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

Seven steps to simpler rail fares. Sorted.

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Tomorrow is the last day to give feedback for the Rail Delivery Group’s review of rail fares with the aim of making them much easier to understand. They’ve produced a simple clickable online survey which, if you don’t make any additional comments or suggestions, only takes around five minutes to complete, so is well worth a whirl.

There are questions on things like the merits of basing fares on distance, time of day/day of week, level of service, time of booking, method of booking, flexibility of travel, split ticketing, rewarding loyalty, discounts for railcards as well as methods of payment.

The RDG review pledges any changes will be financially neutral so for every attractive outcome offering lower ticket prices there’ll be others paying more for their journey. I can’t see the latter going down well with the rail industry’s political masters nor the commentators and media who like to find fault. Which group of passengers will willingly pay more for the sake of achieving a more logical, easier to understand fares system?

And in that context here are my seven suggestions for simplification:

1. Do away with cheaper return tickets and just have single journey tickets.

In some cases cheap off peak returns are only 10p more than the single which is particularly anomalous. Instead maintain the ability to buy a return (for convenience) but it’ll simply cost double the single. In averaging this all out, most people already make return journeys so this won’t have a huge impact on what people pay; it will mean cheaper single journey prices and modestly more expensive return prices but still achieving the same overall revenue take. While we’re at it, the summation of single leg journey prices mustn’t be less than the price charged from end to end to avoid split ticket anomalies.

2. Do away with Advanced Purchase discounted tickets.

In many cases, for Standard Class travel, they don’t offer the savings they first appear to once the cost of a return journey is taken into account. An off peak return is very often just as cheap as two Adanced Purchase tickets for the separate journey legs. Furthmore, off peak returns offer complete flexibility on journey travel times.

3. Do away with peak/off peak price differentials; charge the same ticket price irrespective of travel time.

Bit radical, I know, but season ticket holders travelling five days a week already pay something close to five times the off peak fare anyway. They always reckon they’re hard done by, but actually the perceived high cost of travel is because they pay in bulk and make more journeys. An occasional traveller pays much more per journey as they pay full whack in the morning peak with an Anytime Ticket. This change will obviously mean off peak ticket prices rising relative to peak prices but see my suggestion number 7.

4. Do away with cheaper tickets restricted to one particular train company.

All tickets should be available on any train running between the origin and destination and used by ‘any permitted’ route between those points. Which brings me to…

5. Make it much more clear what the ‘Any Permitted’ route options are for tickets.

I’m pretty sure only the renowned ticketing expert Barry Doe knows what can be done and what can’t; the rules are so complex and almost impregnable. It can’t be beyond the wit of the fares experts at the RDG to produce a nice interactive online map of the rail network where you can click on your origin and destination stations and up comes all the route options possible on the map. I think people would be amazed what flexibility is available and when combined with the ability to break your journey at any station on route (something many passengers are also unaware is possible) opens up many flexible travel options.

6. Do away with seat reservations.

Increasingly I see passengers ignoring their allocated seat and instead opting for a preferred better placed unreserved seat especially when unreserved (or less busy) coaches are marked up on platform indicator boards. Passengers like the ability to choose a preferred seat once they actually arrive on the train, but this leads to chaotic scenes where reserved seats are foregone as passengers rush to bag unreserved seats. I’m also increasingly finding electronic seat reservations systems are unreliable leading to more confusion as passengers board along the route expecting to find their reserved seat.

7. My final suggestion, having swept away cheaper returns, cheaper advanced purchases, cheaper peak tickets and reservations in favour of a simple easy-to-understand one price system…….is to add a bit of complexity back, but using a promotional marketing approach by significantly expanding the range of Railcards.

7a Make Railcards available for any adult without the need to be of a certain age, have a partner or children, or work for the armed forces. Yes, let anyone buy a Railcard. A sort of Nationwide Network Card. The range will include paying something like £100 up front for a year which would offer say, a 50% discount off peak on the new standard single fare. Or another could be £40 offering a third discount. I’m not privy to know the revenue streams from different tickets now, so it’s difficult to know what the price band/discounts need to be, but I hope you get the idea behind the principle of establishing say three or four Railcards of this kind to appeal to different market segments. You’d design Railcards to appeal to regular users as well as occasional users and the discount would encourage travel by offering a good value price. Offers could also be made on the upfront price of the initial Railcard purchase to encourage take-up and discounts given for longer duration Railcards, as now, say for a three year validity.

7b Existing Railcards would continue and with some extensions of validity. For example Senior Railcard discounts should be available at any time, including during the morning peak in the London and South East area (ok, I need to declare a slight vested interest here; ok, a big-time vested interest here – I live in London and the South East and I use a Senior Railcard; a lot). Journeys wholly within London and the South East (as per the Network Railcard area – which itself is nonsensical to have one Railcard’s restrictions based on another’s area) are not discounted until after 9am presumably on the logic of not giving a discount at a busy time of day with packed out trains. But that doesn’t stand much scrutiny as Londoners with a Freedom Ticket (available to over 60s) giving completely free travel can use the overcrowded Underground at any time as can Senior Railcard holders travel at a discount on packed out morning peak trains in other conurbations around the country and finally as justification, Senior Railcard holders can already travel across the L&SE area border at morning peak times – e.g. there’s no time restriction on discounts for a pre 9am journey from Brighton to Ipswich (Ipswich is outside the L&SE area) but discounted travel is not possible pre 9am for Brighton to Colchester (Colchester is within the L&SE area). Again this is something many passengers don’t know about, indeed my recent experience has been even some ticket office staff don’t know about it either and wrongly assume a Senior Railcard means no discounts before 9am. Not true.

So that’s it, a much simplified ticket system with some attractive incentives through a new range of Railcards. Sorted.

If you’ve got ideas or comments about rail fares be sure to click here by close of play tomorrow.

Roger French           9th September 2018

LT’s reshaping began 50 years ago today

I won’t say I remember it as if it was yesterday, as that really would be an exaggeration but it seems impossible to believe today marks the 50th anniversary of London Transport’s revolutionary Bus Reshaping Plan hitting the streets of Wood Green and Walthamstow as well as a plethora of new Red Arrow routes criss-crossing Central London.

The Plan certainly looked impressive.

It was full of interesting statistics and artists impressions of how things would look much better when the whole of London had been reshaped. Here’s a flavour ….

For an impressionable teenager with a growing interest in London’s buses it was a game changer. Aside from RFs, the beloved GSs in the Country Area and the first experimental XMSs on new Red Arrow route 500 introduced in 1966, fifty years ago London’s buses were all double deck and mostly RTs and RMs at that (ok some were ‘L’ and ‘W’ variants and also a few RLHs and XAs for added spice). So a fleet of gleaming single deck buses with two doors seamlessly interchanging with revamped trunk routes and the Underground really did capture the imagination.

The idea was to limit the impact of traffic congestion on long routes while introducing cost savings through one person operation on the new shorter localised routes with a revolutionary 6d flat fare. All the new ‘satellite’ routes (as they were futuristically called) were centred on Wood Green and Turnpike Lane Underground stations and shopping area in the first scheme introduced on 7th September 1968.

I grew up in Winchmore Hill located at the north end of the new W4 route. This replaced the well established 141 (previously Trolleybus 641) north of Wood Green having originated in Moorgate.

As well as Winchmore Hill, new shortened routes went to Edmonton (W1) and Alexandra Park with Crouch End and Finsbury Park in the peaks (W2) and oddly a long established route from Northumberland Park via Wood Green to Finsbury Park (233) was simply renumbered W3 and converted to flat fare MBS vehicle operation. It was shortened and split into two sections on Saturdays with a W5 and W6 meeting at Wood Green and both continuing south to Turnpike Lane along the High Road shopping area, but as that was a congestion hotspot on a busy Saturday the arrangement didn’t last long and the W3 soon became daily. Unlike the others it hasn’t succumbed to any route change since 1968 and is the only route still operating exactly the same fifty years on!

It all must have seemed a very sensible idea on paper when LT’s Board Members gave the go ahead but sadly the wheels soon came off the whole Plan.

The MBS class was not best suited to London conditions and engineering staff were ill prepared. Mechanical and electrical problems weren’t helped by the buses being stored for months in damp wet conditions as negotiations with trade unions over their use had become protracted.

Drivers weren’t used to their longer length particularly in London’s congested traffic and manoeuvrability was a problem.

Passengers certainly weren’t used to the front entrance door (nor the centre exit) and particularly not the fiendish looking ticket machines protecting the turnstiles (yes, turnstiles) which were almost impossible to pass through if encumbered with shopping. I witnessed many shopping bags being pushed through and reaching the far side of the turnstile while their owners became stranded on the entry side. Children had to push an audible button on the ticket machines to alert the driver they were only paying 3d to release the turnstile.

The buses soon gained the ‘cattle truck’ nomenclature as the lack of seating forward of the centre doors meant most passengers had to stand with very little to balance against or hold on to in the central area away from the windows. After a short while seven individual seats were retro-fitted in this area.

The 6d flat fare was welcomed by those who’d previously paid more (8d, 1/-, 1/3), but regarded as extortionate for those making shorter cheaper priced journeys (4d), or in those pre-Travelcard and Hopper Fare days, had previously travelled through on a newly curtailed long trunk route without paying a separate fare at all.

Reliability, far from improving, plummeted as all these problems compounded to leave long gaps between buses.

Over in Walthamstow, the new bus station in Selborne Road alongside the just opened Victoria Line Underground station wasn’t ready so buses had to decamp to neighbouring unsuitable residential roads to turn, with dolly stops making for a chaotic introduction of the new flat fare circular route W21 and a whole host of truncated and changed longer distance bus routes to take account of the smart new tube trains; albeit they only reached Highbury & Islington for the first few months with Victoria itself only reached the following March 1969.

Other areas of London received flat fare routes later in 1968, including Bermondsey/Rotherhithe (October) and Ealing (November) as these plans were well advanced by September 1968 but it was soon back to the drawing board for later schemes.

With the benefit of hindsight and being positive and kind, the Plan suffered from being ahead of its time. Shortened routes in a congested Capital City make sense; indeed TfL are still shortening routes for exactly the same reason fifty years on. One person operation was eminently sensible to reduce operating costs, it’s just that ticketing technology freeing the driver from handling fares and cash has really only become available relatively recently. The 6d flat fare was certainly ahead of its time. And was remarkably cheap. In today’s money it would be around 45p. TfL’s flat fare, admittedly on longer routes across the whole network is currently frozen at £1.50. Better interchange between the shortened ‘satellite’ routes at Underground stations was another forward thinking aim; an improved bus station was built alongside the Piccadilly Line station at Turnpike Lane, which has since been further expanded and improved in the intervening years, as have impressive interchanges right across London.

As highlighted above route W3 is noteworthy for running unchanged between Finsbury Park and Northumberland Park fifty years on exactly as it did when introduced on 7th September 1968 (and as it had done since October 1949 as route 233 before that) while Red Arrow 507 also still runs between Victoria and Waterloo pretty much as it’s done for the past fifty years except for a minor rerouting via Vauxhall Bridge Road from May 2011.

Also noteworthy is route E3, part of the Ealing scheme introduced on 30th November 1968, between Greenford and Chiswick also running pretty much unchanged today.

There’s a brilliant new book just published by Capital Transport – Reshaping London’s Buses by Barry Arnold and Mike Harris. It’s extremely well written and full of fascinating background and detail; well worth a purchase and a read.

Finally if you’re reading this on publication day take a trip over to North Weald on Sunday (9th) for a unique line up of preserved ‘Merlin’ and ‘Swift’ buses organised by the Epping Ongar Railway.

Roger French       7th September 2018

All Change for Cross Country

Today is the last day to make your views known to the DfT if you’d like to see changes made for the next Cross Country franchise due to begin in December 2019. Although as befits things on rails it might be put back into 2020.

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The current franchise has been operated by Arriva Trains UK since 2007 when it took over from Virgin Trains.

The main issue DfT highlights in the consultation document that needs resolving, as we all know only too well, is over crowding particularly on late weekday afternoons when the 64% of us travelling who are long distant leisure travellers clash with the 23% using Cross Country trains to commute home from the major towns and cities served. Sunday afternoons also peak out as the number of journeys simply hasn’t kept up with growing demand for leisure travel.

Aside from the obvious answer of running longer trains, one option posed in the consultation is whether to concentrate resources on the core network centred on Birmingham and bounded by Plymouth, Southampton, Edinburgh and Manchester leaving extended journeys to outposts such as Aberdeen, Glasgow, Guildford, Bournemouth, Paignton and Penzance as well as localised parts of the Stansted Airport-Birmingham, Nottingham-Cardiff routes to other franchises. This could even include one of the two journeys an hour north of York terminating there or possibly Leeds.

The consultation points out GWR have plans to improve timetables west of Plymouth and TPE and LNER have plans for north of York while SWR serve the market well west of Southampton to Bournemouth.

For me the beauty of long distance travel is not having to change trains. Once settled into a seat with many miles ahead it’s a pleasure to enjoy the journey without the hassle of getting off, worrying about and waiting for a connection and then finding a new seat for the next leg. It might mean less frequent journey choices but that’s more than made up for by a direct journey.

Indeed I lament the ending of long distance journeys that once served Brighton including latterly a journey to Manchester via Reading and Birmingham. Although only once a day and taking much longer due to pathing difficulties (it used the Clapham Junction/West London Line/Willesden link) it was popular with passengers who dislike using the crowded Underground to cross London for stations such as Paddington and Euston.

Families heading for holiday destinations in the south west encumbered with luggage really appreciate having a through train to their destination. Bearing in mind the Rail Delivery Group’s current campaign encouraging train travel for leisure trips to Devon and Cornwall it will be the ultimate irony if Cross Country trains end up being cut back.

Another possibility raised in the consultation is whether the market can be segmented by removing some of the stations served or making some stations set down or pick up only to discourage commuters and move them on to more local trains. But as the consultation admits, longer distance passengers might also use and value stations proposed for withdrawal (eg Burton-on-Trent, Stafford – my examples) and it’s just not practical to enforce set down/pick up only restrictions.

Bearing in mind the foregoing, counter-intuitively, suggestions for new destinations to be added to the Cross Country network are also invited with Liverpool, Bradford and Swansea mentioned. Although these would be welcome additions they’d be contrary to the other aim of ditching peripheral routes to concentrate capacity on the core network. The consultation acknowledges this and points out there are also track capacity constraints so I get the idea it’s one of those things you add into consultations to create a feel good factor but won’t ever come to anything.

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But if we are going to add lines on maps and setting aside those track capacity constraints I’d like to see more south east options added including the aforementioned Brighton and hey, why not, Dover and Canterbury, maybe even using High Speed 1 tracks for part of the way. I can dream too!

The new franchise is an opportunity to draw a line under the hugely unpopular Advanced Purchase on the Day idea (APOD – as it’s fondly known) whereby a passenger nicely ensconced in their seat (even paying full whack) can be turfed out by a last minute passenger boarding along the route having just bagged a cheapo ticket with a newly reserved seat. The fact Cross Country’s senior management have always been in denial about how disruptive and unpopular this ‘innovative ground breaking’ (not) idea has been only made the irritation worse; and the Company’s Twitter team’s only response to any complaint is ‘you can also reserve a seat by text for yourself’, yeah and turf someone else out of their seat. I’m not that anti-social. Nor do I want to be pre-allocated a naff seat with no window!

Fortunately DfT bods seem to have caught on (maybe one of them had to shift seats) and the consultation says it expects bidders to come up with ways to improve APOD and meet expectations for all passengers. Here’s one – scrap seat reservations on Advanced Purchase. That’ll sort it.

Aside from the need for longer trains, the new franchise desperately needs a new fleet of trains to see off the unsuitable Voyagers. I really can’t think of a less attractive train to make a journey over 200 miles; and please can we have decent seat-align-with-windows especially in the first class section and a greater choice of in and against direction seats.

Judging by recent franchise awards, new trains seem a strong possibility and what a positive and welcome step forward that’ll be.

You have until 11.45pm tonight to let the DfT know your views.

Roger French           30th August 2018

72% increase in train fares from Saturday

That’s a headline to grab your attention for sure. And it’s true; for those of us on the Brighton line and travel off peak into Victoria. GTR have announced from Saturday 1st September it’s back to the bad old days with ticket restrictions reinstated around what trains we can use particular tickets on.

Looking at the range of ticket options available you’d never know all the trains are run by the same franchise, GoVia Thameslink Railway, which in turn is micro-managed by the Department for Transport where all the fares revenue ends up. The poster explaining the reintroduction of restrictions even has a helpful matrix so you can work out which trains to catch and which to miss if you want to save a bob or two.

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From my local station, Hassocks, the off peak ‘Thameslink only’ day return to ‘London Terminals’ (includes travel to either Victoria or London Bridge and stations through to City Thameslink) has been costing £14.80. Following May’s timetable meltdown all restrictions were lifted with ‘Thameslink only’ tickets valid on both Southern and Gatwick Express trains. But from Saturday if you’re travelling to Victoria (where Thameslink trains don’t venture) or you want the flexibility of using any train on the Brighton line you’ll need an ‘Any Permitted’ off peak ticket at a whopping 72.3% higher price of £25.50.

Other increases include 30.7% for the off peak one-day Travelcard rising from £22.80 (‘Thameslink only’) to £29.90 (‘Any Permitted’) while a peak hour return rises 20.7% from £37.60 (‘Thameslink only’) to £45.40 (‘Any Permitted’). The peak hour Travelcard rises 27% from £41.90 to £53.30.

You might well wonder why on earth these huge differentials continue when all the trains are run by the same company. In other parts of the country cheaper ‘one company only’ fares are available where two or more different train companies run on the same tracks. For example on the West Coast Main Line a ‘West Midlands Trains only’ ticket is usually cheaper than a ‘Virgin Trains only’ ticket which in turn are both cheaper than an ‘Any Permitted’ ticket. Similar arrangements apply on the East Coast line.

Train companies like having their own exclusive tickets as they get to keep all the revenue whereas they have to share ‘Any Permitted’ ticket revenue with all the other train operators who might offer alternative journey possibilities. 100% of a cheaper ticket is usually better for profits than a share of a higher priced ticket. And passengers not bothered about flexibility end up with a reduced travel price; so it’s a win-win.

But in GTR land, all the trains are operated by the same franchise operator, and all the ticket income goes to the DfT, so why on earth are these differentials being perpetuated? The cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option was introduced some years ago, ironically when GoVia ran the original Thameslink franchise and was in competition with Connex who ran the South Central franchise. To steal a march on Connex, particularly for the lucrative Gatwick Airport to London market (also contested by an independent Gatwick Express franchise) as well as the Brighton to London business, GoVia introduced cheaper tickets exclusively available on their own Thameslink trains. The same situation continued during the era when the tables were turned and GoVia ran Southern having lost the Thameslink franchise to First Group who renamed it First Capital Connect.

But now, it’s all in one ownership including Gatwick Express where the complete rip-off fare mentality fleecing tourists with higher fares for a less than premium ride is being reintroduced once again. How on earth DfT can justify charging £19.90 to travel on a red coloured train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria taking around 30 minutes (which could well have started its journey in Brighton where passengers don’t pay any extra) and a cheaper £16.20 to travel on a green coloured train taking around 30 minutes is beyond me, particularly when the green train has more comfortable seats. The differentials are even more stark in the off-peak if using a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card when a journey on a green coloured train will cost just £8.30. It’s an absolute minefield for incoming visitors staring at ticket machine screens at Gatwick Airport trying to work through a myriad of complicated options. Not much of a welcome for sure.

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I reckon if DfT thought they could get away with it, they’d withdraw the cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option on the Brighton line completely and make us all pay the higher ‘Any Permitted’ prices but in the climate of incompetence surrounding this whole franchise that would be a PR step too far. Thank goodness for small mercies like this.

 

 

Love a good natter.

An accolade for Arriva. They’re had a rethink and in a turnaround of customer service contact policy reinstated the 0345 phone line on their website. Never let it be said blogging isn’t worth it. Well done and thanks Arriva. Now it’s just all the other stuff to sort!

After this success, I thought it might be interesting to see how Stagecoach, First Group, National Express and Go-Ahead encourage customer contact.

Stagecoach have a ‘Help & Contact’ on their generic webpage which brings up a full page ‘How do I contact my local Stagecoach office?’ and the usual Stagecoach ability to change area. Clicking on head office and ticket enquiries brings up a full menu which includes switchboards and even local bus garage telephone numbers. Now that is impressive. Well done Stagecoach. It shows what can be done for a Group keen on corporate identity but with local operational teams. You’d feel completely reassured by talking to someone based locally about your enquiry.

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Here’s an example for the vast Northern Scotland area which even includes the depot phone number for Portree. And it’s a very friendly person answering the phone there too.

First Bus similarly have a generic corporate webpage with localised pages but the ‘Help and Support’ tab takes you to a page showing an 0345 number and its operating hours.

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Clicking on one of the options below, doesn’t take you much further. In fact misleadingly there are a list of headings you’d think would open up more information by clicking on the downward arrow on the right hand side; but none of them are active. All very typical First Bus; half a job done.

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It’s not so good at National Express West Midlands where you have two options either Tweet them or fill in a form! Yes; that’s it. So if you’re not on Twitter; and you’re not a great online form filling addict err, other than sending a letter your contact options are … no contact. No plaudits for NatEx (and it’s excatly the same for their Dundee offshoot) – please follow Arriva’s example and have a bit of a rethink.

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Except… if you go to the National Express Group plc website where serious investors are directed, you’ll find a page full of contact details for all NatEx’s operations from coaches (only a costly 0871 number for coach customers) through Alsa in Spain, even Bahrain and North America are listed as is UK Bus…..

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… with a standard Birmingham 0121 number. Yeah! Loved option 3 on the answer menu when I called which intriguingly is :”Press 3 for Revenue Protection” 😃.

And then there’s the Go-Ahead Group. Not surprisingly for a Group that understands buses are a local issue with locally based managing directors running local companies with local branding, it’s straightforward to click on a “contact us” page and quickly and easily find a locally based telephone contact number to talk to someone who knows their local area. That is how to do it.

A similar set up applies to Transdev Blazefield albeit with a few extra click arounds to get to the locally branded operations in Harrogate, Keighley, Burnley etc, but all head up their pages with the contact phone number top of the list. So big tick for that.

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Top marks also for TrentBarton…..

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Love the “we love a good natter…” intro. Friendly and welcoming.

Plaudits also for the municipal owned sector with the usuals in Reading, Nottingham, Lothian and Cardiff all doing well to tell you how to contact them.

So plenty of examples out there for those that are not doing so well and want to see how to do it. Please do.

Roger French        17th August 2018

Ticket for a tenner

I’ve just spent a brilliant few days enjoying the scenery in an area stretching from Gloucestershire through mid Wales to Swansea.

The Black Mountains, the Forest of Dean, the Brecon Beacons, the Heart of Wales and the Gower are all delightful and so much more so from the vantage of a bus and train window.

My plea to bus companies – please review your day ticket offers and check whether they’re being effectively promoted to your leisure travel customers such as me. Chances are they’re not.

Stagecoach Wales have a one day Explorer at £8.30 which extends from Porthcawl as far east as Hereford while neighbouring Stagecoach West have a one day Explorer at £7 which extends west from Hereford as far east as Oxford.

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My Day 1 journeys straddled the boundary between these two adjacent ticket areas. I started at Abergavenny and travelled via Brecon to Hereford and from there on to Gloucester. Did I need both Explorers or was one enough? I showed my £8.30 ticket to the Gloucester bound driver at Hereford. Fortunately she just seemed happy to spot the word Explorer. I saved myself £7.

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It really is time to do away with these artificial boundaries for Explorer type tickets which reflect Company operating practices rather than customer needs. I’ve suggested for some time there should be a national £10 day ticket issued and accepted by every bus company – what a super sales messsge that would be. OK, perhaps with one or two exceptions for premium or long distance journeys: eg Thurso to Inverness, but otherwise a simple and effective sales proposition.

Meanwhile there’s no excuse for neighbouring Stagecoach companies not to be promoting one ticket price across a wide area; after all, no one is going to bus it from Porthcawl to Oxford in a day (although now I think about it I’m tempted: it takes around ten hours) but criss crossing a border, as I did, is much more likely, especially in a scenic area such as Gloucestershire to Monmouthshire/Powys.

The same issue impacted my journeys on Day 2, travelling on Stagecoach routes west from Gloucester through the Forest of Dean back to Hereford then continuing into Powys on a Sargeants route to Llandrindod Wells followed by TrawsCymru to Newtown. I paid for single tickets on both the last two journeys as I was unaware there’s an £8 Powys Explorer ticket – how would I know? There’s no mention of this attractively priced ticket on Sargeants’ or TrawsCymru’s websites nor Powys Council’s site which seems to be in a complete state of flux.

I found out about it on Day 3 when the driver of the Celtic Travel X75 from Shrewsbury to Llanidloes recommended it when I asked if there was a day ticket; and I wasn’t even in Powys at the time!

On Day 4 I’d repositioned to Swansea to explore the Gower using New Adventure Travel’s (strangely branded as N.A.T.) tendered bus network. I’d seen nothing to promote a day ticket on their website (nor is there any reference to one in their printed timetable booklet) but I spotted a poster in Swansea’s Quadrant bus station promoting a great value ticket for £7.50.

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It seemed just the job, but when I asked the driver for a day ticket he quickly established I would only be travelling in the Gower rather than needing the whole of Swansea so sold me a more attractively priced Day Ticket at £5.20.

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These are great value tickets but they really do need promoting more, as does the whole wonderful bus network across the Gower.

The TrawsCymru website gives details of a £10 day ticket available across the extensive geographic network from Cardiff to Caernarfon. It seems a small step to make that the default ticket for every bus in Wales …… and England …. and Scotland.

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Finally another example of ineffective price promotion is the TrawsCymru free weekend travel scheme, now in its second year. There’s been impressive infrastructure investment by the Welsh Government to promote the TrawsCymru network recently but nowhere is there a mention of this amazing weekend free travel deal. You’d think something so astoundingly attractive for visitors and tourists would be shouted from the rooftops; yet not a dicky bird of a mention at bus stops, shelters, whizzo electronic totem pole thingies, or on board buses. Quite extraordinary.

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Interestingly the scrolling messages on the internal screen inside the TrawsCymru bus I travelled on enticed passengers to ring Traveline Cymru, but gave the premium rated 0871 number rather than the 0800 freephone number exclusively available in Wales/Cymru.

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So, have free travel, but don’t tell anyone; have an 0800 freephone number but instead promote a premium one. You really couldn’t make it up!

Roger French      16th August 2018

 

 

 

Are App-A-Rides viable?

Followers of this blog, my twitter timeline and various magazine articles I’ve written will know I’m a bit of a sceptic about the current fashion for App-A-Ride, the modern day Dial-A-Ride and so called demand responsive services.

I just can’t see how the business model will ever deliver a profit. I must be missing something as hot on the heels of Oxford Bus launching Pick-Me-Up and Arriva announcing an expansion of their Click brand into Liverpool came National Express’s announcement last week of plans for something similar in the West Midlands.

Readers will know I’ve yet to actually share a ride with a fellow passenger other than on the Gett Black Bus 1 route (actually a Black Cab rather than a bus) in London one morning. My various Clicks, Slides, Chariots, My First Mile rides have all been Ride Solo rather than Ride Share …. until today.

In my continuing research to find the positive bottom-line secret of making App-A-Rides profitable I wandered back to Sittingbourne to have another try on Arriva’s Click; the first and original. My train was due into Sittingbourne station at 1114 and previous experience taught me to book a Click ride in advance to avoid a lengthy wait on arrival.

So I logged into the Click app to book my journey at 1015 soon after leaving Victoria. You’re given half hour time slots every 15 minutes as options so I booked 1115-1145 and hoped when the confirmation came it would be closer to 1115 than 1145 to minimise waiting.

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Not having received an update by 1108 I checked the App and was a little alarmed to find my booked slot had slipped to 1145-1215. If I’d not been a BusAndTrainUser I think I’d have cancelled and opted for a taxi waiting on the rank instead.

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But; almost as if the software knew, just as my train was pulling into Sittingbourne station I received a confirmation text that I’d be picked up … in 28 minutes at 1141. So much for minimising the wait.

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Just to add to the fun, as you can see from the rather operational explanatory wording (not sure what AC means!) it would be a spare minibus (maybe number 006 or maybe number 9?) and would pick me up a short walk away from the station in Park Road rather than outside – which, when I arrived, was obviously due to extensive roadworks immediately outside the station. But no mention in the text.

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Frustratingly my minibus passed by where I was waiting in Park Road at 1135 but going in the opposite direction which I later realised was to pick another passenger up heading in the same direction as me as by 1139 it had turned round and was heading back towards me!

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As I’d made my way from the station to the designated pick up point in Park Road I saw another minibus heading into the temporary bus stand obviously scheduled for a break but it did add further to the frustration of waiting to see this.

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Eventually driver Andy arrived with the other passenger on board at 1147 (33 minutes after I’d arrived by train despite pre-booking). He managed to park by a busy junction not helped by white-van parking at the designated spot, and kindly got out to open the manually operated door in this wheelchair accessible spare vehicle on hire.

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Fortunately my fellow passenger was alighting on the route to my destination (clever bit of algorithm) so we dropped her off without needing to make a detour. Interestingly she’s in the social/healthcare profession using Click to make home visits.

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My destination in Tunstall was out of bounds due to a road closure so Andy kindly dropped me as close as he could and then he was off.

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The App software isn’t able to indicate road closures so I didn’t risk booking my return from there so instead took a walk further into Sittingbourne’s suburbs to find another location.

Park Drive/Sterling Road looked a likely spot to book from with the usual unhelpful bus stop information. And a great shame too, as I found out after returning home, a bus on Chalkwell’s route 9 would have picked me up just 15 minutes later from this stop on one of its 5-7 journeys per day and taken me direct to the town centre.

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In the event I had better luck with my return booking. At 1202 a minibus was just 11 minutes away.

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And it turned out to be so. Driver Daniel was very friendly; been driving with Click for around a month and enjoying the change from running a newsagent.

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As we chatted away I detected we were actually heading south along Borden Lane towards Borden rather than north towards Sittingbourne’s town centre. ‘We’ve got another pick up’ Daniel explained. I’m thinking it’s just as well I’d not planned a tight connection for a train at the station.

We made the pick up in Borden and headed towards Tesco where the passenger wanted dropping off, not before he’d affirmed with Daniel the air conditioning wasn’t working as he bid us farewell.

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It wasn’t long before we arrived at my chosen town centre destination (a Pizza Hut car park!) probably about five minutes later due to the Borden deviation so not a huge inconvenience on what would have been a direct seven minute journey at most. But on the other hand more than a 50% increase in journey time was a bit of a downer.

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So for the first time I’ve shared a ride share, and twice, in one day, and to be honest it wasn’t painful. But notwithstanding this, I can’t see how Arriva made any money from either trip I made today. The outward journey cost me £3.75 for the 2.8 mile ride. It took around ten minutes. A bit pricey at £7.50 return (if I’d gone both ways); although you currently get £10 worth of Click credit for handing over £8.50 in advance. (Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up doesn’t require a deposit and just deducts what is currently a flat £2.50 fare from a pre-registered bank/credit card as each trip is made.)

My return trip today cost £2.50 being slightly shorter (as booked) at 1.7 miles although in the event the distance was greater due to the pick up.

There are of course no reduced prices for children or teenagers and no concessions are taken. It will be interesting to see if these issues are addressed in Liverpool’s much more price sensitive bus market when Click begins there in three weeks. It looks as though the requirement for credit will be waived: ‘click, pay and go’ as the tweet promotes.

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My experience today has not given me any further clues as to how this business model will succeed. It looks a sure fire money loser to me. Great to grab the headlines. Great to be seen to innovate. Great to be giving something different a go. But make a profit? No more likely than running rural buses which are being steadily withdrawn ironically as App-A-Rides are being introduced. Maybe, just maybe, they could have an application in rural areas as a halfway mode between a taxi and a bus, but someone is going to have to fund such a service and with local authorities strapped for cash and seniors expecting free travel, it’s not looking hopeful.

Roger French      7th August 2018

Open data? Let’s get the basics right first.

‘We want a mobility ecosystem that delivers seamless intermodal transportation faster, cheaper, cleaner, more responsive and safer than today. This will be enabled by open data on fares and journeys across all modes – data that is available to everyone to access, use and share’.

No, they’re not my words; it’s the “putting passengers first” vision spearheading the DfT’s grand Bus Open Data consultation launched at four roadshows around the country over the last couple of weeks. I just hope this latest craze for all things open and techy is going to be a lot easier to understand than that gobbledegook of a vision the two consultants, Deloitte and ODI, have cobbled together with DfT mandarins. It might sound good to wordsmiths, but it’s totally meaningless to me. They might want a ‘mobility ecosystem delivering seamless internal transportation’; I just want a bus map that shows me where all the buses go and easy access to timetables.

In the old days you could pick up a bus timetable which would include lovely clear maps making it easy to work out how to get from A to B and maybe wander on to C too. There’d even be town plans showing bus stop locations and information about market days and other stuff. In the not-so-old days you could go online and find all that information even easier. Now vast bus map deserts are opening up across the country making it impossible to work out where buses go. London, Kent, Dorset, Somerset, North Yorkshire… the bus map desert list is getting ever larger. How ironic at a time when Open Data has become the latest fad!

Those ever helpful timetable books are getting more and more hard to find too. I spotted Conwy Council still produce a lovely clear and helpful book so as I’m planning a few days in that lovely county next week I gave the public transport team there a ring and asked if they could send me one in the post. They weren’t sure if they could do that; nor whether they had any available. “They’re like gold dust” I was told on the phone, “everyone wants one but we only produce a few now”. Agggghhhhhhhhh! (I’m pleased to say one arrived in the post yesterday. Gold dust definitely).

Everyone uses journey planners these days, I’m told. Well, that might work fine if you know there’s a bus from your A to your B and you have a pretty good idea approximately how often it runs; but what if you don’t know anything? What if you’ve just moved into a new area? What if you’re wanting to be helpful to an environmentally friendly mobility ecosystem and take a car-free holiday using public transport for a week (having been convinced by Catch the Bus Week and all that)?

Using a Journey Planner in such circumstances is like a game of Battleships. Try square B7 – has that hit a battleship or a cruiser? No, neither; you need square C6 for that, which if you’d had a map showing where they all were, would have been obvious.

And come on guys, journey planners are totally robotic in their travel advice. Take my plans tomorrow. One of the routes I’m catching is split due to the ridiculous bureaucratic 50Km rule; it’s not actually split, just technically split, so Traveline thinks it’s two separate services instead of one through bus, and because the ‘connection time’ between the ‘two’ journeys at the split point is too tight it insists I need to catch a bus half an hour earlier to change on to the one I could have got at the technical ‘connection point’. A human being reading a timetable can work that out; a journey planner following pre-set algorithms can’t.

There’s a classic in the Scottish Highlands where a once a day connection leaves Lairg station four minutes after one of the four a day trains arrives. Our helpful journey planner reckons such a seamless modal transfer needs more than four minutes so ignores it, instead insisting you have to make a two day adventure of a journey, yet there’s a footnote on the timetable that buses will wait for late running trains!

But my biggest beef about journey planners is this. Suppose an infrequent bus departs at 8.50am and then at 11.30am. You optimistically put in your origin and destination and a desired start time of 9am. Assuming you’ve managed to pair up precisely the correct originating bus stop from a menu which can stretch to many alternative options (and the same with the destination) then it’ll tell you the only option available is a departure at 11.30am rather than suggesting starting out just 10 minutes earlier. You’re denied that option.

It’s the greatest irony to see techy people salivating at the idea of soaking up data on bus fares and real time journey planners to develop Apps we never knew we needed when the basic rudiments of maps are being ditched by local authorities. Some bus companies are just as bad, by either not producing network maps or burying them so deep on their websites it’s like that illusive one square submarine yet to be found on the grid.

But hang on a minute. What on earth has happened to get us to the point where the DfT are employing consultants to carry out a massive consultation with hackathons, live streamings and all the techy gizmos you can muster so that I, as a customer, can work out what the fare is for my journey. Err, shouldn’t commercially orientated bus companies in a competitive travel marketplace be telling me the great value prices on offer anyway? Why do we need legislation and regulation for what should be one of the basic propositions of selling a product? Frankly the industry needs to hold its head in shame that for far too long it’s made information about prices and ticket options opaque at best and non existent at worse. It’s like we’ve not grown up from the days when the Road Service Licence conditions pre 1986 stipulated every bus driver or conductor must carry a fare table for inspection by the passenger on demand. (It was usually kept hidden away in their bag although London’s buses always displayed a fare chart on an RM  or RT for the particular route the capital’s restrictive operating practices designated it to be operating on that day). That requirement disappeared in the mists of time so bus companies breathed a sigh of relief and decided the best thing was to pretty much forget about telling anyone about fares information at all. Even in those areas where you are required to have the correct fare with no change; and there’s a fare box. And it’s not a flat fare. Glasgow – I’m looking at you (as I recall my no-change fare of £1.88 for a journey in that city; unhelpfully it needs one of each coin, admittedly some time back now!)

Mind you, I’m not convinced clever Apps developed in all-night pizza-eating Hackathon sessions in geeky-novetly-warehouse type settings which tell me all the fare options, day tickets, capping, weekly variants et al for my journey will make an iota of difference to modal shift. Unless pricing is made a whole lot simpler and attractive as part of the purchase offer the reverse may happen. “Blimey, now I’ve got all this information through the Holy Grail of Open Data, I never knew it was all so complicated. I’ll stick with the car. So much easier. You just fill up every so often and it’s one price.”

The DfT’s grand consultation has a second strand to it; and that’s Accessible Information. ‘Talking Buses’ to use the more colloquial term. In her forward to the consultation document the Minister says “I think every passenger, regardless of where they travel in Great Britain should be able to do so confident they have boarded the correct vehicle and are travelling to the right place”.

Well, hear hear to that. But hang on, why are we having to consider regulating bus companies to be doing something that is just so basic and should have been done as standard many years ago when the technology first became available. It’s not as though it’s expensive in the overall scheme of buying a bus which is going to last for the best part of 15 years and maybe more.  Instead we’ve had boasts about virtually impossible to log-on to WiFi provision, faux leather seats that aren’t any more comfortable and splashes of silver or gold in the external livery from most Groups but a complete block on spending a couple of grand or so on something that really is useful and welcomed by all passengers as the Minister observes.

She continues “with Regulations which focus on the information needs of passengers rather than the means of providing it, I believe we can encourage the change which is so desperately needed”. Commercial bus companies – change desperately needed by passengers – information needs ………………… Regulations.

What a terrible indictment of a so called commercial industry which aspires to entrepreneurial freedom and baulks at regulation and franchising that we need Government to regulate for something passengers “desperately need” (and she’s right, us passengers do desperately need it …. and maps too please!).

 

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Roger French            20th July 2018

How those PMQs should have gone…..

Jeremy Corbyn: “With fares rising above inflation, passenger numbers falling and services being cut, does the Prime Minister accept her failure on yet another public service: the buses?”

Theresa May: “I’m delighted my right honourable friend has taken the opportunity to raise the topic of buses; a vital and hugely important public transport mode which seldom gets the national attention it deserves. Buses are hugely successful at moving millions of people in their local communities and we should celebrate and congratulate the efforts made by so many dedicated people working tirelessly in the bus industry to provide attractive services which, despite his generalisations and negativity, in many areas of the country, are offering great value fares, maintaining or even increasing passenger numbers and improving frequencies.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “Since 2010, her Government have cut 46% from bus budgets in England and passenger numbers have fallen, and, among the elderly and disabled have fallen 10%. Her Government belatedly committed to keeping the free bus pass, but a bus pass is not much use if there is not a bus. Does she think it is fair that bus fares have risen by 13% more than inflation since 2010?”

Theresa May: “Local authorities are responsible for setting budgets to fund those relatively few bus routes which are not provided commercially, rather than Government, so his assertion is misplaced; although I acknowledge Government has made unprecedented cuts to grants paid to local authorities since 2010 making it virtually impossible for them to fulfil all the commitments they would wish to. Those areas with the most successful bus services are where local authorities work in constructive partnership with bus companies. Despite constraints on public funding some enlightened local authorities have used income from parking and even bus lane enforcement to fund unremunerative bus routes. It’s a ‘win win’ policy as motorists are curbed in favour of bus passengers. Bus fares rising by 13% above inflation over 8 years is 1.6% per annum which has helped fund a whole range of initiatives including cleaner Euro IV buses helping to improve air quality.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “Under this Government, fares have risen three times faster than people’s pay. Bus users are often people on lower incomes whose wages are lower than they were 10 years ago in real terms and who have suffered a benefits-freeze. Under the stewardship of this Government, 500 bus routes have been cut every year, leaving many people more isolated and lonely and damaging our local communities. Does the Prime Minister believe that bus services are a public responsibility, or just something that we leave to the market?”

Theresa May: “Dergeulation of buses introduced in 1986 has been hugely successful in allowing enterprising bus companies to provide attractive services in the market which millions of people use every day. It’s for local authorities to fund bus routes to meet identified social concerns but these are very much in the minority. It is unfortunate that we’ve seen local authorities cut routes they have been funding but I’m pleased to see in some areas private bus companies have worked hard to provide some replacement journeys commercially and volunteers in some local communities are taking the initiative to provide Community Bus replacements’”

Jeremy Corbyn: “When Sadiq Khan ran for Mayor of London, he promised to freeze bus fares, and what has he done? He has frozen fares. If the Prime Minister is concerned about the travelcard fares, she should speak to the Secretary of State for Transport: he is the one who sets that fare. Bus routes are being wiped out: 26 million fewer journeys have been made across the north of England and the midlands under her Government. So much for a northern powerhouse and a midlands engine. Can we be clear: does the Prime Minister think that deregulation of the bus industry, putting profit before osssengers, has been a success or a failure?”

Theresa Mayor: “Mayor Khan’s fares freeze was simply a populist attempt to get votes and get elected. The policy is a disaster for London’s public transport and bus and Underground users will ultimately pay the price when fares must inevitably rise significantly to catch up with rising operating costs. In the meantime the Mayor is overseeing cuts to frequencies of well used bus routes due to the dire financial situation he has created thus making gaps between buses longer causing inconvenience to passengers who have to travel on more crowded buses often in unpleasant conditions. It’s a short sited policy purely for political motives and needs to be called out for the cynical bribe it is. It will inevitably end badly with passengers suffering. The right honourable gentleman refers to falling passenger numbers in the north and the midlands but they have also been falling in London notwithstanding the Mayor’s fares freeze therefore confirming that fare levels are not necessarily the determination of passenger numbers. There are many other factors at play not least policies adopted by local authorities and shopping centres towards car use and car parking, as well as local economic performance.”

Jetemy Corbyn: “It will be a Labour Government who save the bus industry and who give free fares to under 26-year-olds. The truth is that since deregulation fares have risen faster than inflation, ridership has fallen and these private monopolies have made a profit of £3.3 billion since 2010. That is what the Torres give us in public transport. The Government have given Metro Mayors the powers to franchise and regulate to secure better services. Why will they not extend that power to all local authorities?”

Theresa May: “There’s no such thing as ‘free fares’; someone has to pay and the Labour policy will mean taxpayers, including those on low incomes, the ‘just-about-managing’ my Government are concerned about, having to pay more tax to fund free bus travel for young people. There’s also no logic in the Labour proposal to offer free fares only where bus routes are regulated. Either it’s a sensible policy to adopt for all; or it isn’t. I would like to see better fares for young people and would encourage bus operators, many of which are in common ownership with train franchise holders, to consider extending the 16-25 Railcard to include a third discount on bus travel. That would be a fine commercial initiative from entrepreurial private bus companies. In many cases the profits earned by private bus companies are not sufficient to fund full replacement of assets; and I would remind him that all such investment is funded at no cost to the taxpayer. All local authorities already have the power to fund bus routes that are not provided in the commercial marketplace and they don’t need extra powers to do so.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “it is a shame that this Government are so shy of giving powers to local authorities, and are instead more interested in cutting their resources. Bus services are in crisis under this Government. Fares are increasing, routes are being cut and passenger numbers are falling. The situation is isolating elderly and disabled people, damaging communities and high streets, and leading to more congestion in our towns and cities, with people spending more time travelling to work or school. It is bad for our climate change commitments and for our air quality. Will the Prime Minister at last recognise the crucial importance of often the only mode of transport available for many people by ending the cuts to bus budgets and giving councils the power to ensure that everyone gets a regulated bus service, wherever they live?”

Theresa May: “I’m very pleased to have had this useful exchange of views with the right honourable gentleman and grateful he has reminded me of the vital importance of buses. It is true more needs to be done to tackle air quality and congestion and there’s no doubt the bus offers the most effective solution. The responsibility for taking action must lie with local authorities as local circumstances vary from one area to another but it’s the role of Government to lead and set strategic policies and I intend to instruct the Secretary of State and the Chancellor to bring forward proposals which will favour buses including the return of the fuel tax escalator and the reintroduction of full fuel duty rebate for buses. I will also be announcing a new ‘Air Quality Solved By Increasing Bus Use While Reducing Car Use And Car Dependency’ Fund of £10 billion which local authorities will be invited to submit bids to. I look forward to further debates about how the Government can provide more help for buses in this House in the future.”

 

Roger French    16th July 2018