Removing the barriers


The 5th Annual UK Bus Summit welcomed over 250 delegates to the QEII Centre in London, last week. The UK Bus Summit is the premier bus event covering all parts of the UK. Held right at the heart of Westminster to elevate the importance of bus at the centre of local and national decision making, the event allows the opportunity to compare and contrast bus policy throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"Getting passengers on board buses" was the theme of the third session of the UK Bus Summit earlier this month. David Fowler reports on this below.

Cllr Liam Robinson, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority transport portfolio holder and chair of the transport committee, said there were 147m bus passenger journeys annually in the city-region – 80% of public transport journeys – but more needed to be done to address the long-term decline in patronage.

This was being done through the LCR Bus Alliance with Arriva and Stagecoach. "What people want are services to be readily available, good quality and good value. This is the elixir we've been focusing on," he said. The alliance had led to numerous improvements since its inception in 2017. Bus operators had invested over £52m in new buses. A newly designed customer service training schema had been introduced for all drivers.

The Young Persons Fare Deal had been introduced, an all-day, all-area ticket entitling the user to a 50% discount up to their 19th birthday. Stagecoach was even introducing this beyond the LCR area. There had been an increase of 16.5% in fare-paying passengers and 142% in journeys by young people. "We're very proud of this. Young people are the future of the industry," said Mr Robinson.

The city region was now undertaking detailed business case work to look into which of the options and powers under the Buses Act 2017 should be used. A decision was expected in the next year.

The mayor's Big Buses Debate was at an early stage, engaging with passengers to find what they want to see from bus services.
Work was also going on to develop a "post-19 offer" to match that for the under-19s. The Apprentice Travelcard gave half-price bus travel to apprentices aged 19-24 but there should be something for people in their early 20s in low-paid jobs, Mr Robinson argued. "We need to develop a more compelling offer," he said.

"Cherish the Driver" recognised the importance of the driver and the difficulty of the role, combining responsibility for safety, customer service and a retail element. Since the customer service training began complaints were down by 27%, but there needed to be "a bit more managerial support" for drivers, he believed.

Information also needed to be improved. For example, audio-visual next stop announcements were "good customer service", not just for the hearing or visual impaired.

"We expect people to know how to use the bus and understand route numbers," he added. "There is more to do on livery and branding" – for example denoting routes by colour rather than just a number. "Let's make it foolproof, make it so straightforward it's a natural choice," he concluded.

Iain Jago, Arriva managing director of UK Bus, drew parallels between the bus industry today and the "headwinds" facing the established airlines 15 years ago. They were facing congestion in the air, poor punctuality, and competition from disruptive new entrants to the market.

At BA, the situation was turned around by a focus on the customer and gaining a deep understanding of what customers valued, then innovating to focus on this. Waste was removed throughout the business to create headroom for investment. There was a focus on operational delivery, and working in partnership throughout the industry to improve congestion.

Buses are facing challenges from urban congestion, reduced frequency in rural areas, poor punctuality, the product and information offerings below expectation, and shifting demand and consumption patterns.

As with the airlines, he said, the solution lay in a deeper understanding of customer value, a drive to reduce waste, and innovation focused on making journey planning and tickets simpler – rather than simply leaping to technological solutions. There should be a repeating cycle of removing waste to generate cash for investment, understand what customers want, and introducing innovations based on an understanding of what customers truly value.

In addition the industry should work with authorities to reduce congestion. "There is much more we can do to work together with local authorities," he said.

An example of innovation in Arriva was its demand-responsive Arriva Click service, on which 50% of journeys are made by passengers switching from car or taxi. "We've listened to our customers and provided a service where we've seen a switch of new passengers to our services. That to me is hugely exciting," he said.

Giles Fearnley, managing director of First UK Bus, said this year's summit should be a call for action. "All of us have a part to play."

He said gloomy headlines were not the whole truth. For example, in Bristol, bus passenger numbers had grown by 54% since 2012/13, and in the and in the west of England as a whole by 40% over the same period.

This partly reflected the economic success of the area but it was also a payoff for investment over many years. The Greater Bristol Bus Network had invested in 50 congestion hotspots between 2008 and 2012. "Now we're beginning to see the benefits of higher speed networks coming in," he said.

This had been complemented by investment by FirstBus in new ticketing channels, and now over 56% of passengers paid using either contactless or mobile. There had also been major investment in the bus fleet.

"The same is possible in other bus markets – in your bus market, almost certainly," he said.

First Bus was also seeing growth in many areas, including Glasgow and elsewhere. "All of us in this room know what needs to be done – we just need to do it with consistency and determination," he said.

He added that "congestion is the shared enemy"; in Bristol in the weeks leading to Christmas 20 buses and drivers were on standby in case of gridlock, and they were needed nearly every day. This was in addition to several dozen additional buses that have been added to the network over the last five years simply to maintain the timetable through worsening congestion. "How much more you could do with them if they were not needed in that way," he reflected.

"Why can't your city or area, shire or unitary replicate the growth in the west of England?" he asked. It was time for ambitious partnerships between local authorities and their bus operators. Working with central government they needed to capture the attention of developers and major employers, who needed the bus for their customers, their staff and for the households and neighbourhoods they were building. "Never, in my view, has there been a greater opportunity than now for bus to deliver all it can offer. If we can come together all parties could play their full part. It is time for that call for action."

Pete Ferguson, chief executive of Prospective Labs, spoke on the subject of how to use data-driven prediction to increase patronage. Prospective Labs is a technology company which is increasingly working in the bus sector.

Increasing amounts of data are becoming available through innovations such as smart ticketing, but Mr Ferguson said: "The ability to collect more data does not of itself tell you what to do."

He set out five steps to use data effectively: first, contextualise the data, fusing operations data with what was happening on the rest of the network, the weather at a given time, and so on. The aim is to understand why performance varies. Interventions made should be testable against data. Second, predict demand for new or adjusted services. Third, predict service performance before putting plans into effect. "Rather than seeing innovation as partly a gamble, companies can predict or simulate the effect of interventions," he said.

Fourth, operate all services with real-time predictions about the performance of the fleet and demands across the city or town.
Fifth, use a whole network prediction as a basis for partnership working.

"Partnership working is critical," said Mr Ferguson. "You need interactions between those operating the services and those responsible for regulating what is possible."

Pete Bond, Transport for the West Midlands director of integrated network services, described a study undertaken through the West Midlands Bus Alliance called "Demystifying the bus network". In-depth interviews were carried out with people who do not normally catch the bus as part of an accompanied bus journey or in buying online tickets. Comments included "it wasn't as long as I thought it would be", "it was better than I expected", and "I didn't have to wait as long as I expected". Overall about half found the service in line with expectations, and another half found it better than expected.

Mr Bond said that in general in other countries, the bigger the city the greater its productivity, but in the UK this did not apply. Birmingham is less productive than Oxford or Cambridge, and he said this is because of the time it takes people to travel to places of work. Research by the Open Data Institute in Leeds showed that, on the assumption that to be an effective part of the Birmingham agglomeration someone should have a travel to work time of 30 minutes or less, the effective size of Birmingham was about half that of the nominal population because of the length public transport journeys. The number within that journey time in Birmingham had reduced from 745,000 in 2008 to 446,000 10 years later. As a corollary, improving the bus system would bring about significant productivity gains.

The West Midlands Combined Authority has adopted a congestion management plan in which supporting improved bus journey times forms part of the commitment.

The West Midlands Bus Alliance is setting up a Bus Performance Board to monitor bus performance across the region including punctuality and reliability.

The Sprint network from 2022 will bring bus rapid transit to the West Midlands. It will have the look and feel of a Metro, but the key change will be the journey time reliability and priority leading to consistency in journeys. And the West Midlands Bus Alliance continues to work towards 50 goals, to remove the barriers and get more people travelling by bus. One element of this is that the WMCA has invested £2.4m in improving emission standards, with the aim of getting the entire fleet to Euro VI by 2021.

The region's strategic vision for bus is to provide "a world-class integrated, reliable, zero emission transport system providing inclusive travel for all across the West Midlands, with excellent customer service and simple payment and ticketing options" – "a really exciting proposition", said Mr Bond.