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