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! 


  1. Welcome Back Steve!! Notwithstanding other commitments, don't leave it so long next time!!

    In re the Suffolk BBB Plan . . . remember these only have to be vague ideas at present, and are subject to the release of financing from the £3bn DfT money. All that SCC MUST do by April 2022 is implement an Enhanced Partnership between County and bus operators (Intalink in Hertfordshire is the model to be followed . . . that started in April 2020 but had been around for 20 years before that). In theory that should sort out publicity and consultations . . .

    Quite what will happen if the money isn't forthcoming . . . no-one knows. So all the woolly promises may well not happen at all.
    BTW . . . how's Katch performing . . . still uselessly??

    1. Hiya! Katch has reduced its operating hours to 8-8 (8-6 Suns) but has extended to Tunstall and Snape obviously in the hope of luring visitors to Snape Maltings out of their Jags and onto a minibus you have to book in advance.

    2. Just a quick question greenline. If the Interlink Partnership is so good in Herts, why is the local Arriva (the dominant local operator/partner) so bad, as you've stated elsewhere, and actually "blamed" them for the poor state of the network!!
      I'd actually suggest that these Partnerships (enhanced or otherwise) make SA difference. Talk is cheap, money buys...
      The good will be good, with or without them, and the bad can hopefully hide under their cloak of respectability.

    3. smurfuk . . . I've only just picked up your question, so:
      An EP will only improve bus services if the operators are prepared to put the effort into operating the services as registered. What an EP does do (amongst other things) is bring the Districts into the game . . . they MUST listen to operators and take steps to improve traffic flow where they can.
      Unfortunately an EP has limited "teeth" in this regard . . . in theory Arriva "could" be removed from the EP, which will mean that they lose the benefits of the EP, so in the case of Intalink, they would have their publicity removed from bus stops etc. The guidance from DfT didn't really expect this to happen; especially from one of the big operators!!

      I'd say that the local Arriva (now controlled from either Maidstone or Leicester (? . . . not sure!) is probably no worse than most other Arriva's across the UK . . . suffering from under-investment and a lack of direction.
      If an operator is performing atrociously badly, then it's the T.Comms that would take action, not an EP. Remember that an EP (certainly with Intalink) now holds route registrations on behalf of the TC, so would inform the TC of poor operations for the TC to take action. At present, though, all operators are struggling to one degree or another, so it's probably not right just now.

      It's difficult to determine yet how a new EP will improve matters in the long run . . . Intalink just converted from a "loose" partnership to an EP, so it was only a step up.

      A county like Dorset, or Hereford (in the news recently) must have an EP in place by April 2022 . . . they have nothing similar now, so they would be better guinea-pigs!! Nothing will change quickly, though . . .

    4. Oh dear greenline. Is that really the best you can do? (of course). I hope the DTp are paying you well!

      All of the major operators have poor OpCos, as do a fair number of smaller ops. Look at FEx, TrustyLine (as was), newbie Vectare, and its predecessors around Harlow and Cambs, or even that nameless one that used to ply the Ipswich/Colchester gap or ECC dlo's attempts, NIBS, the Red group, Stagecoach in Bedford, perhaps you could even try CentreBus and your old moniker, before you label Arriva!
      Districts don't have any legal highways or (except as the owner of an operator) public transport responsibility. The local exceptions, Reading, Nottingham and Ipswich, seem to me to have made a pretty good fist of their bits (as do Arriva's ex municipals in Colchester and Southend). The DTp does, of course, have a big traffic responsibility through the highways agency but they aren't mentioned. How much of Herts traffic problems originate on their strategic network? Look at the m1/a1/m25, perhaps? Same in Essex.
      I wouldn't criticise HCC on timetables. Does that need an enhanced EP? Who pays for it, by the way? As for Explorer, what financial benefit is that to a minnow who never sells one, or to one who gets one?
      Sorry, I see nothing in your responses beyond the "I've done alright Jack". I'll grant you that much, at least !

    5. Sorry for coming back again. But this one is really too good to miss.

      A role for greenline that could make him the Ebenezer Howard of the Twenty First Century, and leave the original spinning in his grave with envy.

      If there is ever a scheme crying out to be public transport, and not estate agent, led it is that by Hertsmere in your local patch at Bowmans Green for some 16k dwellings. Not as an afterthought to deal with gridlock, but the first thing on the table around which everything else emerges and relates. The time is now, and you're the man!

      All it needs is to reignite that enthusiasm which you once told us brought you into this industry as an eighteen year old, to change the world. A place which inspires people to a new way of living for the future, not the past, and which challenges the industry as a model for the future. We need you!

      We could even call it the Bowmans GreenLine! There; just perhaps remember to give me a little bit of credit when you're inspired, and famous!

  2. Thanks for reviewing this, Steve. The Suffolk BSIP is much of a muchness with many around the country, which isn't that surprising, given how tightly the DfT has specified what should be included. And since it now appears that only £1.2bn is available over three years, that's an average of about £6m per annum per local transport authority. It's not going to go very far, and lots of ideas are never going to see the light of day, whether worthwhile or not.

    I do however have some sympathy with trying to retain passengers on current major routes, rather than try to attract new ones - inevitably penny numbers - to new (or reinstated) routes. I wasn't surprised to see the reference to DRT, but the amount of subsidy that is needed per passenger journey - north of £15 seems to be common - means that any such scheme is going to burn through cash very rapidly indeed.

    Some of the language has defeated me too, but I can say that micro-mobility is a term that includes the dreaded e-scooters, now being trialled in a number of town and cities.

    However, the elephant in the room in every BSIP is the failure to ensure new developments are well-related to the public transport network, rather than adding a token (and usually near-useless) bus service, and the fact that town centre retailing has taken even more of a nose dive than before Covid arrived.

    1. Unclear as to where the £6N per LTA comes from. The funding is for England only and excludes LOndon and Local Tranport Bodies who are being funded seperatly

  3. Here is the BSIP for Norfolk

  4. Sir, I've got a cunning plan ...

  5. ... or specifically, Doris could go on TV for half an hour every night and lecture everybody on the virtue of getting on the bus (with face mask on, of course, and duly sanitised). Well, it'd probably be better than anything else they've done to help!

  6. Let's cut through the crap. With a few exceptions and in this area at least, buses aren't money spinners.

    So how do you manage a low margin, low growth business? Do less. Leaving passengers stranded. Under-served and unserved passengers don't get in the statistics, so it looks good. And Boris can put on his best Cheshire cat grin.

    Or try to do as much as you can, and constantly jiggle your resources, as you're not making the return to justify more. Quality suffers, and you get nothing but greenline criticism for your pains. Makes us feel good, no doubt, but what does it do for anyone else?

    Which, as a passenger, do I prefer. Nothing v something?

    In all the jargon, nothing addresses this. Deliberately. After all, it doesn't matter to the I'm alright Jack, brigade does it?

    Are the buses just another here today, gone tomorrow headline, or something more?