There is an article in a Cambridge Newspaper that has caught the interest of those in the bus industry. Written by Andy Campbell, MD of Stagecoach East, it is an argument against bus franchising and why it wouldn't be financially sustainable. You can read the article here. If I was a shareholder of one of the big operators, or a top bus manager on a six figure salary I would be keeping a copy of that article in my wallet, to glance at occasionally. But I'm not a shareholder of one of the major operators, or a top manager earning a six figure salary. I'm a passenger. I set up this blog to give passengers a voice. Not managers or ex managers, very few of whom use buses, but passengers. As a passenger that article fills me with dread.
One paragraph caught my eye in particular. It was this one;
We want to provide an excellent community service but, as a commercial
operation, we simply can’t fund unprofitable routes over the longer
term. Doing this would put any business at risk. It would jeopardise the
salaries that our drivers, mechanics and office staff, and their
families, rely on.
The irony that this was the MD of Stagecoach East, the same Stagecoach East that has just pulled out of Norfolk, rendering drivers, mechanics and office staff jobless was not lost on me. But it paints a bigger picture. What it is saying is if your service has been cut over recent years don't expect it back because we won't consider operating routes that are currently loss making, or even try to turn them around. That is rather depressing if you are a passenger on a low income who can't afford taxis everywhere.
So it won't come as a surprise to you when I say I'm more in favour of franchising than Mr Campbell. Where I do agree with him, though, is that franchising alone is not the answer, but I really believe it's part of the answer. So why am I in favour of franchising? We need to turn the clock back.
When I was a boy I would spend evenings poring over timetables planning days out on the buses. I left Mum an itinerary of my planned movements with the promise to let her know via phone box if anything altered. So let's take one of those days. I would buy an Explorer ticket, which covered all operators in Kent and Sussex, get the first bus out of my village in Kent, around 7am to Chatham, then go to Maidstone - Faversham - Canterbury - Dover - Hastings - Maidstone - Chatham. I'd get home around 10pm having had a great day, mainly on Bristol VR's. So - can that day still be achieved today? The Explorer ticket still exists, but do the bus services. Let's see, I assure you I'm looking the services up as I type.
Well the first bus out my village is roughly the same time at 0639, getting me to Chatham at 0655. There is an 0710 service 101 to Maidstone, arriving 0740, which I'll admit is a lot quicker than when I was a boy, helped by road improvements especially getting into Maidstone (bait set). Now for the 333 to Faversham. Ahhh looks like breakfast in Maidstone as no 333 until 0920. Never mind, we get to Faversham at 1024. An 1106 3X whisks me to Canterbury for 1130, again faster than the old days.
Another improvement is the bus service between Canterbury and Dover, certainly day times. A 20 min frequency operates on the 15 and I hop on the 1152 and I'm in Dover at 1227. This is where it might get interesting. I used to love the 550, which ran along the coast from Dover to Hastings via Folkestone, New Romney and Rye. Can I still do it?
It seems I can. The 102 at 1320, so lunch in Dover, takes me to Rye for 1528, where I need to change buses onto the 100 at 1542 to arrive in Hastings at 1623. Very good, to be honest I wasn't expecting that. Now to get back to Maidstone. Obviously I want some time in Hastings so don't want a bus immediately. There is a 1753 or 1848 from Hastings to Hawkhurst. I'd prefer the 1848 if in Summer so let's try that one - will there be a connection at Hawkhurst for Maidstone? The 1848 arrives in Hawkhurst at 1938 and the bus to Maidstone leaves at...2200. Ahh, not so good. Let's check the 1753 from Hastings, which arrives in Hawkhurst at 1852. The bus to Maidstone leaves at...2200.
The Hastings - Maidstone route 5 used to be a direct route. Then Stagecoach bought Hastings & District, and Arriva bought Maidstone & District so of course the route was split. Now the separate parts don't connect with each other. Where have I heard that recently. Stay in Hastings longer I hear you say - good idea - I'll just check when the last bus to Hawkhurst is. Ahhh, it is the 1848 so like it or not I'm stuck in Hawkhurst for 2 and a half hours, and if you've ever been to Hawkhurst you'll know that is a very, very long time!
So eventually I'm on the 2200 to Maidstone arriving at 2255. There used to be a 2315 to Chatham - is there still - yes, 2310 now but still connects - I'm in Chatham at 2334 - can I still get home? So near yet so far - alas I miss the last bus back to my village by 8 mins. Close but no cigar, and that wait in Hawkhurst would put me off that route. There used to be an alternative route back to Maidstone via Tenterden but sadly the timetable has just been slashed and the last Hastings - Tenterden service now leaves at 1625.
So what did that exercise show. Well, if I'm honest I'm surprised I got as far as I did, and it demonstrates that bus services in some areas are a lot healthier than others. Certainly Stagecoach Southeast seem to be doing their best to maintain services, and they should be congratulated for that, although it must be said I only used routes on A roads linking big towns. The moment I went into the country, although still on an A road I had a 150 min wait. But, it demonstrates that some areas would benefit from franchising more than others. It really says something for the operators, and particularly Kent County Council, that the village I grew up in still has a bus out of it at 0639, and a bus back from town at 2324. That's way later than the last train.
So, on the whole Kent is doing ok. They have an integrated ticket if you need to use more than one operator, and with decent marketing buses aren't in too bad a state down there. Obviously there is always room for improvement, which I'll come to later.
However, Kent is vastly different to Suffolk and Norfolk. Look at those journey times on my trip. Only one of them is more than an hour. It takes an hour and twenty to get from Halesworth to Norwich to start my day, not to mention the 6 mile drive from my village to Halesworth. I would love to see Suffolk and Norfolk timetables from 40 years or so ago to see what I could have done then that I can't do now.
Bus services in Norfolk and Suffolk are in a shocking state at the moment. Don't get me wrong I'm not blaming the operators, well not too much anyway. The operators do not get the support from the councils Kent does, for example. Both Norwich and Ipswich are plagued with never ending roadworks, which seem to improve nothing, making sticking to a timetable impossible. Temporary traffic lights are placed to guard sites the size of a small pot plant with nobody working there anyway. Some routes have 3 operators on them, others none. The passenger is being fleeced to a hefty degree, and no one but no one seems to give a damn, and when someone dares complain they are shouted down.
So would franchising help East Anglia? Hell yes! It is inconceivable that the Council can be expected to subsidise on the scale needed to resurrect the rural bus market without getting some help, and that help would come from the profit making services. If there were more buses going to more places more often people would use them if the price was right. But what would be the benefits of franchising in this area?
Firstly integrated ticketing. Sure it's fine if you have a Concessionary pass - you can jump from operator to operator at will. If you're paying though you have to pay separately for each journey if changing operators. That's expensive and no incentive to use the bus if you have to use more than one operator.
Secondly if services were governed from one place you wouldn't have the ridiculous situation we have now, where operators cannot talk to each other and co-ordinate times for the benefit of passengers. One route, one operator, and where routes merge all tickets accepted on all buses.
Thirdly buses would be run at times to suit passengers not operators. A particular bug bear of mine is services that don't run schooldays because the bus is being used on a school run. There are plenty of services around where the afternoon frequency is less than the morning, due to buses being taken off service work. Again, that is not going to encourage fare payers to use the bus. Franchising would allow public and school buses to be kept separate, so passengers had more choice.
Most services outside the big towns are finished by 7pm. Last bus from Norwich to Halesworth is 1815. Last bus out of Southwold, if you want a day there is before 1800. Where is the incentive for people to use the bus to go to work if they can't stay for a drink with their mates after work on a Friday because they'll miss the last bus if they do? Or have to be out of a seaside resort while it's still red hot? Later buses would solve that problem. When I moved to Wickham Market 10 years ago the biggest box ticked for me was the 2255 bus from Ipswich 7 days a week. I was on it Wednesdays and Sundays, after playing pool for a pub in Ipswich. It was the first bus to go in the 2010 cuts.
They are just a few reasons why franchising would work here, if, and only if the marketing was done properly to encourage bus use. But as I indicated earlier there are other ways which should be tried out.
An idea I've had for sometime now is for bus services to be sponsored by corporate business. After all they sponsor everything from international cricket to brass bands, so why not bus services. Supposing the evening buses from Norwich to Watton, for example, were sponsored by Barclays. Good publicity for them - giving something back to the community - an all over wrap on a bus for their troubles. How about the Government recognising this as a good idea taking heat off councils and giving the businesses a tax break against the money they sponsor services with? Is that such a daft idea? How about town or city traders clubbing together to sponsor the last couple of buses out of town on a Friday and Saturday night, with the council covering the rest of the week. It irks me that there are far later buses on the Outer Hebrides than there are in the majority of East Anglia.
But above all the bus needs to be more attractive. Value for money, frequency, convenience and comfort are all very well, and operators like Transdev have transformed bus travel in the last couple of years. But despite all that it's not going to persuade those who have spent 25K on a new car, or those who have just renewed their insurance, tax and MOT to leave them on the drive and get a bus.
Therefore it needs some real thinking outside the box so people don't feel almost guilty for leaving the car at home. First of all abolish road tax and put it on fuel duty - those who use the roads most pay the most - that's only fare. Cap insurance rates to make car ownership a lot cheaper but bung 10p a litre on fuel to make driving it more expensive. Make driving in towns and cities expensive to make buses the cheaper option through parking tarrifs and congestion charges. More bus lanes, priority traffic lights, roadworks on bus routes only carried out at night unless unavoidable, park and ride sites at motorway junctions. But, I hear screams of protest, what if you live nowhere near a bus route even after all the improvements? Quite simple. With modern technology councils will be able to tell who lives more than half a mile from a bus route and they would be exempt from the extra fuel prices. That would include places of work, which if they were more than half a mile from a bus route probably wouldn't be in places causing too much congestion anyway. Of course others, including bus drivers, emergency vehicles etc would also be exempt. Please don't write in citing all those who should also be exempt - it's a concept!
All that, with bus services planned around what the customer needs, rather than what would create the greatest profit, and we might still have something to pass down to future generations.
I expect the usual suspects to come out saying I'm in fantasy land, or just moaning again but something needs to be done, and done soon. The current system isn't working, and where areas like Kent are not in as much trouble as areas like East Anglia, there is nowhere that doesn't need improvement. Trouble is - is there the will to make it happen. I doubt from the top of the bus industry, because they quite like their salaries, as I would in their position, so it's up to others to make the noise.