Feeling healthy on the bus?

Thursday 20th September

The Westminster Parliament’s Transport Select Committee have been inviting comments for their Inquiry into the health of the bus market. As Monday’s closing date for feedback is fast approaching I thought I’d better gather a few thoughts for them.

The Inquiry’s scope sounds worthy enough…

Personally I prefer the Easy Read booklet ….

(Love the blue coloured rail ticket to illustrate a bus ticket!).

I always worry about these London based Inquiries particularly when MPs (and DfT mandarins) spend so much of their time in London and see lots of red buses. There’s always a risk of buses-in-London are good; buses-in-most-other-places are bad syndrome.

To illustrate this institutionalised London bus bias phenomenon, here’s a tweet from the Transport Select Committee from a few weeks ago calling for evidence and feedback for the Inquiry.

More pertinent would be what’s been happening over the last 25 months (never mind 25 years) now that London is coming to terms with zero public subsidy grant (as per many provincial local authorities) and the impact of a politically motivated but financially suicidal fares freeze.

And that’s aside from all the external factors which impact bus travel such as population growth (or not); population density; land use locations and density; economic activity etc etc.

I’ll cut to the chase with my comments for the TSC. There are two principal issues.

First that lack of subsidy. When deregulation was introduced in 1986 one objective was to end the damaging cross subsidy dragging all bus routes down to the lowest common denominator of (lack of) investment. Profitable routes were robbed of investment to prop up loss makers instead of reinvesting in frequency improvements, new buses and attractive marketing to realise their potential for growth.

Loss making but socially necessary routes where instead made solely the responsibility of local councils who could fund them as much or as little as they desired. Now, that no longer works because in austere Britain local councils simply don’t have the funds anymore. They can barely keep statutory responsibilities going let alone non-statutory nice-to-haves like bus routes.

So point one is: without public funding the 18% of bus routes which need it can’t possibly be healthy; they won’t run unless community transport operators step in or commercial bus operators provide some form of skeleton service as a goodwill gesture to compliment their networks.

The second point is about structural organisation within the industry. Those award winning bus operators running successful networks correlate almost exactly where empowered and impassioned managers are based locally with authority to make a difference without the corporate straitjacket imposed by increasingly centralised transport groups.

It’s as simple as that. And as it’s self inflicted it can easily be solved. It just needs Corporate CEOs and FDs to have faith in their local managers and let them do the business without constant referrals up the convoluted chain of command.

Back in the mid 1980s the National Bus Company split up its large subsidiaries that had built up through mergers and reorganisations in the 1970s for a very good reason. To get management closer to the action in more locally run businesses as deregulation and the threat of competition approached.

That still applies today but there’s an even more important reason. The need to finesse effective relationships with key local stakeholders like council CEOs and leading politicians who can introduce policies to restrain car use and give buses priority. They need reassurance and confidence that such politically courageous decisions will come good and be effective. That only works if you have respected senior bus managers embedded in local communities.

So point two doesn’t really need a Transport Select Committee Inquiry nor DfT bus policies, it just needs a new approach by the Groups to reintroduce localised management structures where they no longer exist and employ empowered impassioned managers.

We’d soon have a healthier bus market. Just look at where it currently works well.

Roger French 20th September 2018

2 thoughts on “Feeling healthy on the bus?

Add yours

  1. Yesterday, I travelled on Stagecoach Devon’s 155 from Exeter-Barnstaple via Tiverton & South Molten. This runs two hourly throughout but provides part of a half hourly service with the 55 from Exeter-Tiverton.

    Loadings dropped dramatically after Tiverton (not sure if DCC still support but they did once) and I was wandering if that combining with the Exeter-Tiverton service gives the 155 the strength to survive. A form of cross subsidy, perhaps but one that seems to work here, and a few other places on the Stagecoach Devon network (i.e, the Crediton corridor)


  2. Two major challanges face the bus industry, low concessionary reimbursement and congestion.

    Both are seriously damaging the profitabilty of marginal and not so marginal routes.


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