Friday 29 June 2018

Trains v Buses - They Both Have Their Place

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen a lively discussion between the rail industry and their bus counterparts. It started as a debate on the merits of the Cambridge Busway, and escalated from there. I simply cannot understand why, so it seemed good material for a post.

When I was 13 I went through a period of truancy. I would get the bus - fleet number duly noted - from my school to a fake dental appointment, which in reality meant a couple of hours at Chatham Rail Station trainspotting. Never felt as free in my life! I have used, worked on, written about, and enthused on both modes all my life. Both have delighted me, frustrated me, excited me, and yes let me down badly too. But that doesn't negate in anyway how vital both system are in today's world.

Let's start with the Cambridge Busway. In an ideal world the rail line from St Ives to Cambridge would never have been shut. But it was. So some bright spark had the idea that rather than pay the huge cost of re-opening it as a railway, why not modify it for guided buses, building two large Park and Ride sites on the route as well as serving former stations. Then it can branch off into the new Science Park before joining existing roads into the City Centre. Oh and a cycle path/walkway running adjacent to the line to get bikes and pedestrians away from the roads too. Better than having a dormant, decaying disused rail line. If maintenance needs to be carried out on the busway you don't need a bus replacement bus service either!

Unfortunately, this being England nothing goes to plan or budget and the busway was the same. Beset with problems it opened late and way over budget. But that was not the fault of the concept, or the bus industry. When I've been on it the buses have been very well patronised, the journey fantastic and not once have I been delayed by a signal or points failure, trespass incident, or roads buckling in the heat. Had the construction been done properly it would be deemed a huge success. Yes, the buses get stuck in traffic in the City Centre. but there's not too much can be done about that as Cambridge is full of historic buildings. Ban all cars is one solution but you'll never find a Council brave enough to do that.

The rail side of the argument contest that a train/light rail system would have been better. Really? In a City as tight as Cambridge? Would the train service have served the Science Park? That Science Park has expanded so greatly since the Busway opened it actually spawned the new Cambridge North station. Cambridge Station is nowhere near the City Centre so the Busway has brought the City Centre to more people, and more quickly too. Bottom line is if the railway had been successful it wouldn't have been closed in the first place so why was it?

The discussion moved on from there to which mode is responsible for taking more cars off the road. Well first of all hands up all those who live within walking distance of a rail station? Thought so, so how do you get to your station? Drive? Catch the bus? Cycle? Now how many live within walking distance of a bus stop? You're not all like me in the middle of nowhere! In Asford, in Kent, they thought of this, and targeted some of the big estates with frequent minibuses to and from the station, and the shops. It has proved such a success that they have had to increase the size of the vehicles. In Yorkshire the 36 between Leeds and Ripon via Harrogate has also been a triumph. Luxury seating, free wifi/usb charging and reasonable fares has seen many new customers. The same applies to the Cityzap between Leeds and York. I myself wrote a timetable for my local (5 miles away) route so it connected at Saxmundham better for the trains. Since it was implemented patronage of the route has increased and more are using it to get to the station.

Bus operators - some faster than others - are beginning to realise that you can't just expect new passengers to turn up, and that you have to give them a reason to leave the cars, that they pay through the nose to keep on the road, at home. So if you're going to sit in traffic you may as well sit in a leather seat, logged online and letting someone else do the swearing.

One other thing - from January 1st 2017 all buses had to have disabled access. Thousands of perfectly good buses were scrapped prematurely. Now you won't find a bus without a ramp or wheelchair space.  On the other hand some parts of the rail network have been going out of their way to make travel for the disabled as difficult as possible. Taking staff off trains, making wheelchair users book in advance, then losing the booking, stranding people on trains because of a communication cock up, the list goes on.

Trains are going backwards. New trains have hard seats, wifi you still have to pay for in some cases, absurdly complicated fares, fewer staff on board, and although they are great when everything is running smoothly, more often than not these days they don't, so you are delayed anyway. Since May 20th in some areas you are lucky to get a train at all, and don't know from day to day what services are running. I think right now we are seeing the benefit of the London congestion charge, as I'm sure that's deterring more people from turning back to their cars.

Now I can already feel the rail supporters puffing themselves up and berating Government interference in rail franchises. Rightly so. Bus operators are free to choose their vehicles, decide on the specifications, put decent seating in, choose which routes to run and when, and basically have a free hand. Which is ok to a point. That point being services are not protected or guaranteed. So if you are one of few passengers on the last bus home that doesn't matter. If it doesn't make money chances are you'll lose that service. No point getting the bus there if you can't get one back. A lot of people have stopped using buses for that very reason. In most regions now if you don't travel between 7am - 7pm buses are not an option. I just hope that the innovation shown in some areas reaches those parts that need it, and soon.

Rail, on the other hand is an industry that is apparently privatised yet still run by the Government, albeit rather badly. Yes private companies/consortiums operate the trains, but the Government tells them when, where and how, is in control of most fares, dictates the specifications for new trains, which of course are never owned by the operator but leased from rolling stock companies. So really the operators use borrowed trains on tracks they have to pay Network Rail for, who are owned by the Government, running services they are told to by the Government, on timetables written by Network Rail, who are owned by the Government, but get it in the neck when things go wrong - normally from the Government. Then the Minister says he doesn't run the railways.

We need a bit taken from both sides and injected into the other. On the bus side more should be done to protect services. If, for example 6 months notice had to be given to cut a route rather than 8 weeks, it would give more opportunity for communities to get together and ensure patronage went up. Yes it might discourage new routes but what we have still got needs protecting first. Government should ensure evening services are maintained so those using buses can get home, particularly if trains are delayed. No one will get the bus to the station if there's a chance they could be stranded if the last bus has gone before they get there.

The rail industry, while having services protected as now, should be allowed to get on with their job unhindered by government. They should be allowed to decide on the specification of new trains, or to make changes to existing stock, have more control over fares, with again protection in place, and be free to create initiatives to encourage off peak travel.

In short neither industry is perfect. I personally feel rail operators and bus operators should work far more closely together to encourage passenger growth, and to get rail passengers to the station including using Park and Ride sites out of town to keep cars away from town centres. Discounted rail tickets for bus passengers and vice versa. Public transport that works together for the benefit of each other, and most importantly the passenger. Without passengers the industry is nothing, but increasingly on rail passengers are seen as an inconvenience. Until the public transport industry starts being run for the passenger again, as some bus operators have realised, you can argue as much as you want, but neither rail or bus can really gloat too much right now. Both modes are equally important, but both modes have much room for improvement. It is up to us industry commentators on both sides of the fence that really shouldn't be there to take the blinkers off, not be afraid to speak the truth, and say things for what they are, not we would like to perceive them to be.


  1. Probably the first time ever Steve but I'm going to agree with you.

    But of course there has to be a caveat. Money. It doesn't grow on trees. We can have all the best intentions in the world but if the resources aren't managed effectively, it won't make a jot of difference. I see lots of cases where what we want is being done (at least if we look just at the paperwork) the trouble comes "on the ground". Whether it's an East Coast (or Thameslink) franchise, or a local bus operation, don't live within your means (and I mean all the resources not just the cash) and you're in trouble. And, as it's always been, a mess is a difficult hole to get out of. The temptation to carry on digging is irresistible. Not least because it makes for a good soundbite.

    We love our rules. But the other side of the coin is that try as hard as we might we can't legislate to make us good, where even God failed. Of course it never stopped us trying, over and over.

  2. Excellent post, as usual, Steve. Where I now live (Durham, North Carolina) buses are heavily subsidized and very good (flat fare $1 and has been since we moved here TWELVE years ago). Rail service not so good although the State does contribute to the main Charlotte-Raleigh corridor, but every attempt to introduce a VERY MUCH needed light rail system, linking the main cities of the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh) hits the financial buffers every 12-months or so. In fact the best chance we had has recently has been scuppered by the politicians.
    UK operators attracting more passengers? I suppose the widely used American system of carrying bicycles on the vehicles would be a non-starter ("Elf & Safety").
    Keep up you enthusiasm for both modes and take no notice of those trolls who haven't the guts to identify themselves.

    1. Cheers, Mick. Good to hear from you again. Trouble s buses only have so much space, and having to accommodate wheelchairs and multiple buggies would mean if they carried bikes too they would all need to be 15 metre long monsters! Maybe bike rack trailers on the rear but then you have the time factor of loading and unloading them.

    2. Here in NZ, it common for buses to have bike rack on front of bus, here a brand new Optare Metrocity with one on can hold 2 bikes at once, rarely seen them in use.

      Instructions are here

  3. Yes, it would be better with a train. Busway is too slow.

    YOU chose to live in a nothing village. You can't blame anyone but others in the village for having no buses.

    You're against providing disabled access on buses?

    Railways are fine. DOO is fine. Plenty of free WiFi. Your comment about the timetable change is just an over exaggeration.

    The rest of your post is just crap.

  4. "If, for example 6 months notice had to be given to cut a route rather than 8 weeks, it would give more opportunity for communities to get together and ensure patronage went up."

    Well to start with, that would stop operators from starting new routes, as it would be too risky if it wasn't to work.

    And 8 weeks, 6 months, 2's putting off the inevitable. Giving people 6 months to work together and increase patronage...great, but when the operator agrees to keep the route, it will go back to square 1. The reason it was to be axed in the first place.

    1. Selective reading?

      "Yes it might discourage new routes but what we have still got needs protecting first."

      How about you enlighten us with your thoughts on how things can be improved? I'm sure everyone is waited with bated breath!

    2. It's all down to funding. When funding is cut/ removed so are the routes.

      Remember earlier this year when subsidies were going to be cut, and it affected many services, especially Sanders on the North Norfolk coast?

      Remember 10 years ago? Wi-Fi and USB charging points had never been heared of. What incentives did they have back then? Step buses and bench seats on 25 year old buses?

    3. So how can te current system be improved so operators have more incentive to encourage passenger growth? What can Councils do instead of simply cutting services? What other avenues could they explore? It's ok just to shrug and say it's all about funding, but how do we stop it being all about funding?

    4. I suspect the whole licensing system should be reviewed. It's cumbersome and bureaucratic and I'm not sure it is looking after the passenger/public interest as it should.

      Once the operator has made the decision to axe a route it's almost too late. I agree that communities should get involved more but I don't think bureaucracy is the answer. Operators and parishes/community groups need to talk to each other, beforehand. Again it comes down to competent, confident management. Which often seems to be sadly lacking. Councils and Commissioners are not the solution, often they're part of the problem. Important as the rules are, and yes THE RULES MATTER (note to posters), the OpCos seem to think if they've kept the right side of authority they've done their job. No they aren't, that's 10% of it.

      And as some posters on here seem so keen to demonstrate, the inability to communicate (a two way process involving both patience and courtesy) seems to be a major part of the problem.

    5. Two local examples Steve. One Op (Stagecoach) wanted to turn an interurban service two hourly, but thanks to an articulate public, they worked together to find a solution, which SC has now developed to integrate the service into the successful busway. First Essex (a sense of inevitability permeates this one) ploughed ahead regardless, only to then be persuaded by articulate locals - who would not be shut up - of the inevitability that what they'd done made no sense whatsoever, and wouldn't achieve their own objective; and reverted the changes (after the bureaucratic wait) admittedly once they had been backed into a corner when they couldn't answer any of the points raised at a packed public meeting.

      If I could legislate sense I would. But I don't think anyone else has found a way, either.

      How did you persuade Mr. Speed by the way - a big stick?

    6. Come now Smurfy my boy, that's twice in one day we have agreed! I assume it was the Cambrisge/Peterborough route you're talking about? Nice route that.

      I didn't need to persuade him - he saw it was an excellent timetable, and at the first opportunity implemented it. If the poor bloke wasn't working with at least one hand behind his back I give you my word that FEC would be in a much better state. They will lose Chris at their peril.

  5. Therefore, if the answer doesn't lay at funding, stop mentioning "when I was younger...20 years ago....When I moved to this village..." as the reason you had a bus service there was due to funding.

    If funding was not available 10/20 years ago, many bus routes would have stopped many years before they did.

  6. Without being presumptuous, many people which use buses which are in small villages are pensioners. Each one using their bus pass, and the operator getting less than £1 back per journey. Fill a Solo up and that would just about cover costs.

    What I see is this:

    You slate companies like Konect (and anglian RIP) for cutting services which are unviable. I.e. some in Beccles and surrounding areas. You say that not enough was done to protect the service. However, nothing is stopping another operator from taking over. You talk highly of border bus. If these services had potential, why haven't operators such as borderbus come in and started the same route the day anglian/Konect pulled out? More than likely as they don't see them as viable.

    All I can say is that bus operators are businesses, not charities. Tesco wouldn't keep stocking a product if only a few people bought it, would they? Just like any business, they are soley focussed on the bottom line.

    1. You keep on criticising me but have yet to come up with any ideas of your own. As for Borderbus they don't want to expand any further as that would mean finding new premises. It's a shame but that's just how it is.

      Would you like to reveal yourself, btw rather than hiding behind your mask? I don't see anything you have to hide.

    2. I'm not criticising you, I'm just putting my point across that nothing stops another operator taking over a route which one operator ceases. If they don't, there must be a good reason for it.

      Selective reading? (Exactly what you said to me)

      It comes down to funding. Let's have buses with USB, Wi-Fi, and tables. What else? Well, as a car user, I have enough data that I can use 4G freely; I can charge my phone in the car; and it's much quicker.

      If I can't say funding, then it would be to charge a congestion charge. This would be great for routes leading to Norwich, but then, could you really introduce a congestion charge for, let's say, Worlingham to Barnby? Many routes which are at risk dont serve cities, so this wouldn't work for these types of route.

      I don't have a solution, but I believe it's less about making the bus more attractive, and more about making driving less attractive.

    3. And here we have the chicken/egg syndrome. Car users won't leave their cars at home as buses aren't attractive enough, and buses can't afford to make themselves attractive as car users won't leave their cars at home.

      One thing that can be done is Park & Ride made more attractive for single drivers. Sure they are great value if you are a family, but not if it's just you. Rather than charging people more to park in town, charge them far less to park outside town and bus in. but the service must match requirement and not stop too early.

    4. I disagree. If I'm using my car to go to Norwich, I want to do that. I don't want to stop half way, wait 10 minutes for a bus, and the same on the way out - even if it was free. Unsure why Park and Ride has come into this, as that hasn't been cut.

      How it is currently, many people wouldn't use the bus, even if it was free, over using their car. Yet, charging people extra to use their cars would then make some people more inclined to use the bus.

      Tell me - apart from cost, and not having to drive (many people enjoy driving) what benefits are there of using a bus for a car user?

  7. Let's do a case study.

    Konect bus 85 is subsidised by NCC and is currently loss making. It will likely be pulled at some point.

    Let's say Konect want to do everything possible to make the route viable.

    They bring in brand new buses with: USB charging points; they have free WiFi; seats with tables (probably not with what buses are needed for the route); individual lighting; an increased service in peak periods; a fare refund if the bus is more than 15 minutes late; aircon and heating; next stop announcements.

    Would this then increase patronage by 300% and make it profitable. If it was all about making the bus more attractive, all operators on all routes would have high spec buses.

    Unfortunately for some routes, no matter what you do, it wouldn't be viable without funding. At the end of the day, councils need to see why they gave funding in the first place, and by cutting it, there will be no benefits for the community.

    If all funding was cut, Sanders would likely cut half of their services. I'm not saying because they are a bad operator, just that no matter what an operator does, they cannot make them viable.

    1. And in some respects you're right, although I have yet to see evidence of engagement with the community. The one example that has is the Beccles Town Service. Dropped by Anglian, taken over by Borderbus, and now makes a profit. Why? Because Borderbus met with the community and told them straight that they couldn't afford to run it at current revenue levels, and if the community wanted it they might think about leaving their free passes at home occasionally and paying the fare.

      The community took that on board (pun intended), and now the route makes a profit. Not huge, but enough to guarantee its immediate future. If other communities, such as that on the 85 were persuaded to do the same it might save the route. That means operators engaging with communities for the good of everyone.

      I also go back to my idea of charging £25 a year for passes, the money then ring fenced by Law to be spent sponsoring loss making services. No pass holder I have questioned has said they would object to that, but is there a politician brave enough to implement it? I doubt it.

    2. Great to hear Borderbus being able to get the community on their side. However, I do believe when Anglian dropped the route, customers were worried about the loss of service, and pass holders have only helped them, as they saw a company pull out first hand.

      If First or Konect said to their passengers about a possible withdrawal of service, I don't think it would be met with the same response, however, definitely worth a go.

      Even so, the free bus passes are that. I'm not saying users shouldn't pay a yearly fee, but on routes where there is a high density of older people, getting less than £1 back from NCC is abysmal. Soon the council will be asking operators to carry them free of charge!

    3. I thing the regulations should allow bus companies to make a small charge for passholders where a service is marginal or loss making say capped at 25% of the standard adult fare

      I agree with the other posts in that bus companies do not engage with their customers at all and that their market research and advertising of services is all but non existent. Unfortunately local councils are even worse, An example of the daft ideas they come up with can be seen on Suffolk On Board. They have but on two journeys a day from Glemsford to the Sudbury Health Centre. Now how is that of any real use to anyone

      Another thing you can find on there is the Public Transport Forum. It held three meetings at random intervals . The last being in April 2016 so I think we can say it has ceased. Again there was no involvement of the passengers and the distinct impression I get is SCC have no interest at all in Public transport.

  8. No mate - trying to remember where that was! I was at a jolly concentration camp near Cookham Wood!

  9. Silly idea but....Increase Council Tax by, let's say £10. This is strictly for bus funding. This £10 extra can actually be used to pay for a bus ticket. Therefore, if you use a bus in the year, the council tax rise is zero. If you don't use the bus, then you lose the voucher.

    Taking into account the population of Norwich, % of people exempt from council tax, % of people using the bus already (meaning there wouldn't be a financial benefit from these people), this could raise £250-£500k per year. Would be hard to roll out, but I believe something like this (not this exactly) is a good way forward.

  10. You're right Steve my comments could equally have referred to the Peterboro' route to the north, but I was actually thinking of the Royston route in the south! Double points!

    Everything gets hung up on money. Right, of course it does. But do we have to before we've even started, too? Let's perhaps concentrate a bit on what we can do rather than what we can't. The financing and congestion issues do need to be addressed as a society, but it's a slow and cumbersome process which none of us control. Something else is needed, too.

    My starting point is that the companies have problems running many routes viably, and their passengers have problems with using many of the routes that they do run too. So instead of each getting in their bunkers and shouting in desperation at each other, why can't they seek some common ground and a compromise? The companies get what they want and the passengers do too, but each has to give ground to get it too. It can't happen without management who talk with the passengers, rather than just at them. It means change for everybody, but without change there is no progress.

    Here's two golden rules for bus managers:
    1. If your customers are saying "we could tell the company what they should do but they just won't listen", you've failed. And believe me, they are saying it, a lot. Before we dismiss it all as impractical rubbish, how do you know unless you've talked with them? Often it's not A or B, but somewhere in between. Think, outside your box.
    2. When your customers don't understand what game you're playing at (apart from fleecing them endlessly, when they've given up trying), you've failed.
    You need to get together with your customers (and your drivers, who know more than you do about what is going on the ground) and work something out. It's how we solve problems.

    My feeling is that both sides "know" what the other want and is like. The trouble is they don't, because they never bother to find out. In the case of the companies they won't (shut eyes and hands over ears) and in the case of the poor passengers (and equally important would-be passengers) they simply can't because no-one bothers to listen to them. Try open minds rather than just open mouths. Yes, it challenges the "do as you're told" corporate culture (even when it's dressed up as "culture change". Been there, done that). We have to.

    Let's have a new motto. Drop "use it or lose it" which we should have left in the 1970s with "take it or leave it" (which means "leave it" for most of us).

    "Let's work it out, together". Try it. As for the politicians and the Commissioners, they're our servants, not our masters. We don't need intermediaries, unless we've failed. But why should we set out to fail in the first place?

    1. You just summed up the demise of Anglian perfectly. I do refer you to the Beccles Town Service, which is a perfect example of the compromises you were talking about.

      I'm a bit concerned about you talking this much sense in one thread - I'm really not used to it!!!!!

    2. Yes (again) got that, though it might not just be fares but routes/timetables too, in fact anything!

      Borderbus and Stephensons (at least sometimes) can do it, and other small independents who deserve a mention too, even Stagecoach (sometimes, though I'm told their treatment of staff locally is atrocious and they've plenty of complaining customers, though with Cambridge traffic I suspect it is inevitable). So why does two-way communication give First and Go-Ahead such trouble? They know it, because they make the Twitter gesture (which done badly is actually often more of an insult).

      I know in Colchester the First passengers pull their hair out at the Company's wilful ignorance of the obvious, so much so that it is putting the business at jeopardy. Why? Both Chelmsford and Basildon are close runners-up in the idiocy stakes.

      As you so rightly point out we've been there before with Anglian. Haven't they learned anything?

  11. And yes Steve, on your other point, I too think the bigger picture renders the whole of this discussion irrelevant for First. I too believe that the Eastern Counties company could be ready for take off; if they were under the control of anyone but First.

    But Wickers has been brought in to prevent that from happening while FirstBus tread water and, more importantly, to try and achieve an orderly wind-down of the basket case that is First Essex. Orderly wind down or disorderly collapse? It is still anyone's guess. But it renders the whole discussion in this thread irrelevant for their poor Essex passengers, at least until their future operators emerge. Watch and wait is the byword, for the time being.

    But until First can make their minds up about the future of First Bus ... Not only do they seem to have moved no further forward at the end of their five year invisible "recovery plan" that they sold to their investors to persuade them to throw good money after bad, but now they seem to have no clear idea about the rest of their operations either. Throwing the captain overboard is a start, they're just not sure of what, exactly.

    So to quote the old saying we can be hopeful, perhaps, but not optimistic.