Friday 10 April 2015

Are Car Drivers More Important?

This has long been a bone of contention with me, that Park & Ride passengers get a much better deal that regular passengers when it comes to vehicle quality. The first two P&R's I can remember were in Kent, Maidstone and Canterbury. Both had superior vehicles to regular routes. Indeed when I drove the then Saturdays only P&R in Maidstone in 1988 you knew you would get one of the better buses to drive despite the route being less than a mile.

Fast forward over a quarter of a century and very little has changed (excpet Maidstone doesn't have the best buses on P&R anymore!). Let us look at our region. If you drive to a big car park and catch the bus you will find one of these waiting for you. Pic is by Stephen Hughes, whose Flickr page you can access here.

First Essex Volvo B7rle 69512 at Chelmer Valley P&R     pic by Stephen Hughes
If we move a little north to Colchester they have just launched their own P&R and this is what is operating them. Again the pic is by Stephen Hughes.

Arriva  4072 E200 SK15 GHS    pic by Stephen Hughes
Yet if you are travelling in to either Chelmsford or Colchester, from say Braintree you will travel in the luxury of one of these...

First Essex 33190 in Colchester late 2013
6 years ago in Ipswich you could take a 20 min ride into town on one of these, seen rather pleasingly next to one of the vehicles it replaced on the P&R, also bought new for the service. The pic is by GNE 4993 whose Flickr page you can access here.

69429 in 2011 on Ipswich P&R     pic by GNE 4993
These were new to First Ipswich at the same time I was travelling an hour each way to Ipswich and back on one of these...the pic is by parkandride2007 whose Flickr page you can access here.

First Ipswich 48065 at Aldeburgh in May 2007 - a real heap of a bus!      pic by parkandride2007
In Norwich this week Konect announced on their website details of the new P&R contract starting in September involving £32m of new all singing all dancing vehicles with headrests, WiFi, media screens, telematics and probably an on board massage if you ask them nicely (see here ). I happen to know that First based their tender for the P&R on new Streetdecks, had they won the contract, yet the poor First passengers of \Norwich still in the main have to suffer the rattly concrete seated Volvo B7l's and Presidents.

It goes on. Oxford City Council have announced plans to have a fleet of double deck electric buses operating P&R services by the end of 2016 (source Bus & Coach buyer). Why P&R? Are car drivers more valuable and worth investing in above regular passangers?

The answer is obvious. Councils tender for P&R. As far as I know there is not a single commercially operated P&R in the country so the Councils dictate the vehicles they want operating and if the companies want the contract they have to comply. There is no such regulation with regular bus services, except DDA of course, so companies are still free to subject their customers to any rattlebucket they want.

This is why I would support the London style of re-regulation being adopted nationwide. If councils take control of all routes, profit making AND loss making, then they can ensure quality vehicles are used on all routes. Currently they only sponsor loss making routes, and are almost duty bound to accept the cheapest tender, which obviously isn't going to  promise new or better vehicles. DDA has forced a lot of companies to upgrade their vehicles, but in this part of the world compared to others there are far too many old and clearly past it vehicles around. It is ironic that the last step entrance vehicles are better than the older low floor buses that are coming out of London to replace them.

The companies will no doubt bleat about costs of new vehicles etc, but they have had it easy for too long. It is time the regular bus passenger was put on an even keel with the pandered car driver on P&R services.

Oh while I'm at it another common complaint you will hear from the companies is that they don't get enough return for each bus pass used. This is because they do not see it from the correct angle. bus passes allow the elderly and disabled to make far more journeys than they otherwise would do. I was chatting to a lady in Beccles the other day who told me she goes out most days a week just riding around on buses all over the place. GOOD FOR HER!! The companies, although not getting the full fare she would have paid, are still getting money they would not have got because she couldn't have afforded to go out in the first place. This is the point they are missing. Better to get something than nothing, and if bus passes suddenly disappeared their revenue would drop dramatically as those passengers would restriict their journeys to essentials, buses would be empty again, and the companies would still complain about it! Better still charge £20 a year for the passes, and make it LAW that the funds raised went to sponsoring more bus services, whch would get more people out and spending money, hence encouraging economical growth, as well as creating more driving jobs. Simples

Please note that this week's Round Up will be published on Saturday as I have a rather special post coming on Sunday, the first of a potential 5 I hope.


  1. "As far as I know there is not a single commercially operated P&R in the country so the Councils dictate the vehicles they want operating and if the companies want the contract they have to comply" Well there is one - Plymouth Park & Ride is a commercial operation by First. As you point out that means they can use whatever they like on the service, a point which I dont think the council quite appreciated until after First sent their decent buses down to Cornwall and stuck basic Tridents on the service in bog standard and quite scruffy barbie livery. Since then to be fair First have made an effort to use some of the better buses on the service with most in the new pink wedge livery but its a far cry from the heady days back in 2006 when the new Enviros entered service - still the most comfortable buses we have ever had in Plymouth!

    1. Many thanks Graham, I thought I might end up learning of a few commercially operated P&R's, but why the complaint about them not being operated by superior vehicles? Do not regular passengers deserve decent vehicles too?

    2. Oxford & Cambridge are both also commercial Park & Ride provisions with the councils just providing the car parks. The problem is that in most places if you don't provide vehicles of a standard (at least in age if not in other spec) to equal the car many car users won't use the service so to have any chance of creating a successful scheme they need to use modern vehicles. As there always has been there will be a hierarchy of services as to which areas/routes get new buses and whilst P&R schemes may see new buses when they start in most areas they don't remain the best vehicles forever in fact there are many places where P&R buses are nowhere near the best vehicles in the city. Nottingham, Leicester, Oxford, Cambridge, Plymouth, Guildford, Norwich etc all feature newer vehicles in the local 'normal' service than on the P&R (not necessarily with the same operator but certainly serving the same city). Some routes will support the purchase of the newest vehicles, some can support slightly older ones whilst some (particularly in rural areas) will always struggle to support more than a bus.

  2. Absolutely agree with re-regulation. South Yorkshire PTE have proven it can be done outside of London. Of course, they have little reliance on the P&R sites they have since the public buses are so good.

    I am a fan of the integration they have achieved in Sheffield. Routes are awarded to various companies based on their proposals. Of course with big pockets, Stagecoach and First dominate the Sheffield network since they can offer more for the passenger.

    The are few dedicated P&R sites around Sheffield. Most P&R sites listed on Travel SouthYorkshire are just ordinary large carparks (your local supermarket), which are served with a nearby bus route. All three tram routes in Sheffield run to P&R sites, but this is simply a small extension to where the route actually serves.

    The result of no P&R sites, and route tendering, is that Sheffield is awash with new buses. If you love Streetlites, then Sheffield is full of the things. So to with EnviroXXXs. There is one final route running Presidents (53), and one route out to the middle of the Peak District (272) that has a ALX400 from First.

    But both these routes are shared between multiple companies. Route 53 has a few Stagecoach Enviro300 running it, while First dominates it. Route 272 has a 60 minute frequency (if I remember rightly) and has 3 companies serving it (First, TM Travel and Hulleys). Even Sheffield's flagship route, 120, is shared. Yet I can walk up to a Stagecoach bus on route 120 with a First day ticket and they will happily accept it - its shared to improve the service.

    Ultimately, Sheffield drivers now using the P&R are not getting anything special. They get exactly the same buses as ordinary passengers and those buses, as a result, are better - which disproves the usefulness of P&R sites. Why drive somewhere, when you can wait for an equally good bus on your doorstep?

    Don't even get me started on the cost of new vehicles, who at ADL thought it was a good idea to offer over 70 combinations (length, engine, gearbox) of their Enviro200?

    1. Actually South Yorkshire shows the success of the method preferred by the bus industry, it isn't re-regulation as planned by Labour but a Quality Partnership with the local authority & bus operators working together and bringing their individual skills to the party working together. If integrated ticketing is wanted it really requires the councils to lead it as there are competition issues if operators sit down and discuss fares together without a neutral party leading it. Most operators are open to a reasonable integrated ticketing scheme being offered but it needs the councils to be interested and unfortunately too many shire counties have no interest in getting involved.

      The problem with re-regulation is the cost, London receives more subsidy than the rest of the country combined and the people at the top of TfL have said that they couldn't have produced the success they have without that funding - they know, they tried, when TfL tried to run at break even you saw poor services, falling passenger numbers & old vehicles being imported from the provinces, it is only since the subsidy has risen that London has shown the success it has.

  3. All of the Park and Ride services between the five P&R sites and Oxford City centre are operated 100% commercially by The Oxford Bus Company. They run on Sundays and up to 2300 Monday to Saturday.

    1. Sounds very good, and I know Oxford is quite anti car these days, but why is P&R getting the electric buses? Why not try them on a normal route? No one has yet answered the main question of why car drivers are treated better then regular passengers.

  4. The bus services may well be operated commercially at many P&R sites, but is the whole operation commercial? Who pays the electricity bills for the car park lighting, the water for the toilets, maintaining the CCTV, picking up litter, the business rates etc? If you add in staff you are looking at up to £100k per site per year before you even factor in the cost of buses and drivers. So no, P&R id probably not "commercial" anywhere.

    As to why P&R gets the best buses - think about who you are trying to get to use it. Even the cheapest car on the road has comfy seats, your own entertainment, heating or cooling to the driver's satisfaction and nobody taking up half your seat, eating smelly food, screaming kids etc. Where is the temptation to the average driver to use a bus for even part of their journey? Unless you make it impossible or uneconomic to park in a town centre the majority will just get in their car and stay in it until journey's end. At fast bus service with quality vehicles does help attract some of those drivers who wouldn't otherwise consider a bus at all.

  5. Bus operators aren't missing the point that free bus passes mean holders use the bus more, in fact the legislation was written on the basis that this would occur which is why it states that operators should be 'no better & no worse off' from the scheme & why schemes have a generation factor built in to reflect the increased usage that the scheme has produced. The problem is that, because most councils are broke, the generation factor has been played with (with the support & connivance of the DfT) so that it doesn't reflect the actual generation factor but is set to push down the price that operators receive per passenger to a level the council can afford. Operators do not receive anything like the equivalent of the actual adult fare that the passenger would be paying, in fact for most shire counties the reimbursement rate is below 50% of average adult fare. I don't know what all the councils pay, it is generally kept secret but some figures have slipped out over time. When the scheme switched from half-fare to free-fare many councils on the south coast didn't increase their reimbursement at all so the operator received the same amount of money from the council before & after the free fares came in they just didn't get the half-fare from passenger as well. Many of the South Coast councils pay pittance (I have heard of Hampshire, Isle of Wight, Sussex & Devon all ending up paying around 30% of average fare forgone), Leicestershire has rates in this range (though in that case it appears each operator gets a different rates with reported rates a few years ago between 20% & 50%) as well that I have heard of and the collapse of Pennine in Skipton highlighted that North Yorks was paying around 20% of average fare. Reimbursement rates of this level assume that free pass usage tripled or quadrupled when it switched from half-fare to free-fare, no operator or council has seen increases of this level and no reasonable economic theory could support such a price elasticity so operators are worse off under this scheme even if users are choosing to ride more often at times. It doesn't matter if Mrs Miggins now uses the bus more often for pleasure rides if the reimbursement rate is so low that the operator can lose money on a full bus of pensioners (and at reimbursement rates of 30-40% that is highly likely). The only reason why this hasn't completely hit the fan in a legal sense is that commercial operators know that the councils have no more money so there is no point trying to squeeze blood from a stone and the operators want to maintain a relationship with their council that legal action would jeopardise since it would force money out of councils they can't afford to provide.

  6. On re-regulation, you have to ask why would you put the people in control who have no experience of buses and no money to spend. Most of the big cuts occurring at the moment are down to council cuts, commercial operators are trying to save as much as they can as more costs are loaded on to the industry through unfunded legislation and more income is taken out as government reduces its spending. Re-regulation doesn't work if you don't have money to cover the inefficiencies that inserting an extra level of bureaucracy entails. Added to which most councils lack the political will to make the tough decisions that the mayor in London made to push pro-bus policies. Pro-car policies in places like Liverpool & Birmingham show the danger of too much localism and I have had too much experience of local authorities where no decisions have been made on important matters for months or even years because it may be politically difficult costing the council money and/or providing a worse service for most passengers. If the government were promising extra funding to make improvements & pay for the inefficiencies then re-regulation may make a case, without funding it simply isn't a sensible policy and will kill the bus industry. The present system (particularly with the Partnership route) is the best solution for the level of money available for the industry. No one has answered the glaring question, since bus routes are considered a privately owned asset with some book value how are all these cash strapped local authorities going to pay to purchase these privately owned assets? (just because some operators will give up unwanted routes for free doesn't mean there is no value to the routes, just because I throw away my old, broken TV that will cost more to repair than replace doesn't mean I don't hold a value against my other TV that works well)