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.