Tuesday 16 March 2021

National Bus Strategy - My Thoughts

 Hi everyone! Yes, still here, just had precious little to write about over the last 6 months. Not being allowed on public transport has its disadvantages when it's what you write about, and since everything is currently on hold until things pick up again, like everyone else I'm in a state of limbo. 

However, yesterday the long awaited National Bus Strategy was published by Her Majesty's Government, setting out how buses are going to recover, expand and progress over the coming years. You can download the document by clicking here.

Now you'll have to forgive me for being a tad sceptical about the whole thing - after all it's designed and published by the same people who have wielded the axe on thousands of bus services over the last decade and more, not to mention promised us 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police, no hard borders, the elderly not having to sell their homes to cover care costs and so much more. Even the title of the strategy - Bus Back Better - made me wonder what that exactly means, it's not even proper english! 

It starts by proclaiming how wonderful and important bus services are, how vital to rural communities and how buses must be instrumental in modal shift from cars. Stopped laughing yet? It goes on to say how Local Transport Authorities (you know - the ones starved of cash for years) need to form partnerships with operators to develop a bus network that everyone will not only want to use, but will also be so convenient they'll be able to use it for just about anything, from getting to and from work, to going out weekends and evenings. Night buses in towns, Sunday and evening services in rural locations connecting with trains to get people home. Through ticketing, multi-operator ticketing, flat fares, capped fares, cameras at bus stops for security, timetables and info at every bus stop (except those on "turn up and go" routes that will be so frequent "passengers won't need timetables", looking forward to those springing up in Suffolk), more bus lanes and priority systems, even more guided busways (sorry, Tim).

There's more - all competing operators on the same route must have the same route number and include all other operators in the timetable. Lord knows how that would affect routes like Borderbus. 146, that competes with First's 99 for a third of the route and the X2/X22 for the other two thirds. Of course it doesn't say who would have to change their route number - it seems the new LTA/Operator partnership would have to sort it out themselves.

And sort it out they must, because without a partnership there won't be any money. So any Council who doesn't form one of these partnerships will not be eligible for any of the £3b allocated to the project. That is rather scary, as there are some councils who see buses as way down the list of priorities. 

Other jewels in the crown are 4,000 carbon neutral buses, major trunk routes with feeder services linking communities to them - sure I've mentioned that before - more publicity for tourist routes and so on. All sounds wonderful, but let's take a look at what wasn't mentioned. 

Ask any operator, and they will tell you the most expensive part of their operation is the staff, particularly drivers. Not just wages, but uniforms, pensions, NI contributions, CPC renewals, H&S courses etc. There is also a national shortage of bus drivers. Nowhere in the document is driver recruitment mentioned. On top of that, outside of the major towns shiftwork on buses has all but died. Services operate 7 - 7 and so do most of the drivers. Bringing back evening and Sunday buses will necessitate a huge increase in the number of drivers, who will all need training etc. Will the cost of that be included in the £3b? DRT is mooted for rural locations, especially to connect with trains - looking forward to a driver being paid to sit in a minibus outside Saxmundham station to connect with the last train on a Sunday! Yes, that's the same DRT that has been tried and failed in many areas, and here in Suffolk was cut back to the point of being useless 4 years ago. 

There was also no mention of how, exactly, car drivers were to be lured from their cars onto buses apart from pretty buses with usb charging and comfortable seating, although at least that's an improvement on new trains. So how are you going to encourage Mrs Smith to leave her car at home on a freezing February morning and walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop? Not an easy task when Mrs Smith forks out £1200 a year on car insurance, quite possibly £160+ a year on excise duty, MOT and service costs and can go door to door in comfort, warmth, with her favourite music playing. Ironically, you have to start by making running a car cheaper. If you spend that much running a car you're going to use it, and justifiably so. Nothing in the document to tackle that little problem, and there really is no easy solution. But not many people spending that much on a car will want to spend - or be able to afford to spend - hundreds more a year on bus fares. I was looking forward to reading in the document about enterprising schemes such as incentives for employers to cover a percentage of bus fares for employees willing to leave their cars at home. DRT buses serving industrial estates was mentioned - yeah right! Sorry, Jim, we've got an extra couple of users tonight so your journey home will be half hour longer than usual...

When I was growing up going into town for a shopping trip was an exciting event. Big supermarkets were still a thing of the future so grocery shopping was done locally. You went into town for clothes, to go to the bank, buy a record and have lunch in a cafe. You only shopped for as much as you could carry home on the bus. That has all changed so what incentives are there to do your shopping by bus these days? Would it be that difficult for the Government to link up with supermarkets and offer free same day delivery for customers shopping by bus? Iceland (the store) offers a you shop we deliver service so why not the big supermarkets? Many people don't like home delivery because they can't choose products themselves, or especially with the elderly get confused with online ordering. Get the bus to the supermarket, shop at your leisure, have a coffee, get the bus home and we'll deliver your shopping to you. Sounds good doesn't it. 

I was also looking forward to seeing how LTA's would engage with their communities to encourage growth of bus ridership. Nothing. Not a thing. Is it rocket science to have a competition among local primary schools to design the bus livery for the route serving them? After all they are the customers of the future - get them involved with their bus service early on and they'll feel part of it - something that the savvi operators have already sussed and are doing. If a community feels something belongs to them they will support it, be it a shop, village hall, school or bus service. Think I've mentioned that before too!

So all in all I'm not brimming with excitement. It seems they want an Oyster style system everywhere without the franchising which is crucial to Oyster's operation. Mini oysters, covering local areas, but who will set the boundaries. Having said that, they are right in saying contactless will soon replace smartcards, so seamless boundaries could be possible, but still tough if you live close to a boundary and live in one area but work in another.

To achieve what is set out in the strategy will cost far, far more than the £3b allocated in infrastructure changes alone, before the cost of recruitment, new vehicles, marketing etc is taken into account - and who will be responsible for marketing/bus stop info etc? The operator, in which case on a shared route who is responsible, and what if the other operator suddenly changes times, or the LTA, in which case which budget will it come out of? 

To conclude here is a very local example of what needs to change if public transport use is going to not only return to pre Covid levels, but exceed them. My nearest biggish town is Lowestoft. It costs around 7 quid in petrol to get there and back, If I had a partner and they came with me it would still cost around 7 quid. If we went by public transport, well there's no bus to the station and DRT is no use here now, so that's £15 for a taxi. A return from Darsham to Lowestoft is £11.20, if we want to go to Aldi or Morrison's that's another £3 return on the bus, and we can only shop what we can carry. Train back to Darsham then another taxi home - total cost for me alone £44.20, for two of us £58.40. Compared to £7 quid in the car which I've already paid tax, insurance and maintenance costs on, not to mention the cost of buying the car in the first place. 

It isn't a case of just putting pretty buses on the road, it's changing the way society thinks, and there is nothing to tackle that in the strategy. The lack of response yesterday from the bus industry was noticeable, and even those that did respond were predictable and used the same language they would for any announcement promising £3b for the industry. 

That's enough from me, stay safe, hopefully we can all start using public transport again soon, and that in 5 years time I can look at this post and say wow I got that wrong!

Bus Back Better - someone was paid to come up with that!