You wait a long time for an article on interurban bus, dear reader, and then three turn up in just a few weeks.
At a time when bus use elsewhere is declining and services are being cut back, the interurban segment of the bus market is the great survivor. And in Greengauge 21's 100-page report 'Interurban Bus: Time to raise the profile' published today, you can find the evidence.
Most of the interurban bus services we examined in a series of case studies across England, Scotland and Wales operate on a 'commercial' basis, receiving bus service operators grant and concessionary fare compensation payments, but otherwise reliant on fare revenue alone. Even where operating support is required, as is the case for much of the TrawsCymru services in Wales, this is at a modest level, in marked contrast to rural rail services.
There is a truly nationwide set of routes – we can't call it a network (yet, at least) – and it's very largely immune to public sector funding cut-backs. These are services where the big bus companies (and a few local concerns) can give their commercial acumen full expression. In case after case, operating companies are offering higher quality services. Frequencies are generally hourly or better, vehicles are new, all are fully-accessible, and free on-board Wi-Fi is commonplace. Innovation is faster than is possible with the rail network. In many of our case studies, a history of service continuity can be traced. With multiple stops across city centres (for example, in Leeds, Norwich and Cambridge), they offer quality that secondary rail services can struggle to match.
But in the second Transport Times article on the subject 'Interurban Buses – Reality rather than hope', Dr John Disney of Nottingham Business School raised a number of issues. He pointed out that on some interurban routes (his examples were in the East Midlands) rival bus companies – to the dismay of passengers – wouldn't accept each other's tickets, and competed against each other. Commercial freedom meant that people couldn't rely on service continuity, with short-notice withdrawals leaving poorly-resourced local authorities unable to contract-in a replacement operator (to which the flip-side, in comparison with continental experience, is scope for greater service experimentation and innovation). But his are valid concerns, to which we would add another: except to locals who probably know which company operates 'their' service, for the visitor, or longer distance traveller, information on interurban bus services is hard to come by – in stark contrast to rail.
The report published today, based on extensive research, provides answers to these challenges and calls for the Interurban bus to 'come in from the cold'. It cannot be allowed to continue as a forgotten mode: it needs to fulfil its destiny and join up the parts of Britain that lack a rail service. We have a ten-point policy plan which we believe provides a way forward without requiring an end to today's commercial basis of Interurban Bus service provision.
The Bus Services Act 2017 marks a shift from the previous very strong emphasis on competition per se to greater scope for partnership working, notably through the Advanced Quality Partnerships and Enhanced Partnerships. They may be applicable to rural areas as well as to conurbations, as guidance issued by the DfT indicates. They would enable, for example, co-ordination of timetabled headways and common ticketing systems.
The short period of notice under which services can be substantially modified or withdrawn (56 days) is a limitation, as is occasional overnight business collapse, given the low levels of funding available to local authorities. To address this problem, we propose a national service continuity fund on which local authorities could draw, to intercede in the case of business failure or short-notice withdrawal. Greater confidence in continuity of service would assist in advance-booking of through tickets by bus and rail.
Other aspects of the Act also require greater provision of information to passengers, which is good news because here there is scope for considerable improvement. It is true that in some instances through bookings for some bus services in conjunction with rail travel can already be made via websites such as 'Trainline'. But, as the report shows, the interurban sector is on the cusp of major innovation, with scope to follow web-based models elsewhere in Europe which enable a simple click through from service and timetable information to purchase tickets for all interurban bus services, nationwide.
City to city connectivity is generally well-provided by rail. But many towns miss out, and miss the economic and social advantages that committed public transport services provide. Interurban Bus can fill the gap.
Peter White, Emeritus Professor, University of Westminster and Jim Steer, Founder and Director, Steer Davies Gleave. The Greengauge 21 report, written by Peter White, Dylan Luke and Jim Steer is available to download at www.greengauge21.net