When John Prescott was Secretary of State for Environment Transport and the Regions he spoke of transforming the bus “from a workhorse to a thoroughbred”. Next week’s Bus Summit will be a chance to take stock of how much progress has been made towards this goal.
In reality, the very ubiquity of buses means that they will almost inevitably retain some workhorse-like characteristics, no matter how widespread real time information, smart ticketing, and free wi-fi become.
None of this undermines the strong case for the bus to gain greater recognition for its role in supporting the economy – both directly by connecting people to jobs, education and shopping centres, and indirectly by reducing congestion.
The current focus on devolution of powers to city-regions and the surprise news of a DfT review of the bus market means that there will be an inevitable focus on the regulation/ deregulation argument.
The argument is not black and white. The success of deregulation depends to a large extent on the local management style. Where the operator listens to customers, engages with the local authority and is prepared to take a long-term view of investment, increased patronage is likely to follow. If not, passengers are more likely to be dissatisfied and calls for quality contracts are likely to grow.
The usual argument against quality contracts or franchising, often citing London’s bus provision, can be summarised as “regulation is too expensive”. Clearly seeking to replicate all aspects of the TfL model, with 10-minute frequencies, an extensive night bus network, 24-hour running on some routes and so on, will have a significant cost. It is not inconceivable, though, that some middle ground exists whereby in a franchised model services could be rationalised and protected, with some cross-subsidy of less profitable routes, at a reasonable cost, as the North East Combined Authority is proposing.
The danger is that the regulation/ deregulation/partnership argument will edge all other issues out of the spotlight and overshadow the aim of raising awareness and winning greater recognition of the bus’s strengths. These strengths encompass inclusion and greater accessibility for job seekers, the elderly, disabled people and anyone without a car; congestion-busting; and increasingly, being greener.
Devolution and consolidation of numerous funding streams to local enterprise partnerships via the Local Growth Fund mean that significant funds that would in the past have flowed to councils to support bus services are now at risk of being lost.
Next week’s Bus Summit is an opportunity for the industry as a whole to hammer home the importance of efficient bus services to the smooth running – and growth – of local economies.
Greater awareness among local decision-makers, not to mention ministers, of the economic evidence of the bus’s benefits will make it more likely they would be willing to make long-term investment in efficient bus services, despite constrained funds.
A supporting National Statement from the Government would provide an immense boost to this. Combine this with a greater responsiveness among bus operators towards initiatives such as smart ticketing, and it’s possible to imagine a world where patronage could take care of itself, and arguments over partnership or regulation could fade from prominence. That should be a goal that everyone – operators, transport authorities, LEPs, and central Government – could sign up to.
Reference: Transport Times, January 2015 Issue
The 2015 UK Bus Summit is taking place 12th February in London – To book your place please click on the link below: