Wednesday 22 May 2019

Commons Transport Committee Report On Buses Outside London

Today the Transport Select Committee, chaired by Lilian Greenwood MP, one of the few MP's I still have time for, published its report on bus services in England outside London. It makes very interesting, and for me personally, satisfying reading as it says mostly what I have been saying for years. You can tell it's not going to be full of glowing praise for the bus industry from the opening of the Summary:

"The deregulation of bus services outside London in the 1980s was meant to address the steady decline in bus use since the 1950s and bring in a new era of bus travel. In the 1984 Buses White Paper the then Government asserted that:

Without the dead hand of restrictive regulation fares could be reduced now on many bus routes and the operator would still make a profit. New and better services would be provided. More people would travel.

[…] bus operators will look keenly to see where and when people want to travel. If one operator fails to provide a service that is wanted, another will.

Successive governments have stuck with deregulation, but the promised benefits have never materialised. Deregulation has, at best, done little more than slow the decline in bus use."

The idea of operators reducing fares on many routes yet still making a (reduced) profit seems laughable and goes against the laws of supply and demand. However, the then Transport Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, seemed to think operators would be happy to reduce their profits for the benefits of passengers. That's like MP's reducing their salaries for the benefit of the taxpayer - never going to happen, and understandably so.

The Committee looked at all aspects of bus travel, from provision of services, funding, accessibility, information and ticketing to preserving rural links, encouraging modal shift and making buses more attractive for young people.

One recommendation you won't be surprised caught my eye was that operators and local authorities work closer together to achieve the best possible service, especially regarding rural communities and new builds. It also recommends that red tape allowing partnerships between Councils and operators be cut. Well I never!

The report points out how funding has been cut and that the reimbursement on Concessionary passes is not doing its stated intention of leaving operators "no better or no worse off". Indeed, reimbursement rates are still calculated on 2005/6 fare levels. No wonder the operators are continually protesting. This is the recommendation:

"At present reimbursement of concessionary fares for bus operators does not meet the principle of “no better and no worse off”. This principal is objectively impossible to test. The reimbursement calculator given to local authorities by the Department for Transport is based on fares in 2005/06. Local authorities, with already stretched resources, often feel compelled to cover the shortfall. This potentially puts bus services at risk. If services are withdrawn it could have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable people, and they may become more isolated. This runs counter to the stated aim of the concessionary fares policy: improving the lives of older and disabled people.

We recommend that the Government review how it finances concessionary bus passes, and the guidance to local authorities on reimbursement of bus operators, with a view to meeting the principle of both local authorities and bus operators being “no better and no worse off”. As a priority, the Government should re-baseline the reimbursement rates on ticket prices for 2017/18 prices; and should continue to re-baseline fares every four years so that the principle of “no better and no worse off” is maintained and the reimbursement rate remains broadly in line with current fares."

Real time information, a national ticketing policy which negates the change/no change, contactless/no contactless anomalies and even integrated ticketing are discussed, as are fares for young people.

But it is the failure of the Department of Transport to deliver adequate leadership and funding that comes in for the most criticism. Neith local authorities or operators are aware of funding amounts from one year to the next, unlike road and rail, and this provides uncertainty in the industry, and for passengers. Local authorities should be able to tackle congestion by parking and moving traffic law enforcement, with the revenue gained used to further tackle congestion. Bidding for grants and additional funding should be made easier and fairer, and an interesting recommendation is that all local authorities should have the power to set up their own municipal bus company.

Another priority is to tackle the concerns of those who DON'T use the bus - again, can't remember where I've heard that before! 

The report doesn't recommend re-regulation, but it makes it abundantly clear that the current system is failing passengers, and there need to be radical changes to encourage more to leave their cars at home and switch to the bus.

Most Government reports are mind numbingly boring but this one isn't. It makes very good reading, and will have a lot of you nodding sagely in agreement. It remains to be seen how the D of T responds, but I commend Lilian and her team on a comprehensive report, taking the passengers' side, and not pulling any punches. 

You can read the report, and I really recommend you do, by clicking here.


  1. Chambers forced to issue an apology over its dreadful services

    The problem was predictable. There were struggling to run their current services and then decided to take on the 236 with no resource to run it so the predictable happed the number of cancellations increased significantly. They are now talking about borrowing staff from other Go Ahead companies but they have a tight resource position so they are just going to move the problem elsewhere. As usual with bus companies the passengers come last

  2. Andrew Kleissner23 May 2019 at 07:33

    Thank you Steve.Cynically one must think that, as bus operations are nothing to do with Brexit, this report will go unnoticed by Government and just end up on a shelf. Hopefully the DoT will take note!

  3. If I was a rich man … didn't someone once sing?

    As we all say there's much good stuff in there, but we in Britain have never been short of ideas . . . but often it's a mission to Make Pigs Fly. It wouldn't say it can't be done but I won't be holding my breath either.

    I'd start by praising the Operators (of all shapes and sizes) and the Councils. They do an amazing job trying to get a quart out of a pint pot. Over 50 years of traveling I'd probably say that our remaining bus services are as good as they have ever been. (Yes we can make points about cancellations, but does anyone remember NBC - I can recall when I was growing up up to 2 out of three buses being cancelled throughout the day, as a daily occurrence; as well as buses being up to an hour or longer, late). Where they have disappeared it's usually because they weren't used. But often other social transport has taken their place. We might not like it, but that's life. I'd give the passengers credit too, for their patience, loyalty and determination. The saviour of our buses will be the passengers, not the politicians. Just cherish and look after them.

    The trouble is that the muddle is wasteful. Just try getting a quart out of your pint pot to see what happens.

    We know the privatisation was ideologically driven, pure and simple; sold wrapped in a cloth of betterment. Hypocrisy, the bane of British public life. In the nineteenth century the Midland and Great Northern Railway was known as the Muddle and Go No-Where. It's a British tradition. Things haven't changed much.

    So, yes of course buses need to be an integral part of a transport network, not something to pay lip-service to when it suits us. Financial support needs to be much higher, and the way is quite possibly hypothicated revenue from traffic enforcement. But I don't underestimate the obstacles: Have we ever tried remonstrating with an motorist parking or maneouvering “illegally”? There is already a huge backlog of fines, and immobilising or removing vehicles will do wonders for adding to congestion as well as our tax bills. The British are fiercely independent islanders who won't be told what to do. They hate planning and strategy. Just ask the EU. Who likes “Emission Control Zones”; horrible foreign ideas. If we can buy a dinky electric car (or even better a huge one) and show off to the Joneses, that's fine./continued

  4. Part 2/continued
    Locally in Chelmsford we have a “bus gate” (fancy name for a TRO) outside the bus station, which has been the single best thing to improve town centre bus flows. Wonderful. But it took several years before the Council dared enforce it. They're trying for another one (near the infamous Army and Navy). All hell has broken loose. Quite rightly, before anyone points it out. I gather Norwich is trying measures in the town centre too, and they aren't popular either – with any transport users. As for Ipswich traffic . . . or Colchester either for that matter! And ahem I won't mention Cambridge, though the Mayor is going to sort it out (in his own eyes at least) with the magic metro. Sorry but I don't see the Report (or anything else) as a magic wand for the East. I know about the work of the Bristol and Manchester Regional Mayors, and their compatriots in Tyne and Wear, Glasgow even Cambridgeshire: but what is the relevance to Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex please?

    In their munificence the Department of Transport granted us money for low emission vehicles in Great Yarmouth and Basildon. Whatever happened to them? Did they make much or any lasting difference? What “benefit” to the travelling public?

    At least in Essex we are stinging some (at least) developers for vast contributions to revenue support (in a few cases even new buses). But what happens when the money runs out? We talk of “delegating” revenue support to local communities. What does that “do” for the network?

    I fear we are still addicted to a good headline, rather than doing any real work to tackle the issues “on the ground”. Reform the concession funding by all means, but I'm not yet sure I quite understand quite how that translates into better bus services for all the passengers?

  5. I thought for a bit of fun I'd try to find something as a litmus test of our commitment to buses, across society; you know, joined-up thinking: bus stations. If passengers are going to use the bus, they need to find the bus.

    Chelmsford has a fine example. Yes, buses and trains together in the town centre; but between the two the lowest bridge in town, which screws up the entire network. We can't run modern deckers (it never used to be a problem). The whole area has been redeveloped, but did anyone ever think of relocating the bus station? Heaven forbid; when it was competing with the Council's profit from residential apartments, and the University. Developer contributions, but the army of consultants who earn their living from the property market won''t pay unless they have to (their salary depends on it, after all), so we either end up with multiple buses serving the same routes - as long as the developments at the end of them are big enough; or none at all. An efficient use of the bus company's scarce resources - not; as they struggle to run the published buses! As for the traveling public . . . forget it. If social housing wasn't provided on the basis that "our [intended] residents don't need it". (Well they do try).

    Cambridge is lumbered with Drummer Street (remember the 1950s?). Local Stagecoach boss Andy Campbell suggested using part of the neglected open space; and the socially-minded burghers of the town, hounded him out not long after! We want student apartments! Profits.

    If anyone can find or work their way around Colchester bus station especially after the Councils "improved" it, they are a better man than I.

    Ipswich has two. It gives a new meaning to the bus lottery. In Hertford it will deliver you to a deserted building site where the shops used to be. I don't know Norwich Bus Station, but it's a fine example of ... what exactly, (well, for some at least). In Hatfield the bus tech seems to give nearly as much trouble as the congestion it's supposed to alleviate.

    The East Suffolk line has for years boasted of its Station Improvement Plan. Obviously it never made it as far as looking at bus/train interchange at Halesworth which EC have evaluated as unsafe. Not it's remit I suppose?

    Back to Colchester, who have a rail interchange; except in the evenings when it's at the town cenre. Even their own twitter team couldn't work it out; though fortunately (not for the first time) there was an enthusiast on hand to help!

    Which is the point really; as long as the Council, bus staff and the enthusiasts have what they want; who cares about the great unwashed public? Good luck, Lillian on your lonely lost cause. Even with the best intentions . . . many a slip 'twixt cup and lip. (I noted with interest that a member of the Committee is the Cambridge MP, a long-term luminary of the local political establishment. Charity starts at home, doesn't it?)

  6. Well my forecast has proved correct

    Chamber because they took on a route without the resource to operate it were have constant cancellation so they decided to borrow staff from elsewhere and now surprise surprise Hardingham is cancelling buses as no doubt staff have been loaned to Chambers

  7. Fresh review of sponsored bus services in Suffolk

    So they have now widened the scope of the review from just schools & collage service to all supported service

    It sound like they are developing criteria to decide which ones to axe rather than look at developing these services and making them more viable. There has been no real attempt by councils or operators to establish what is the need of passengers. Most routes are still based around historic routes going back to the days of horse drawn buses. If you take the remnants of the market day buses they typically come into town once a week and then sit parked up for 3 hours or so. That is not really meting todays p needs nor is it ever going to be even remotely commercially viable

    Bus services have become so run down that they need significant investment to win passengers back. At present they are still driving passengers away

    Buses as well are the one transport service that gets almost no financial support. Cars do, Trains do and cycles do but buses no

    One needs to look at the wider benefit of buses. They can reduce congestion and pollution and reduce the need for ever more car parks to be used. Good town services can also increase the footfall in town centres . All these things can be difficult to quantify but there is a benefit. It can also reduce the accident rate

    Link to article:

  8. News? First abandon FirstBus? "we are pursuing structural alternatives to separate our First Bus operations from the Group". As usual with a First statement, what the heck does that mean?

    So First goes from being a UK company with American interests to being effectively a wholly American one, depending on their future approach to franchising ("it's got to become a better earner" basically. What, with British politicians in charge?)

    The rumour mill and speculation game will now be in full swing. What to do about the pension liabilities? What will the CMA make of it? Who would buy as a whole; who could buy the parts?