Friday 25 April 2014

Bus Punctuality Improvement Partnership

It is a quirk of our great country that competing firms cannot get around a table and devise a timetable that benefits both the companies involved and, most importantly, the travelling public. That is against the Law and is why you see 7's and X1's up each other's tail pipes, for example. However, it is perfectly legal for competing companies to get around a table with the Government and pledge that they will do their best to make sure those services run up each other's tail pipes on time.

Such a gathering happened last week when the Suffolk Bus Punctuality Improvement Partnership was signed, initially by Stephenson's, Ipswich Buses, First and Galloway but with more to come. The idea is that causes of delays are identified and rectified by the operating companies themselves and the Council, with twice yearly reports going to the Traffic Commisioner.  Real time information for bus stops will be online soon thanks to GPS sensors in buses.

Now while I welcome any initiative to improve services I also have to say that very, very few delays are ever down to the operators. Vehicle failure or driver shortage can be reasons, but the huge, majority of delays are for reasons outside the operator's control. So it was with a sense of mild amusement that I read the following quote from Councillor Mary Evans, assistant cabinet member for roads and transport.

“Suffolk County Council wants to encourage more people to travel by bus to ease congestion and improve air quality in our bigger towns. Two of the key factors in deciding to take the bus instead of driving are the punctuality and reliability of the bus service. I am really pleased to see bus operators sign up to the Punctuality Improvement Partnership.
“The agreement means that buses are fitted with equipment which tracks their journeys giving Real Time Passenger Information, so that passengers can know exactly when their next bus is due. It also monitors the punctuality which allows the county council’s Urban Traffic Management Controls in Ipswich and Lowestoft, to prioritise buses at traffic lights so they can keep up to time.”

Nice rhetoric, Ms Evans, but I think you may agree that it hasn't got off to the greatest of starts this week with the chaos seen in Lowestoft Tuesday and Wednesday. Thousands of passengers were delayed, in some cases for hours, because the Council, allegedly, refused to accept responsibility for the roadworks causing the delays. No point giving buses priority at traffic lights if it's taking them 2 hours to get to the lights in the first place.

A good way of getting more people to travel by bus would be to restore the services lost in the austerity cuts, with sensible timetables to encourage both commuting and social travel.  Now obviously the Council can't afford to pay for the services so here is my own blueprint of how it could be achieved.

  • Charge £20 a year for "free" passes. I have asked many pass holders their views on such a charge and not one has said they would object. The money raised should be ringfenced to pay for rural, evening and Sunday services. 
  • Rather than sponsoring services directly the Council should underwrite losses that companies brave enough to launch new services on routes currently without a service incur for an initial period of two years before review to give the service a chance to take root and gain publicity and passengers.
  • A Government tax initiative encouraging private industries to sponsor bus routes in the same way they do other areas of the community and sport etc. So for example a Sunday service through Woodbridge, which currently doesn't exist could be sponsored by BT. They get a tax break, positive publicity, and advertising on the buses. The public get more buses, which creates jobs. Everyone's a winner.
  • It is a shame the companies signing up to the BPIP are the same companies who refuse to agree to a rover ticket accepted and issued by all operators. Until that happens you will not get the leisure passengers travelling by bus, or people travelling where change of operator is required as it just works out too expensive. You might be able to time your watch by the bus, but people think of their pockets first so launch that ticket and see numbers soar.  
One final point though. If you want, and hope that more people will start going places by bus you simply have to make sure there is a sufficient enough service for them to get home too without having to leave halfway through the afternoon. When the last bus from Norwich to Halesworth, for example leaves at 1800 where is the incentive for parents to even think about getting a family ticket and taking the kids to Cromer for the day, if they have to leave by 1600 to make sure they get home. So my message to SCC is prove you are serious about wanting more people to get the bus and this isn't just a publicity stunt.

The full report on the SCC website on the BPIP can be read here.


  1. I agree with you. But I think it's typical of a country that puts the rules before the everything. I suspect all this comes to satisfy the Traffic Commissioners new rules that buses should be not be early nor more than 5 minutes late, and requires the operators and Country Councils to "co-operate", and little to do with the interests of the traveling public. The "rules" do that, as in everything else in this country. No they don't. There are vast areas of the country where it's easy, and others where it's impossible - and no magic wand is going to change that. There was one local brilliant example of the power of the Traffic Commissioners: one company had its licence revoked, two associated companies with the same ownership had licences suspended for 7 days, and their operating managers reputations formally "tarnished" after things had not improved after a final warning two years before; they are now running the same routes with the same people and buses with another of their companies. The good news is that most regulation is a farce, but it makes a good headline which is all that matters. It's about keeping the politicians happy.

  2. Bless you,my friend - I was beginning to think I was the only cynical one around here!

  3. Yeah, only trouble is I'm sure any Chancellor would love the offer to pay for bus passes - but so he could spend the money on the ballooning welfare system as we all retire and live longer, and the number of workers and their wages decline! How about this as a better idea: cut the parliamentary time to two weeks (well perhaps a month) a year - and limit the Councils to 4 meetings a year. That'd limit their constant interference, they could get real jobs for the rest of the time (so they get some experience of the real world), and they wouldn't need second homes and their shed load of allowances. Then instead of pouring our taxes down the drain on politicians' allowances and second homes, we could pour it down the drain on buses that nobody uses instead. We could allow them one perk though: a bus pass instead of the chaffeured cars and mileage/1st class rail fares. Deal?

  4. The only reason nobody uses those buses you mention is because they don't run late enough at times and places people need. It's no good me being able to get to Saxmundham station from London at 11pm if it's then going to cost me 15 quid for a taxi home. Popularity also wouldn't happen overnight, hence my idea of a two year underwriting. Perhaps some serious alternative ideas could be put forward.