A few comments from younger bus passengers taken from our forthcoming work on 14-19 year olds and bus services:
• "Display bus fares at the bus stop, with the timetable. Advertise any discounts more. They could have child, teen and student prices, and make it clear what the age groups for each category are." (Essex, 14-16s)
• "Clean, on time, drivers that greet you, maybe something to do on the bus like the Metro and more reliable, make sure it's on time every time." (Leeds, 17-19s)
• "Air conditioning, charging USB ports, comfortable seats, more room for people standing, and more rails, carpeted floor so it's not slippy when it gets wet, and it's cleaned thoroughly throughout the day, more seating at the bus stop with a shelter for when it's raining". (Solihull, 14-16s)
• "Would be nice to have something that tells you where you are or when you are getting to a certain bus stop because I had to look on Google Maps on my phone, or at least for it to say the name of the bus stop at the actual stop." (Essex, 14-16s)
• "The best solution would be to have the electrical signs or an online thing where you could track your bus, so then I can judge when I need to leave home." (Essex, 17-19s)
Bus operators know they have to keep these passengers on board for the future. Current passengers rate services well in our Bus Passenger Survey (very well in some cases!), the spread of wi-fi and contactless is fast, the bus fleet is pretty accessible and relatively modern.
But app-based taxi services are nibbling away at the market and passengers are shifting to rail which offers the Valhalla of more reliable journeys.
Is a fightback beginning with technology in the lead? Some bits of news fought their way through to me from the normally poor PR of the bus industry.
Alex Hornby, the perennially cheerful, energetic and positive boss of Transdev, has led the extension of its CityZap services. Initially piloted between York and Leeds, the services now bridge the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds. Initial fares at £1 and then less than a third of the Anytime return train fare – the open return ticket is £9 and there seem to be plenty of offers for students, NHS staff and others.
One stop at Ainley Top on the 75 minute journey, where an informal park and ride already happens, with high-quality buses. Most importantly no fixed route – the driver uses the SatNav (or the 'ZapNav' in Transdev language!) to plot the best route based on the traffic. This seems really intelligent.
While TransPennine Express runs good rail services, they suffer from overcrowding. Driving can be a challenge and just imagine what could be achieved if Highways England and local authorities started, as we are pressing them to do, to build in space for these types of service. These new services seem to offer a really good extension of choice for travellers – I hope they work.
Meanwhile all over the country operators are starting to drive change.
More frequent, smaller, high-quality buses are proving a hit in Ashford. Stagecoach's 'little and often' service is spreading. Buses on routes E and G will run every 15 minutes, while others move up to every 20. The Mercedes buses with posh seats and contactless, mobile and other ways to pay. Stagecoach claims that 60 per cent of new passengers previously used their cars.
Arriva in Sittingbourne is piloting its demand based, responsive 'ArrivaClick' service in and around the Kent Science Park and the town. You can get picked up on a corner nearby and dropped off within a couple of streets of where you are going. Simple fares and great new minibuses. I would love to see some user satisfaction figures for this service.'
The new Thamesdown X38 has reinstated the direct service from Oxford to Henley – for the first time in many years - and has increased the frequency of buses between Oxford and Wallingford from every 30 minutes to every 20 minutes on Mondays to Saturdays. 4G wi-fi and the rest!
Another TransDev innovation has just been launched in Liverpool. Liverpool bus firm Peoplesbus is using the 'on-demand' bus app (Vamooz) that allows passengers to suggest their own ideas for days out on buses and coaches, or sign up to trips that have already been suggested.
The Department for Transport buses team also looks and sounds re-invigorated. Now the Bus Services Act is finally on the statute book new priorities and focus are possible. Maybe the overwhelming necessity to make transport options more environmentally sustainable will provide the burning platform needed to really drive change.
The most important audience for all this work is younger passengers. You want to keep them on board for the future. We have carried out work with 14-19 year olds about their travel experiences – they want information, fares and services made simple – operators are fighting for space on their phones! The report and supporting material will all be available in the early New Year.