Interurban Buses - Reality Rather than Hope

Jim Steer makes a strong case for the Interurban bus but in reality the situation in the UK is far from ideal. For every high quality, frequent service like the 36 from Leeds to Harrogate and Ripon there are dozens of low quality, infrequent interurban services which are currently losing passengers at an alarming rate.

In the UK interurban buses often parallel the railways and abstract passengers from them, particularly seniors who can often travel free on the bus service. By contrast in Europe many such bus services fill gaps in the rail network and offer through ticketing and guaranteed connections. In the highly regulated Netherlands, many yawning gaps in the rail network are covered by limited stop bus services marketed as "Qliners" with low floor double deck coach specification vehicles. In Sweden the many high quality inter-urban bus services filling gaps in the rail network are controlled by regional authorities.

Where UK interurban routes have a strong commercial potential they are often subject to competition which weakens the profitability and leads to over-bussing during the daytime but inadequate evening and Sunday frequencies. Furthermore competition may drive down fares on these routes but mean that the routes not subject to competition bear higher fares as the operators need to derive a profit from somewhere to remain in business. However for the fare-paying passenger, two operators each providing a 30 minute daytime frequency (but often only 5 minutes apart) with separate non-interchangeable fares and no evening or Sunday service is a worse deal than one operator providing a 20 minute daytime frequency and an hourly evening and Sunday service.

UK Competition Law seems to prevent operators from offering a truly "joint service" with full ticket interavailability including day and period network tickets. The "Pronto" service between Nottingham, Mansfield and Chesterfield is a joint venture between Stagecoach and TrentBarton with dedicated livery vehicles usually provided but its ticketing structure is completely divorced from its partners' network tickets. Contrast this with the train service between Nottingham and Chesterfield which is provided by East Midlands Trains (Stagecoach) and Northern (Arriva) with full ticket interavailability except for a minority of special offers and very cheap advance fares.

There are many glaring gaps in the UK rail network crying out for an interurban bus service such as Skipton to Harrogate; Mansfield to Doncaster; Burton to Stoke. In each case public transport is a poor alternative to the car so people either travel by car or not at all. There are also many cases where a public transport link is slow and / or infrequent such as Cheltenham to Oxford; Leicester to Coventry; Nottingham to Melton Mowbray; Appleby to Penrith; Leek to Macclesfield; Gloucester to Worcester. So the question has to be asked: why aren't these gaps filled by high quality interurban bus services as at least one end of each route has a depot of a major bus operator?

Many interurban bus routes have been branded and have dedicated route-branded buses. However some operators allow these to "stray" onto other routes whilst many have inadequate branded vehicles to cover maintenance cycles. This leads to inferior quality vehicles being used often meaning that the promised "special features" such as free wifi; charging sockets; air-con or leather seats are not available. This is a contrast to both the railways and airlines: how often is a Pendolino substituted by a Pacer or a Dreamliner substituted by a twin-propeller plane?

A further barrier to people using interurban buses is the uncertainty regarding their future provision. Whilst a train service is guaranteed by the Minimum Specification agreed in the franchise (which itself is open to public consultation and is overseen by passenger groups), bus services can and are withdrawn with just eight weeks notice to the Traffic Commissioner and often much less notice to the passenger. The latter notice can be mere hours if the bus operator suddenly ceases trading as has happened recently with many medium sized operators of interurban services such as Stephensons of Easingwold; Express Motors of Caernarfon; Silcox in Pembroke; GHA in North Wales.

Whilst the government will step in to replace a failing rail franchisee with no interruption in service, the replacement of failed bus operators is left to under resourced local councils and neighbouring bus operators to "concoct" some form of temporary service, often only at the busiest times of day. The replacement of one Stephensons service lasted only two days whilst some services operated by the erstwhile Express Motors have only a skeleton replacement service to ensure that children can still get to school.

Even where an interurban bus service appears to flourish traffic congestion can often blight it especially at peak times. The 36 can take over 50% longer between Leeds and Harrogate at peak times than the daytime schedule, compared with the consistent faster rail journey and these longer journey times mean that the peak frequency falls from six to five journeys per hour at commuter times.

Another problem besetting UK bus operators is the reluctance of passengers to accept Limited Stop conditions on bus services. They don't expect express trains to stop at every station (indeed the addition of a station stop will provoke anger and protest) but they seem to expect buses to do so. This results in bus journeys becoming slow and unattractive to longer distance passengers. Whilst short distance fare-payers can be deterred from limited stop buses by high minimum fares, concessionary pass holders cannot be so simply barred. The Stagecoach X5 service between Oxford and Cambridge fills a glaring gap in the rail network but its daytime 3 hrs 35 mins journey time is 45 minutes slower than the rail journey crossing London by tube and 90 minutes slower than the AA recommended car journey time for the 84 miles.

It could be considerably speeded up by replacing alternate journeys with an Express service with just six intermediate stops, four of which would be rail station stops giving an interchange with the Midland, West Coast and Chiltern Main Lines. By doing this it should be possible to match the rail journey time with lower fares and improved comfort.

Maybe the Office for Road and Rail should be responsible for the provision of Interurban bus services and their integration into the rail network to ensure that all settlements with a population exceeding 5000 have access to the national transport network? In this way it should be possible to plan and travel as easily from Mansfield to Chesterfield as it is from Maidstone to Canterbury or Morpeth to Cambridge.