Will the Bus Services Bill make a difference?

Though the news is dominated by bigger political issues, something significant is happening in the transport world: legislation on buses in England. The Bus Services Bill is making its way through Parliament and is currently in the Lords. It has laudable ambitions which include improving services and increasing the number of people who travel by bus. It increases the range of agreements open to transport authorities and bus operators, as well as requiring bus operators to make available much more data and information.

There is some way to go before the intentions of this bill become reality. Not only has the wording
to be scrutinised, but much of its implementation will be through secondary regulations before anything changes on the roads.

But will the bill actually make a difference to passengers? Other factors have an impact on bus service provision, such as funding. However, Transport Focus research indicates where legislation could make a difference. We conducted research into passengers' trust in the bus industry and also their priorities for improvement. The top ten priorities that emerged were:

1 Better value for money from bus journeys
2 More buses arriving on time at your bus stop
3 More journeys on buses running to time
4 Buses running more often than they do now
5 More effort made to tackle anti-social behaviour
6 Buses going to more places you want to go
7 More stops with next bus displays
8 More/better information when delays occur on journeys
9 Cleaner and better maintained buses
10 Tickets which allow travel on all bus companies.

So can they be met by the bill?

The overriding priority is that passengers want better value for money from their tickets. The bill should make it far easier for local authorities and operators to work together to achieve new deals such as smart ticketing.

Passengers gave high priority to buses arriving at the bus stop on time and running on time. We know from other Transport Focus research that punctuality is a key driver of satisfaction.

It is possible that the specifications for the different types of agreement will include setting targets which will be part of performance measures. But, of course, punctuality is susceptible to other factors, particularly traffic and congestion on the roads.

However, the bill may inspire a spirit of greater co-operation between the authorities and bus operators so they tackle problems like this, as has been seen with Centro in the West Midlands working with operators (predominantly National Express). Providing the data to monitor service performance could help and improve clarity.

The fourth priority that emerged was buses running more often than they do currently. Again, this could be included in the specification for any agreement between the authority and bus operator.

The fifth priority was seeing more effort in tackling anti-social behaviour. If the regulations and agreements were so inclined, this could be included in the specification and measured to assess compliance.

Passengers told us that they want buses to serve more places they want to go. Again, the specifications for the agreements could require this. Operators could also consult with passengers and the community.

At seventh and eighth place, passengers were keen to have better information, at bus stops showing when the next buses would arrive, and about delays to journeys. A key part of the bill is a requirement on bus companies to make available data, which should help passengers' access to such information. The specification could help with this. It could also help with the cleanliness and maintenance of the bus (the ninth priority).

And finally, at tenth place, passengers wanted tickets to allow them to travel on buses from all companies.

So the signs are that the Bus Services Bill could help achieve its ambitions of improving the service and increasing numbers. The latest bus use statistics for January to March this year are disappointing, showing a decrease in bus use of 3.2% in England and as high as 4.1% in London, compared with the same period last year.

Our work on trust shows that passengers trust their bus companies relatively highly. But operators could do more to improve customer care by helping them understand who runs the bus and where any complaints can be made and by showing that they have a connection with the community.

If bus operators really want to attract more passengers and get good satisfaction scores, they need to provide punctual services that go where people want to go. They also need to put passengers at the heart of their service, and make them feel valued. We are optimistic that the legislation can play a significant role in achieving that.

Reference: Transport Times, July 2016 Issue

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