Saturday 13 November 2021

Bus Back Better In Suffolk?

 I have been forced out of unofficial retirement by the publishing of Suffolk County Council's plan for bus services over the next 4 years. You will remember last time SCC held a consultation on buses they thought the future in areas yet to get a decent mobile signal was autonomous pods (see here) and I was somewhat sceptical when the Department of Transport announced the catchy but grammatically wrong Bus Back Better strategy (see here). So you can imagine my excitement and optimism when I learned of Suffolk's plan to get a slice of that promised £3b for the resurrection and advancement of bus services by the same people responsible for decimating the bus network over the last 11 years. 

So let's go through the plan. First of all you need a starting point, a template with which you can plan future services around. Now to me, and I would suggest quite a few, a good starting point would be 2010, when the bus network was at its most recently comprehensive, then decide how many routes could/should be brought back, and which really couldn't. But no, SCC have decided that the base to use as a foundation to rebuild the bus network is 2019, after 9 years of cuts which have seen routes and services decimated and many now left without a service, or at best 1 or 2 buses a day which obviously is not going to convince too many to come back. I would say once a week but all those popular and well patronised routes have gone. 

Those who know Suffolk will note the absence of places such as Aldeburgh, Halesworth, Saxmundham, Rendlesham, Framlingham and Stowmarket.  It is also noticeable that 5 of the routes are predominantly outside the County, and 2 are Ipswich Park & Ride services, So for those in Halesworth, for example, where it was difficult to get a seat on the 0930 and 1030 services into Norwich before Go-Ahead wrecked the route, there seems little scope for optimism. Indeed, SCC's clearly extensive research into how road infrastructure can be improved to aid buses shows this. 

It took me a long time to think of a bus route that would benefit from A14 junction improvements, and the only two I can think of are the X7 from Ipswich - Felixstowe, and the 11/X11 from Bury St Edmunds to Cambridge. Thing is though, to my best knowledge it's not the A14 junction that delays the X7, but congestion in Ipswich and along Wherstead Rd. Re-opening Bury Rd P&R is a good idea, except it was closed because of lack of patronage due to congestion along Norwich Rd which is still a major issue. There was a perfectly good cross town service in Lowestoft in the 61/2 before that fell to the Go-Ahead mismanagement axe, so waiting for the new bridge rather than allowing time for delays caused by the current bridge in the timetable (as the 61 did) seems less than ambitious. Will a third crossing in Great Yarmouth relieve the congestion issues in Gorleston and Southtown Rd? Not that that's Suffolk's problem. So the hopes for more bus lanes, traffic light priority etc seem forlorn.

Obviously I'm re-reading the 59 page document as I'm composing this post, and I have just noticed our old friends the autonomous vehicles have not been forgotten! Incidentally if anyone can translate the following into plain english then you are either a legal lawyer or very clever!

Of course you could always ask bus users, and not user groups, who have their own agenda, but real passengers. On board and online surveys would be a start. Find out what the potential passenger wants - I'm sure I've been here before! What is a synthetic population?

There is so much waffle in this document it beggars belief, but eventually you get to the nitty gritty, proper proposals as to how bus services can be improved in the future, how passengers both old and new can be lured onto buses, how journey times can be improved, and how reliability and satisfaction can be enhanced. Here we have their template for improving journey times.

I would draw your attention to the 1st and 4th paragraph. Remember those routes that were predominantly in another County? Well those parts of the route are being excluded as SCC don't control the roads. Never let it be said they could consult with neighbouring Councils for the greater good and benefit to bus users. Now for the bit that had me clutching my sides, gasping for breath and wiping the tears of laughter from my face. Here are the targets for journey improvement times by 2025 on these key corridors within Suffolk. Brace yourselves because they are challenging!

So yes, crack open the bubbly, throw away the car keys, plan extra time with your kids! If you travel between Lowestoft and Beccles, by 2025 the target is to have cut your journey time by 22 seconds. No, that's not a typo. If you travel from Lowestoft to James Paget Hospital you can look forward to an extra 14 seconds in bed. Lowestoft - Southwold, a journey that apparently takes 46m 12s is going to have 28 seconds guillotined off the time, assuming the temporary lights at Wangford have gone that is. Good luck with knocking off the 2m 31s off London Rd P&R, not that I regard P&R as a genuine bus service as they are not regarded as local bus services for Concessionary passes etc. No mention of reducing the nearly 2 hours it takes to get from Ipswich - Aldeburgh I see.

I'll just leave the reliability aims here. However the current shortage of drivers needs to be addressed if these targets are to be achieved.


So we move onto passenger numbers, and it seems SCC think the recovery from Covid will take some time, as they aim to be back to 2018 numbers by 2025, which were 2 million lower than 2016, which they hope to surpass by 2030.

There follows some ramblings on how these targets are to be delivered, which is mainly conjecture without substance. SCC are keen on Katch to be expanded, which is far from good news for rural passengers, especially those with concessionary passes, which Katch does not accept. Or if you want to connect with timetabled buses as there's no guarantee you'll get the right time slot. 

This little nugget caught my eye. The introduction of touch in touch out ticketing and daily fare capping. Good idea! Except this will only initially apply on the key corridors, so if you need to get a connecting local service you won't benefit, and there's no mention if this will also apply to DRT services. 

Speaking of ticketing here are the proposals including the novel idea of multi operator ticketing, which anyone who knows anything about buses has been calling for for yonks! Oh - can anyone define 'micro mobility'? We're not back to autonomous pods are we?

When reading the below it is worth remembering that currently SCC can't adequately liase with operators to ensure bus stops display up to date timetables.....

There then follows musings about de-carbonisation, including the potential for electric and hydrogen buses, carefully ignoring the fact that Suffolk had a fleet of gas buses that were the envy of the land at one point. A summary of the key aims concludes the paper.

So, the proposals required to get a slice of the cake are there. You might get your 22 second journey time reduction on the X2, but you can guarantee Suffolk or Norfolk Highways will scupper that with unco-ordinated roadworks on the A146. There is absolutely nothing in that paper that gives me hope or optimism for the future, as I do not believe the majority of proposals will ever come to fruition. There are no specifics, too many areas left unmentioned, no mention of any resurrected routes. All words and no concrete pledges. I haven't approached any operators for comment, as firstly they wouldn't be able to tell me what they really think, and if they did I wouldn't be able to quote them!

If you're into self punishment you can read the full paper by clicking here, and good luck with all the jargon!

Thanks for reading, good to be back, if only for what at the moment is a one off. Still not much going on anywhere, and I'm still busy with parental issues. But rest assured, if anything earthshattering happens, I'll be back! Take care, all and stay safe if you want to!