants of the land to discuss the future of Rural Public Transport.

Delegates present included yours truly, the Mayor of Bungay, and a lady who confessed to not having used public transport for over 50 years. I don't think she was a Go Ahead director.... There were also people from Snape and Mutford, who like my village have no bus service at all, were looking for answers and a glimmer of hope. Joining the Council team were managers from BACT and CATS, who provide the Connecting Communities minibuses and Dial-a Ride services in the area.

We were first asked, rather optimistically I thought, to say what we thought was working well in respects to rural transport. The unanimous consensus was currently nothing is working well so we quickly moved on to what improvements could be made. Various suggestions were made, but it all boiled down to one thing - reliability and accessibility, and by that I don't mean can you get a wheelchair on, which is law now anyway, but you must be able to get a bus to go where you want at regular times you can work round. Like normal buses in fact. Having to book in advance rules out spontaneous travel, and not being guaranteed your preferred time slot means it is completely unreliable, so unless you have the flexibility of a gymnast it is beyond useless.

That triggered the expected "we haven't got any money" excuses, which I'd fully anticipated. Of course if the service was better more people would use it, revenue would increase, and so the service could improve even further. But it was here the chicken and the egg problem surfaced, not for the first time. That being no one will use a poor service until it improves, and no one will improve a service that no one is using. Catch 22. So how do you break the cycle? Well, if you have read the last couple of posts you'll understand why I wanted a brick wall to reshape my head against. How about Councils, communities and operators working together to create demand and supplying the demand which has been researched so communities get the bus they want and operators get the passengers they want. No! Seriously? Why hasn't anyone thought of that before!!! Trouble is the operators won't finance that research - I discovered that rather painfully a couple of weeks ago. The Council certainly won't, and the communities, quite understandably, won't believe they can achieve anything if the Council and operators appear disinterested.

So having ascertained what needed to be done, but unspoken acknowledgement that no one wants to do it, we then got a fascinating presentation on the future of transport, or rather a lot of things that are happening elsewhere but are decades away from happening here. Electric buses - we haven't got so much as a hybrid in East Anglia - electric cars, and yes autonomous pods like they have in Milton Keynes and Heathrow Terminal 5. On top of E and M Tickets, contactless and bus tracking. At this point one of the gentlemen from Snape pointed out most of the area was yet to get a decent mobile phone signal, let alone think of autonomy. I know several people who have had problems getting a strong enough signal at bus strops to get M-Tickets to bring them up to show drivers, therefore having to pay again. I asked the guys from Snape to let me know when their pods arrived so I could do a write up on them. Might not be next week.

Can we please get the basics right first. There is no gimmick in existence that can make up for not having a bus in the first place. The Snape team said they were working within their community to get a regular band of passengers together to block book the Connecting Communities minibus. That's a great idea, and the sort of enthusiasm needed. Unfortunately if they did book the bus that means those who already regularly use it wouldn't be able to, and the manager of CATS conceded that point. So if one person travels it is at the expense of another. As business models go it's not going to win any awards. But use a bus that's resting between school runs to operate that journey for Snape, and suddenly everyone's a winner. I'm grateful to Anonymous who posted after my last post to tell us about what Dorset Councils have done - take a look. I read that post out, which shows if there is a will there is a way, and yes, communities WILL take responsibility for their own bus service if the support is there.

But if I'm brutally honest I can't see it happening here. It could, it really could, but no one is prepared to say, yes, we'll give that a go. I heard more than once the Council Reps responding to suggestions "how can that be financially viable?". When they said there would be a £700k shortfall in the transport budget over the next four years I suggested a £5 levy added to Council Tax, which would more than cover that shortfall. The argument that non bus users shouldn't have to pay for bus subsidies came up. My Council Tax pays for leisure centres that I don't use, and a whole ream of other services I could use but choose not to. Why shouldn't buses be added to that list? Then they would be there for people who did choose to use them. If you're paying £1200 a year in Council Tax another fiver isn't going to make much difference.

Concessionary passes were mentioned, with the vast majority agreeing that there should be some contribution from pass holders, either in paying a flat fare or an annual fee for the pass. Unfortunately that would require a change in legislation, which won't happen as it will be deemed a vote loser. Unless you're Suffolk County Council, that is, who have decided the best way to increase patronage of community buses is to cease accepting concessionary passes full stop. When asked why I was told that because some areas couldn't accept passes (no idea why) to make it fair for everyone no one would be able to use passes. I'm not sure if anyone suggested that passes be accepted everywhere, obviously that would be problematic. Of course it's perfectly fair that those without a regular bus service should have to pay when those who do, don't. Yes, that's fair.

I asked about the legality of that, since Connecting Communities is registered as a local bus service. However, and I was told this with a straight face, because they are bookable (they HAVE to be booked) that makes them the same as National Express so they don't have to accept passes. That's right, Mrs Miggins going from her tiny hamlet to get her hair done in Saxmundham is the same as Auntie Gladys getting the coach from London to Plymouth. Except Gladys knows when her coach will leave, when it will arrive, she will definitely be able to go when she wants and it will take 5 hours not 15 minutes. It seems lost on SCC that Connecting Communities is a substitute for a regular bus service, so these people have a double whammy - no regular bus, and now they have to pay for the privilege. That'll fire the enthusiasm up!

And that was it. A nice idea that gave no room for optimism. I'm not sure what SCC expected to gain from this, except to be seen consulting with the public, but when I got home I looked at the lovely bus stop across the road, and try as I might I couldn't envisage it being back in use anytime soon.

So, moving on, and a couple of weeks ago I went, with Roy from East Norfolk Bus Blog, to see Borderbus's latest Scania, and very smart it is too. Yesterday, Borderbus's Diplomatic Correspondent, Bernice Carver sent me a couple of pictures with the Scania sporting its new registration of BB61 BUS. That means the 6 Scania deckers carry the registrations BB53/6/7/8/9/61 BUS. BB58 being the only double door example. Many thanks, Bernie.



I was asked a serious question by an operator this afternoon - that question being is Contactless vitally important on rural services? I know what I think, but I'd be really interested in what everyone else thinks. Is it worth spending many thousands upgrading ticketing equipment to enable contactless payments? Let me know what you think.

Finally Go Ahead's figures for the last year have been published., including the final year of Anglian I will publish them below but make no comment, as they speak for themselves.

Anglian

Turnover                        2017                 2018
                                    £2.226m            £1.044m

Loss before tax               2017                 2018
                                     £1.64m             £1.081m


Konectbus

Turnover                        2017                   2018
                                     £7,9m                   £8,2m

Loss before tax              2017                   2018
                                      £77k                    £701k

Hedingham

Turnover                        2017                   2018
                                    £4.026m              £4.856m

Loss before tax             2017                   2018
                                    £708k                  £884k

Chambers

Turnover                       2017                    2018
                                   £1.721m               £1.759

Loss before tax             2017                     2018
                                    £302k                    £787k


Finally finally it's always interesting when someone outside the area comes for a look at things. Roger French OBE, for 25 years MD at Go Ahead owned Brighton & Hove did just that last week, covering Colchester, Ipswich, Southwold and Norwich, with many places in between. He spends his, I presume, blissfully happy retirement touring the country, sampling bus and train services, and writing reviews. His speaking sand writing services are in high demand, and when Roger says something the industry normally jumps. You can read his interesting and forthright review by clicking here, and again I'll make no comment, except to say a lot of it is rather familar.

13 comments:

  1. Just scrap the passes! They're abused by many of the people who have one. You get all these elderly people going up to North Norfolk just for a ride on the coasthopper. What gives them more of a right to the pass?

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    1. 45 years of paying taxes and contributing to society maybe?

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  2. Should we consider the formation/support of a Bus Users Group pressure group to support the 99A/522/524 before they start operating rather than once they're being withdrawn for lack of use, for a change?

    I'm not sure that my experience over the last half century is that we can trust the councils with protecting or maintaining ANY public service, at all? Do they try to live up to any standards, for anything? Never stopped us before, though. Sorry; I think the local elections make BA difference (= playground games), and where Councils like Herts/Essex/Kent have maintained support for buses it's because they've been persuaded they won't be allowed to get away with it, otherwise (locally see the 31/33/37/66 and North Herts/South Cambs - various). Does anyone care about anything enough to do anything in Suffolk/Norfolk/Cambs though?

    I don't really care why the passengers turn up, what for or where they come from, as long as they do! Make the most of whatever you have: seaside, countryside, or the hospitals, hairdressers and shops!!

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    1. I am confident the 522/524 will be successful, in fact I'll stick my neck out and predict extra journeys in a year's time.

      On the other hand I fear for the 99A. Slashing an hourly service to 5 journeys a day and making a point of not guaranteeing connections is a step backwards and I can't see it being used.

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    2. Cutting back services and splitting them up will always result in fewer passengers particularly when cancelations and late running tend to be the norm. The other thing that drives passengers away is doing away with bus stations it typically costs between 5% to 10% of passengers

      Is contactless vital? probably no but that is the direction bus companies should go particularly new customers and even more so where flat fares apply and the bus companies refuse to give change as many do
      It is though typical of the attitude of bus companies. Yes giving change takes time but expecting customers to know what that fare is and have the right amount of change is really unacceptable unless they provide proper alternative means of paying and that does not mean dreaming up their own bespoke means of none cash payment. The average corner shop will accept contactless but not the average bus company. That must say something

      DRT services are also not the sway to go. They offer a very basic and limited service and have to be pre booked by phone and are frequently not available when people do want to travel. They are also incredibly expensive to operate considering they only offer the most basic service

      The Suffolk DRT service cost between £316 a day and £740 a day which is just crazy.

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    3. Go Ahead Group

      How long can these Go Ahead group companies in the East last? As far as I know they have never made a profit and scope for Growth is at best limited they also have an incredibly complex and expensive management structure. They have also shown no interest in developing new routes. The only limited growth has been from taking over other companies and from council tenders but council contracts are in decline with both Essex and Suffolk looking to make cuts this year. I am not sure of what the situation is in Norfolk

      WE badly need a company with new ideas and one that understands its customers needs and understands that it needs to properly engage with them and a company that understands marketing and advertising. Local councils though are just as bad

      The current free for all with bus services does not work particularly in rural areas and suffer from fragmented and disjointed services and constant changes at short notice including services disappearing without any real notice to passengers

      One can live in hope of improvements but realistically I fully expect services to continue to get worse

      Currently bus service are built around carrying pensioners and school children for anyone else they are of no real use. Even for pensioners the services are becoming so basic they don't even meet their needs . In most cases if they want to get to a GP or Hospital or Supermarket they can forget the bus as they will not go there

      If Buses to not go at time people need to travel and don't go to where they want to go bus companies should not be surprised they have few passengers

      It will take time to change things though decades of running down services and dirty run down buses and poor reliability and timekeeping present a very real challenge and you need some good marketing and brand experts to do that who can bring about that change. There are some things in their favour and that's the environment and pollution which can be used to make but travel a more attractive option but it needs a real shake up of bus companies management. Hardly any of the current lot are up to the job and I don't think they are capable of the changes needed, Just look at the local companies and the cavalier attitude to cancellations and time keeping and the dreadfully high levels of breakdown and the dire cleanliness of many of their buses on the road. This all has to change to win customers back. The fares they charge for these poor services are far from cheap. Two people can typically travel by taxi cheaper then going by an infrequent and unreliable bus service, If someone's car breaks down they will look to going by taxi rather than risk the bus

      Technology is now starting to make taxi buses become a viable option as well although current legislation can make that difficult

      Why are not buses looking at carrying parcels. In the past they used to. With the Internet and home shopping now popular that could be a win win for town centres and bus companies who could deliver parcel and shopping in the evenings and at weekends when they have plenty of spare buses

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  3. Galloways answer was the Smart cash card. Unfortunately,they brought this out just as everyone started going contactless which pretty much made it out of date before it even started!! And you still need cash to top it up because you can't top it up online!!

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    1. But can you top it up by paying contactless.....

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    2. nope. Galloway don't have contactless. Whether Stephensons have it, i don't know. Maybe somone knows?

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  4. smurfuk in my own opinion both councillors and the big bus groups all have the same standards (or lack of them) regarding services . Unfortunately the UK is run on a greed basis with the "I'm alright Jack " attitude winning . More protection should be given to those smaller companies that are trying to provide a good customer based service . They don't seem to have the corporate b**ls**t. Their listen to both the passengers and staff is surely worth more than half hearted attempts by the big boys .Letting them develop is the only answer .

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  5. Contactless is good for the cash-less traveller. I often travel without any cash and have to rely on my card. Saves the driver getting in a huff when they're forced to break a £20 too!

    With regards to the ENCTS bus pass no longer being accepted on the Connecting Communities service - tough luck, in my opinion. Surely it's better to have a bus service and have to pay for it (I'm sure it's low cost) than to have a bus pass and no bus service!

    There's an ever decreasing pot of money for socially necessary bus services and operators are receiving less and less for carrying ENCTS passengers.

    The cost of the service needs to be met somehow and I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the passengers to be burdened with the cost - they are after all the ones using the service!

    Finally, it might seem like a no-brainer to utilise a school bus (between school duties) to run a community bus - however "proper" bus drivers will be paid more, the buses will use more fuel and require more maintenance, etc.

    All of this means that the service will be a lot more expensive than if it were operated by a community provider with a van - especially if that van is driven by a volunteer as is often the case!

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  6. I agree with your comments on the 522/524 and 99A Steve. Borderbus quite obviously operate their services for the convenience of the passengers. It shows. First too often don't, but for their own convenience, doubtless at a Head Office diktat. If only some accountants could learn to appreciate the difference... and that could mightily help the rail industry too.


    Where some bits or the competition get it, we see the difference. Perhaps BUGS help passengers get a voice, which at least has the possibility of being heard? (Though what possibility whilst First bosses remain in their bunker with their hands over their ears...?)

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  7. Quote" I asked about the legality of that, since Connecting Communities is registered as a local bus service. However, and I was told this with a straight face, because they are bookable (they HAVE to be booked) that makes them the same as National Express so they don't have to accept passes. That's right, Mrs Miggins going from her tiny hamlet to get her hair done in Saxmundham is the same as Auntie Gladys getting the coach from London to Plymouth."

    Generally Concessionary passes are valid on local stage carriage services BUT any bus services can Opt out of the scheme so I am pretty sure what SCC are doing is legal. Is it sensible probably not as it will be about 98% Concessionary pass holders using these service so they will be carrying even fewer passengers then they are now

    These services are very expensive to operate considering the very limited service they operate. In my view they need to be integrated more into the mainstream bus services and the pre booking requirement dropped

    Charging a small fare for Concessionary pass holders may be sensible but as far as I know that cannot be done. You either have to accept passes or not accept them. Whether you can get around that by offering a discounted far for pensioners I am unsure

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