Will 2 Become 1?

It’s as close as you’ll get to celebrity gossip in the bus world, as details emerged of a coming-together – potentially – of National Express and Stagecoach. Two of the UK’s “big 5” getting hitched? Is this a marriage of convenience, or an exciting glimpse into the future? And what’s in it for the passengers?

These are fascinating times for the bus industry. Covid has slapped the industry hard, and whilst optimistic reports put recovery at up to 75% of pre-pandemic loads, business leaders are sweating about what might happen next, once the umbilical cord of Government support is finally snipped in the not-too-distant future. For us pandemic-weary individuals, the next “crisis” is rapidly rolling into view – the climate. And it’s here the battle-scarred bus industry has a chance to grab a leading role in a future less-dominated by cars and co2.

For passengers, the future – potentially – is rosy. The Government’s Bus Strategy calls for more partnership working, more involvement from local authorities and more simplification. What’s not to love? The scene at the coalface, however, has yet to be filmed. The uneasy truth to this plot is that, inevitably, if we want the bus to shine, it has to take the leading role – ahead of the car, with all of it’s film-star looks and charm.

That’s the main feature, yet to come. In the meantime, we have the warm-up feature – a potential link-up of two big bruisers of the transport world.

Both have had their ups and downs. Stagecoach tried to conquer America, but has since retreated to blighty. It’s involvement in rail saw it famously running the first privatised service, then hopping into bed with Richard Branson to operate Virgin Trains. Old beardy went off to space, and Stagecoach created it’s own space – away from UK rail operations – the only metal on metal left is the Sheffield Supertram. The company is currently involved in a shouting match with Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham over his plans to franchise bus services in the city, taking one of Stagecoach’s golden eggs in the process.

National Express too has had it’s highs and lows. On the railways, it failed spectacularly on the East Coast franchise, leading to such a downfall that it’s bus repainting programme stayed shortly as all-over white as Stagecoach – of all companies – circled for a takeover of it’s own.

That ultimately didn’t happen, and National Express recovered under the leadership of the now-departed Dean Finch. It re-entered the rail market – albeit in Germany – and it’s famous white motorway coach network and West Midlands bus business now represent only around a fifth of the group – bus and coach operations in Spain and the US are bigger fish for the company.

Yet the UK promises much, as we climb out of covid and tackle air quality, the Government is expecting big investment in electric and hydrogen buses. It is here where a merger of these two giants makes a lot of sense. A huge company will have larger buying power and combined expertise and experience, putting it in a strong position to deliver.

Much of the corporate gains will be “back office”. For passengers, not a huge difference – at least in the short-term. The recovery from covid will be uppermost in boss’s minds, as well as the hopefully short-term issue of driver shortages, which are having a poor effect on passenger’s experiences, just as they return to the shops and offices.

But in the longer-term, might it be an opportunity to refresh the brand? Already talk amongst bus enthusiasts has turned to what any new company might be called. It’s too early to even think about such things, as such, but it may well be a decent opportunity once the dust settles to “localise” some bus operations, and bring some local branding into view. First appears finally to have learnt the lesson that corporate bland image does not endear local bus user – is Stagecoach in danger of also having that remote, cold, corporate image?

And what about consumer interest? Might the Competition and Markets Authority cast it’s beady eye over proceedings? The only bus operations that might be of concern are in the Coventry and Warwickshire area. Might a new concern have to divest itself of either National Express Coventry or Stagecoach Warwickshire? Coventry has new electric buses, and has designs on the city being an all-electric bus operation, so I would suspect Stagecoach’s Warwickshire operations might be more likely to go, although The Times thinks it unlikely that the CMA would take any interest at all. Another consideration is that with Government policy now based on co-operation rather than competition, and much more closer working with councils, is the bus industry seen as being in “competition” at all? And if it is, the “competitor” is surely the car? The more likely is the removal of Stagecoach’s MegaBus scheduled coach service. This competes head-on with National Express on several corridors. Here, the one to watch is German disruptor FlixBus, whose green coaches are increasingly a common sight on mainland Europe, and has already declared war on National Express’s long-established UK coach network which, apart from the aforementioned MegaBus has had little in the way of meaningful competition for a long time.

Combined expertise of the 2 companies can also benefit the user. National Express West Midlands has upped it’s game in recent years (at least before covid struck) with major investment in new, well-appointed vehicles. A recent fares reduction places it amongst the cheapest operators in the country, and users have been fairly well-insulated against major cuts seen in other parts of the country. Stagecoach, for it’s part, is well-known throughout the industry as being a solid performer over the years. It may have been seen as losing it’s way a little since founder Sir Brian Souter left the leadership helm, but it’s sheer size and coverage leaves it still a major player.

If this merger succeeds, what of other players in the industry? We saw in the communications industry that the joining of BT and EE led swiftly to a amalgamation of O2 and Virgin Media/Liberty Group. Might we see a newly re-focused FirstGroup take on all or part of a seemingly moribund Arriva, still the seemingly unloved child of DB? What of Go Ahead, seen by many as a class act, as the 5th member of the “big 5”? Others could possibly be ripe for merging – mid-sized Wellglade, owners of the well-regarded TrentBarton, Rotala, with it’s ever-growing Diamond brand and Preston Bus, and Transdev – seen by many as a model of excellence across large parts of the north – are all operators of note beneath the big 5 that also should be watched.

The smaller independents are a concern. Back in 1986, Thatcher saw her deregulation plan as one that might see hundreds of small concerns providing bus services. It never really turned out that way, but small independents have, in many examples, provided the life blood of buses in many often rural communities. For myriad reasons, these small operators now face real challenges – and the ones in urban locations may find that new “supergroups” are just too much to handle, especially if currently competing directly against them. Finding new routes and markets is tricky at the best of times.

How “Bus Service Improvement Plans” pan out is yet to be seen. They promise a lot on paper, but what they end up delivering is anyone’s guess. But the merging of National Express and Stagecoach might yet prove to be the opening salvo of an industry that quickly needs to reshape and restructure itself in order to insulate for the longer term and many challenges ahead. If it means it brings the power to be there for passengers for the long-term, we must wish it well.

The Mayoral Swipe

I love a good election campaign. if it’s a General Election, you can see all these Spitting Image characters out on the street, constantly avoiding a slip up, media watching their every move. In local elections, we see candidates parading in hi-viz on a local litter pick. Or having a go at the local bus service. Easy pickings, so to speak.

In recent times, the advent of “Metro Mayors” has added a new dimension to the bus bashing. We can thank former Chancellor George Osborne for the creation of European-style elected Mayors. Such devolution gave the first wave of these regional politicians some powers over their local transport set-ups, and herein another level of potential “bus bashing”.

So we don’t want London-anything anymore. Except that’s exactly what the Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham does want, when it comes to local transport. And he’s developed a quite sophisticated, yet simple way of “bringing the people” with him. In what has hitherto been a pretty dire set of results for the Labour Party in local council elections, Burnham has romped home in Manchester, seemingly on the back of his plans to franchise the Manchester bus network. Why not have what London has, says Burnham. Well, the financial mess Transport for London has got itself into may not be what he means, but instead was seen basking in his most recent electoral triumph riding around on buses and trams telling us in his Twitter video that he won’t rest until it costs £1.50 like it does in London to make his journey, rather than £4-plus that it does in Manchester.

The problem with all of this is also the problem we saw over mass-politiking with Brexit. It’s often simple, populist rhetoric, when the issue is, as ever, more complex. People will see Burnham whipping up emotion that the buses of Manchester are nowhere near as good as in London, and such sentiment hits home. The problem is that people don’t want to – or have time to – consider the many nuances surrounding such soundbites. London has a bus network that costs a lot of money. Will Manchester taxpayers really feel that “levelling up” means bringing London-style council tax rises to supposedly provide “better bus services”? Will Manchester have a comprehensive congestion zone like London, which – wait for it – will bash the hard-working van drivers and others who’s lives depend on zipping around behind the wheel? Where is the extensive bus priority London bus users currently benefit from? Will it be heavily policed like London? You can paint the buses yellow (or orange) and pop a 70s-style GMPTE logo on them, but will it necessarily feel any better?

And yet, Burnham’s tub-thumping hits home. Not for him the partnership working contained as an option in the recently-released Bus Strategy for England. Only total public control will do. And he’s convinced the good folk of Manchester of this too.

But….and it’s a big but.

Apart from notable exceptions, the bus industry has generally, for years now, performed like a mid-table Championship football team. Nothing flash, the odd bit of clever skill, but mundane and not really going anywhere. At times, it’s lack of ambition and generally flat performance has been met with much “meh” from the public-at-large. The potential has always been there, of course, but it has plodded on, reliable mostly, but with little sense of vision. The industry has felt vulnerable to hostile innovators and disruptors and has often been unwilling or unable to force meaningful change. And it has often felt like the mode of last resort too many times. Easy pickings for politicians, car dealers and manufacturers of e-scooters, maybe. It may be too soon to predict the death of the omnibus, but what it does feel like is that the Bus Strategy really is of it’s moment and needs to deliver real, noticeable, tangible change.

If Andy Burnham has mastered the art of the Mayoral Swipe, the lesson of populist soundbiting is quickly being learnt by one of his colleagues – the newly-elected West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin, who, two days into her new role, has also been on out the road, and tweeting her experiences.

There’s nowt like showing you’re a woman of the people by getting the bus to work, and of course this is to be commended. And Tracy’s tweet succinctly highlights some basic sentiments that many will chime with. I’ve no idea if the timetable issue is as it seems, but if so, it’s a sadly all too often seen own goal. The reference to 15 mins in the car versus an hour on the bus is another reason people often give for avoiding the bus. Where I live, I’m about 20 minutes from Wolverhampton, versus around an hour on the bus. But if the bus went the way I would drive, it wouldn’t pick up many people, and would thus be uncommercial to operate, requiring taxpayer subsidy. How would Tracy and her colleagues address this? Throw money at something that may or may not work? Divert resources from successful higher frequency services that, in turn, may make them less successful? The industry as a whole has always needed to do better, but it remains unclear as to how local authorities, politicians et al are actually going bring about this step change in bus service quality.

That’s not to say the status quo is a viable option either. This feels like a better opportunity than at any time in the last 20 or so years to grab the impetus, but it requires some potentially unpalatable decisions by local politicians to really make this work. Burnham has offered Motherhood and Apple Pie in his quest to make Manchester a hotbed of publicly-controlled world-beating bus quality. He now has to deliver that promise.

The Manchester proposals are interesting for us armchair bus critics. The powers that Metro Mayors have, or can threaten operators with, are actually a useful tool to bring about meaningful improvements. Stagecoach, whilst meeting Burnham in court shortly over the threat to their business, has also been instrumental in creating a package that the Manchester bus operators consortium One Bus has proposed, which looks to bring most or all of the benefits of franchising via a cheaper partnership approach instead. Will the Enhanced Partnership framework – which appears to give local authorities a much greater say in bus services across the country – bear fruit? The West Midlands’ newly re-elected Mayor Andy Street appears to favour this – we haven’t heard the “F” word from his lips, although he has the same powers at his disposal as Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin do. Watch this space.

One more thing to consider. Bus Industry people tell me that recruitment and retention is an increasing issue looming over the horizon. The average bus driver pay rate is now easily being matched and often beaten by other roles, and a day driving in ever-infuriating traffic, coupled with often very unsociable hours makes the role look increasingly unattractive. Will the bus industry ride it’s luck in assuming that many people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic will need a job – any job – in order to pay the bills? Will the apparent promise in the Bus Strategy to provide more evening services and better links require more staff, in an industry that already is struggling in parts to provide it’s mileage as it is? Will operators have to significantly uplift driver’s pay rates to improve recruitment and retention? What does that mean for the viability of existing services, never mind new ones?

Mayor’s transport powers and the new Bus Strategy have opened a Pandora’s Box of issues, which, in truth, probably needed opening anyway. It feels like the time to push on with better buses, but getting it right at every level is crucial.

Shapps’ Beautiful Buses

The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been to Pensnett Trading Estate. Not known for it’s aesthetic beauty, I personally can only recall a modicum of excitement here when purchasing a steak bake from the Greggs located centrally, and a stones throw from the National Express West Midlands garage, where Shapps and his entourage were inspecting the vehicles as part of a “good news story” involving the lowering of West Midlands bus fares.

The topic of bus fares here is a bemusing one. In years gone by, every wet, cold January, the bus fares would go up. The local press would await the press release like a kid awaiting Santa on Christmas morning. By lunchtime, it had usually made front page, the move being every bit the “disaster” the screaming headline made it. But in the last two years, the company has frozen the pricing, and the local rags have had to make do with X-Factor finalists singing in local pubs instead. Indeed, search the Birmingham Mail‘s website and you’ll find no mention of the most recent announcement by Shapps and co of “beautiful buses” and, most importantly, a REDUCTION in fares. You’d think they’d be interested in some good news, wouldn’t you?

At least the Black Country’s Express & Star newspaper rocked up, complete with photographer, to record the West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, complete with hi-viz, accompanied by Dudley Council Leader Patrick Harley, Dudley South MP Mike Wood et al to announce the ray of sunshine.

Hell, the bus industry needs some good news, even if it emanates from a far corner of a suburban trading estate. We can all argue on the merits or otherwise of the “keep off public transport” message Shapps and his colleagues pronounced during the darker days of lockdown – now we need those passengers back, plus new ones.

Everyone loves a bargain – even if the bus users of the West Midlands haven’t noticed they’ve been getting one for years. It’s only when you ride on buses in different parts of the country that you realise just how much of a bargain buses in the West Midlands conurbation are. We have a large network too that hasn’t really been dented in the same way some Shire County and rural areas have suffered in recent years. Simplistic is the assumption that buses have “failed” over the last 30 years in the West Midlands. Simplistic too, is the political rhetoric from – of all people – the Green Party candidate for the West Midlands Mayoral elections Steve Caudwell, who, in his electoral musings, thinks that West Midlands’ buses and trains are “a complete embarrassment, compared to London and Manchester” and “an expensive source of frustration”. There must be an election in the offing.

Cynical me would also think that, in the week before the West Midlands Mayoral election, isn’t it surprising-not that incumbent Mayor Andy Street pops up in front of a bus with sunlit uplands/motherhood/apple pie/cheap bus fares. But actually, no. I’m always wary of politicians getting too close to public transport, but the likeable Street has done a decent job since scraping the vote 4 years ago with just 50.4%. He’s kept his distance from the Tory brand (despite of course being a Conservative Mayor) and he hasn’t pushed a franchising agenda beloved of his compatriot Andy Burnham in Manchester. Indeed the creeping situation has increasingly been seen by observers as a “Manchester v. West Midlands” scenario, as to what good partnership or franchising can achieve. Street’s seemingly good working relationship with the West Midlands’ largest bus operator National Express has seen the conurbation quietly but increasingly effectively getting on with progress, and whilst this ordinarily might look like a politician trying to shore up votes by announcing a good news transport story with political heavyweight colleagues, there’s a lot more to this than at first sight.

Covid has knocked the bus industry for six, and then some. The industry now has the fight of it’s life to remain relevant as the country emerges from lockdown, wary of the outside world and armed with new ways of living and working. Will zoom reduce the traditional commute? Will home deliveries negate the need to trudge to the shops? Will home learning for students become more commonplace? All of these examples are traditional bus territory – knock usage and the whole bus industry set up faces an existential challenge.

But a much bigger challenge than even Covid lurks over the horizon. Climate change might not be about to threaten our lives as immediately as coronavirus, but it is rapidly moving up the political and lifestyle agenda. Buses, here, can play a huge part in a new world that offers new ways to move around. Cars have become a way of life – challenging that status quo will be enormous and require brave political decisions, but make no mistake, it’s coming.

That’s why Shapps’ quote about the buses being “beautiful”, and arguably more importantly his and Mayor Street’s trumpeting of National Express West Midlands’ fare reductions is important. And it must be part of a good news jigsaw that continuously makes the offer of public transport and wider green mobility compelling.

It’s about shattering the myth that buses are “expensive” – the £4.60 all day ticket is reduced to £4 all day. The weekly equivalent is down to £15 from £17.50.

It’s about making things simple – tapping with a bank card or phone app now caps the weekly rate at £15. NXWM claim this is the first operator outside of London to offer this. (Maybe by bank card, but could TrentBarton argue that they’ve had capping with their Mango offering for a while, albeit more expensive?)

It’s about making the offer attractive – increasing numbers of “Platinum” style buses are indeed “beautiful” as Shapps put it – more comfortable, more leg room and Wi-Fi/charging points that increasingly are seen as “basics” for new vehicles.  “I’ve been inside the buses and they’re lovely – you would want to be in there, there’s Wi-Fi and they’re beautiful machines and clean.” says the Transport Secretary

There’s more to be done. Apart from the need to glide through traffic, the ticketing offer remains, on a wider scale, often confusing. If you’re just using NX buses, happy days. Add other operators, or rail or metro, and it becomes increasingly challenging to work out how catching a bus, then a train works. The products exist, but it’s still something of a minefield. Fancy a day in Birmingham by using a bus then the train? There are day tickets that cover this, but board a National Express bus and – bemusing as it may seem – you’ll need to pay with good old cash and receive a paper ticket to get such a product. Yet on other operators such as Diamond, you CAN pay by card to get this ticket. Flash your card on NX buses and, yes, it’s simplicity itself – but only if you intend using NX buses on their own all day. Maybe the Enhanced Partnership will sort this out, but it requires more work. Transport for West Midlands are pushing what appears to be – potentially – a holy grail: Swift Go. Hop on “any” bus or metro tram (and eventually, but not yet, a train) and scan the card. It’ll then cleverly cap your days travel and charge you the cheapest amount. But already, Diamond, the second largest bus operator in the West Midlands, isn’t part of it. Enquiries suggest discussions are ongoing, but you can see where I’m going, can’t you? It’s simple and effective, but only if it works out of the box.

Now, it’s increasingly about the politicians. All of these beautiful buses with cheap, easy to use fares now have to have serious priority in congested areas. It’s something local Councillors have avoided for a long time. Boris Johnson’s new Bus Strategy appears to put the onus on Enhanced Partnerships and Franchising to deliver.

The King himself may have crooned “It’s Now or Never” but it feels like a critical moment in the world of mobility. Will the bus industry ever have a better opportunity to grasp the initiative, with the partnership of local authorities and politicians? Covid has shocked us all. Climate change is the coming challenge. Given the right environment, the bus can shine. Beautiful buses and cheap fare offers is only the start of it.

Aspiration Buses

I’m not sure what “Bus Back Better” – the title of the Government’s new National Bus Strategy for England – means. Better adverts on the rear end of double deckers instead of those that advertise local car dealerships?

Apart from the strange title, I’ve not been so excited about a bus plan since John Prescott wooed us all back in the 90s from the back of one of his Jags – and that sadly went up in diesel smoke. Yet I’m strangely optimistic about this vision. Boris loves buses. He inspired a new icon for London in Routemaster form (and if you want to argue about that, I’ll free up some spare dates in my diary), and he paints models of them, created out of old wine cases. So there’s something there, I think….

Despite the long-running saga of deregulation versus franchising, which, as a box set, has been running for around 200-plus series, it was, even before Covid, evident that a new game was required. Thatcher and Ridley’s free market economy was beginning to date, like hearing The Pet Shop Boys on an oldies radio station – something that was fresh and exciting thirty-odd years ago, but now consigned to fond nostalgia.

Enter “Bus Back Better”.

If nothing, it’s hugely ambitious. Whether it’s Johnson’s love of buses or a wider Tory plan to “level up” (another phrase that baffles me) particular Northern areas, three-billion quid is not to be sniffed at.

Much of what is suggested is a step-change in bus service provision that bus fans like me have waited probably most of our lives for. Working with Local Authorities to provide “ambitious bus priority schemes” is mentioned as the main course, and it is what, of course, every expert and bus passenger will mention – bus priority equals reliability, equals better buses. What will become a fascinating spectator sport is observing what will happen when we get to the coalface of this. And it strikes at the heart of whether this vision will succeed. Local Councils (and, more specifically, Councillors), will need to upset motorists.

We’ve probably reached the moment whereby bus lanes exist without too much controversy. An extra lane added so that buses can have their own bit of tarmac, without taking away road space. But I’m sure we can all name roads where meaningful bus priority could exist – but only by taking away road space from other motorists. This is the moment of truth, and we’ll see if nerves are held.

National newspaper columnists, no doubt grateful to drag themselves away from Coronavirus pontifications, have unusually turned to buses. A recent Rod Liddle piece in The Sunday Times contains the following;

 “I cannot remember what a bus looks like…big slow things full of poor people, as I vaguely recall”.

Matthew Parris in The Spectator does slightly better, admitting to using Hulley’s 172 from Bakewell to Matlock, but declares that the document

“Suffers from one big blind spot…Buses are uncool. That’s the double-decker in the room”.

Consider also another seemingly unrelated story on the BBC News website, entitled

“City drivers ‘should think twice’ before buying SUVs”

The article discusses the prevalence of sports utility vehicles, and their effect on crowded streets. Any cursory view of your average urban car park will also reveal just how much bigger cars have gotten in recent years. What’s all this got to do with Boris’s bus strategy?


Britain’s golden era for buses was probably during the 50s. Since then, the motor car, and it’s associated kudos when assessing where someone is on the league table of life has been to the bus’s detriment. You might consider Rod Liddle the archetypal gob on a stick and provocative column writer, but you can easily see what he’s banging on about.  And it resonates with large numbers of people.

Bus Back Better comes at a crucial moment. A probable once-in-a-lifetime moment to elevate buses right up the social ladder. If we thought the pandemic was a crisis, we ain’t seen nothing yet, when we consider the environmental challenge facing mankind. But because global warming is a slow-moving car crash, we don’t overly fret about it. But the (awful for some) truth is that we seriously have to curtail driving our fossil fuel vehicles around so much. And even the advent of environmentally-friendly vehicles won’t help congestion. Buses are centrally placed to herald a new long-term mobility era, but only a part of it. We have to walk more, cycle more and get out of our tin boxes more to tackle this, but the question of tackling the aspirations of regular motorists – and their voting intentions – is a bigger challenge than anything mentioned in the Government’s new bus strategy.

It also needs to be long-term. If deregulation is outdated and “failing” as a concept, what might more political control mean?

A graph contained in the bus strategy is a tad misleading. It shows a wavy line, which meanders slightly up from 1982, then falls like a stone from 1986 onwards. It purports to show how badly deregulation performed, but students of road passenger transport will also note that, if you moved the graph slightly to the left, into the seventies, you would have seen an equally spectacular fall, in what was effectively a publicly-controlled system. We may have moved on, and times have changed, and who knows how Manchester’s huge experiment with franchising will progress, but it will surely need very long-term political support and funding – as London’s has. And those same road passenger transport students will also note the political shenanigans in our capital City over the years when it comes to transport as well.

The other option open to most other areas apart from franchising is an “Enhanced Partnership”. It’s not to be sniffed at, and passengers stand to gain a lot, in theory, from this arrangement. In some areas, the bus operator and local authority are already doing great things. Look at any winners in recent years from the UK Bus Awards to see that top class partnerships already exist. But listen also to the groans from many a Town Hall – and indeed bus operator bus board room – at the prospect of being forced to bang heads together and work as one. It’s absolutely what is long overdue, but it’s another episode in another long-running box set to see how this is going to progress in some areas.

Some of the proposals in Bus Back Better are so obvious; it’s exasperating that they still haven’t happened over many years. Multi-operator ticketing, more evening services, and simple to find information has had me gnashing my teeth for so long, my dentist sees me on a monthly basis.

You only have to marvel as to what has brought about such a turnaround. The operators will tell you that lack of priority has always been a huge problem. Councils bemoan their ever-decreasing budget as to why evening and Sunday services have been decimated. Now they’re being invited to sit around the table and draw up a golden new era in which the bus regains it’s status as the true King of the road. Can you believe it?

I want to believe it. And I think much of it will happen. Because, given funds and goodwill, such a transformation can be achieved quickly – and before the next General Election. But two things need to happen overall.

The cash flow for this new era needs to be there for the long-term. Not just £3bn over the next few years, but dedicated investment for the next twenty years-plus. It really would be a tragedy to watch the huge uplift the bus world so sorely needs, only to watch it fall back as a new political whim takes the fancy of Ministers.

Secondly, the greater good of “net zero” and the climate emergency – again over the long-term – must take precedence over the short-term local political arguing about road space. And with more delivery vans on the road than ever, coupled with negative messaging over the use of public transport during the pandemic, that will be no mean feat.

 So, for the coming years, the vision must be aspiration buses. To make the offer irresistible, for the option of using the bus to be simple and to work every time, and to shift that aspiration of car ownership to the greater good of green mobility.

 It won’t be easy, but it’s surely the bus’s final chance.

Calling Points on the Journey

“Ambitious Bus Priority Schemes”…

The one thing bus operators and passengers point to. But just how easy will it be to bring in miles of new bus lanes, when howls of derision from motorists will be heard from all over the nation – and opposition politicians? We’ve seen the ferocity with which low traffic neighbourhoods have been greeted – will local Councillors have the stomach for the fight?

“4000 new zero emission buses”…

A real statement of intent, but takes up a lot of the promised money. A strange decision by Government to exclude minibuses below 23 seat capacity in it’s ZEBRA plan (Zero emission buses regional area), given that much emphasis is placed on demand responsive operations, especially during evening/Sunday operations.

“Cheaper Fares”…

Everyone wants cheaper fares, but how realistic can this commercially be? We can all name a perceived expensive bus fare, but are we going to effectively see some fares subsidised to make them cheaper?

“More Comprehensive Networks”…

Again, everyone wants their bus to go from their front door directly to where they want to go, but buses aren’t taxis. There are plenty of ideas from passengers regarding new and better links, but commercial bus companies are savvy operators. They know what usually works and what doesn’t. Demand responsive minibuses have long been floated as an idea, but they rarely work as a commercial operation. So a subsidised operation may be desirable socially, but who will be the first person to comment about minibuses floating around on a rainy February night with no one using them? And at what publicly-funded price? Are we about to see a “chicken/egg” scenario whereby new links pop up to see if they work?

“Easier to Understand”…

One of the most brought-up topics when both existing and current non-users are surveyed. And with honourable exceptions, it is beyond me why the industry hasn’t gotten to grips with this a long time ago. Friends and family still regularly question me on what should be the simplest of queries regarding bus travel, but it often remains an enigma that is usually resolved with a sigh and the use of a car or taxi. An opportunity missed, literally for years.

“Seen as a Safe Mode of Transport”…

Regular users know that bus travel is incredibly safe, but the perception of current non-users counts for a lot, especially if travelling late at night. Rowdy elements in bus stations, coupled with low frequencies often lead to the taxi option being more attractive and even a necessity. Higher frequencies or pre-bookable demand responsive options may improve matters, but user safety is a fundamental thing. Perhaps the increased involvement of subtle police patrols needs to be an early priority?

“Taking into Account the Views of Local People”…

My time at Bus Users UK over 10 years ago saw many a Bus Users Surgery (or “Your Bus Matters”) event. They weren’t always a moan-fest (!) and we and the operators/Local Authority gained a lot of insight into how people viewed their local services. Today, working with the likes of Transport Focus, there should be a lot of opportunity to involve local people, either via similar events or increased use of technology, to submit their thoughts. The views of non-users are equally crucial to understanding what doesn’t attract them to public transport.

“The Franchise Option”…

Here’s another double-decker in the room. Who else might put their head above the parapet and declare this option? I suspect many of us will watch intently to see how Manchester progresses, and how it compares, say, to somewhere like the West Midlands, where the partnership approach has been quietly but effectively progressing. Ultimately, what might a franchising arrangement achieve that an Enhanced Partnership might not? Jersey is held up as a good example of franchising, but is it too small and unique as an operation to give a meaningful comparison compared to, say, Manchester or London?

“More Bus Rapid Transit”…

Could this finally be the time for Bus Rapid Transit? The “bus that looks like a tram” is lauded in the example given of Belfast’s Glider operation, and it certainly might tackle Matthew Parris’s accusation that buses are “uncool”. Users really do have to feel that BRT is more akin to the tram experience than the bus one. In the West Midlands, the forthcoming Sprint scheme begins to address a BRT experience, although it will initially operate with hydrogen double deckers, which, although to operator National Express West Midlands’ “Platinum” specification, will still arguably look like conventional “buses”, and like vehicles they can already see on West Midlands roads. First pioneered “FTR” as a concept over ten years ago using futuristic articulated tram-style vehicles, but it petered out. Other more successful schemes, such as the Cambridge Guided Busway, and the Manchester – Leigh Vantage operation have been positive, but took a long time to build. BRT is an exciting idea that may well work in some areas, although the emergence of VLR (Very Light Rail) as a cheaper version of traditional more expensive light rail tram schemes is another option gaining traction.

The Big Sell…With The Right Numbers…

It’s been painful during the Pandemic to watch empty buses sailing by on my daily walk. Although the timetables of my local services have barely changed, they have often resembled “ghost” buses – eerie apparitions of what passed as a normal street scene not so long ago.

As we emerge – hopefully on a one-way path to something akin to normality – our buses have a vital job to do. And they must do it with the potential of a greatly-accelerated change to their oft-traditional landscape of two peaks a day and an army of off-peak shoppers. The five-day-a-week commute may not exist in the way we knew it. The off-peak shoppers may, by necessity, have discovered online shopping and decide it’s the future. This isn’t the death of the omnibus – it’s the fight of it’s life to remain relevant.

The other day, my local bus route, the 16 from Wolverhampton to Stourbridge, had a posh Platinum vehicle on it. Emblazoned down the side of it was “529 Wolverhampton to Walsall”, and assorted phrases to do with frequency, etc. The geek in me spotted it straight away, but the message was writ large – just like a certain Prime Minister’s message about Brexit costs alongside another posh vehicle. You couldn’t miss it.

What’s the problem? it won’t be the first time a branded bus has popped up on another route. If the “correct” bus had broken down and this one was substituting, all good. Service provided. And the correct route number and destination are on the front anyway, so any intending passenger can see it as it arrives.

And yet….. I’ve seen a fair bit of this during lockdown (and before, I hasten to add). Does the West Midlands have more than it’s fair share of mechanical problems that necessitate this? I’ve very rarely seen this “phenomenon” of wrongly-branded buses whenever I’ve been in Nottingham, where you might call it branding heaven. Or in Transdev land up north.

I’m prepared to let it all go over my head because of lockdown. Strange things have been the theme of life itself during the last year, but with the “new normal” on the way, the bus industry has the biggest sell of it’s life on it’s hands. Boris’s bus revolution has upended the industry in the biggest way since Thatcher and Ridley in the 80s. What becomes of it all will unfold in the months and years to come, but those who run our buses need to leave no stone unturned in how they sell their product. If motorists are going to be curtailed in favour of bus lanes, the product has to be 100% perfect. Finally, no ifs, no buts. It has to deliver. Every. Single. Time.

Retail has been transformed during the last 20 years. Technology has utterly remixed our way of life. But buses – with some notable exceptions – remain too often the “meh” of transport. Take it or leave it. Where do you find out what your local bus network has to offer? Why are so many bus operator websites so utterly difficult? How much does cost? Why can’t I use a debit card to pay for more than just myself on a journey? These are just a few of the comments friends and family say to me – and it’s indefensible. And they get in the car, prepared to suffer road rage, parking problems and congestion simply to avoid the often avoidable complications of using the bus.

So whilst branded buses on wrong routes might be the least of our worries, it sets a precedent. You ought to see this once in a blue moon. Not semi-regularly. It says to the observer this is an industry that doesn’t overly care. You don’t see the equivalent in retail.

A local garage to me actually schedules branded buses to appear on both the correct and incorrect routes as part of a day’s work. Do people notice? Do they care? I do. Because it’s that little attention to detail that sets industries and services apart. I want to see people have confidence in buses to use them for some of their journeys. I’m not anti-car – I’ve owned and driven a car for over 30 years – but we have to see a much wider variance in how we move, for reasons environmental. And even if you can’t invoke your inner-Greta just yet, the effects of Covid and the accompanying messaging about avoiding public transport, means that many will need tempting back to buses when naturally wary. What does even more car journeys do for the environment – and how will that be a looming silent killer long after we’ve all stopped worrying about coronavirus?

So bus operators have the biggest challenge of their lives in the coming months and years. And it must start with at least getting the right branded buses on the right routes.

An Uncertain New Normal

Anxious. We’re all anxious. Whatever Covid has done to us, or what it is still yet to do, we’re all still finding our feet. Boris wants us all back at work, plague or no plague, some have found new ways to work that doesn’t involve the commute. The Government message to avoid public transport went on for far too long and has stuck in many a person’s mind.

I work on the front line in the railway world. I see anxious commuters, travellers and staff finding their way through this real life nightmare, trying to avoid the invisible enemy. I recently went out for the first time to recreate one of my favourite past-times – random bus riding in my locality. If you’re going to try to understand what it’s like on public transport, you need to be out on it, experiencing what is going on.

I’ve been doing this long before covid. In fact, most of my life, which amounts to a half-century of lurking around buses, trains and trams. But I’m a tad concerned with what I found.

The face-covering “normality” is anything but. Whatever the science behind it, everyone on the front line – whether it be transport or shops – knew it would be a flashpoint. My initial experience on the railway was, if anything, a pleasant surprise. People, mostly, were donning some sort of face covering. But in more recent times, those times are-a-changing. I would seriously suggest, during this last week (first week in September), up to a third of all passengers on my train were not wearing a face covering. The overwhelming majority being young adults. I accept, of course, that there are exemptions – many of which are not visible. But I would also contend that there are, by that definition, an incredible number of people with hidden health issues – and most of them young people! I have given up trying to gently encourage use of a face covering, having been met regularly with abuse, laughter or ignorance.

My trip out on my local Black Country bus network appeared to be even worse. The good news is that passenger numbers are on the rise. The bad news is that, I would rudimentarily suggest, is that up to half of all bus passengers I witnessed had no face covering on – and those that did often had it half-heartedly not covering their nose. Again the demographic being young adults.

I don’t expect front line staff to police this. I could literally have dozens of confrontational moments on the railway if I chose to, every day. It isn’t good for your mental health. But I also notice something else. Those that do play the game are increasingly frustrated and anxious. Some tell me. Others tell me with their eyes. And this, I fear, is undermining – in the longer term – return to using public transport. Not only do we have a reluctant workforce, happy to work at home wherever they can, we have people who are actively seriously unhappy with travelling on a form of transport where they see the the refuseniks doing their thing, getting away with it, and – more seriously – potentially infecting them.

It’s an excruciatingly difficult problem. If you flood the buses and trains with more police, you will create more ugly scenes. The YouTube video of the guy getting into a punch up with a British Transport Police Officer is the stuff of nightmares for those of us who wish to see more people returning to public transport. Yet the increasing numbers of people who won’t adhere to the rules is a timebomb, for sure. We all know the commute to the office pre-covid was often not the best experience in the world. Now people are getting seriously anxious about it, given the threat to their actual health by seeing people without face coverings in increasing numbers. Trusting the British people to “do the right thing”, as Boris puts it, simply doesn’t work. And the hard work done by Britain’s transport operators to create a safe environment to travel is being undone by the image of these refuseniks.

What did I find on the ground during my busathon? Within minutes there was a young guy sitting directly behind me, no mask, yabbering into his phone. No amount of eye contact changed a thing. I avoided a confrontation purely because I didn’t want a scene within the first 5 minutes of my first journey. My next bus yielded 8 passengers, 3 of whom had non-face maskers. All under the age of 25, I would estimate. Later my journey was interrupted by someone banging the perspex screen of the driver’s cab shouting some some of obscenity at the driver, followed by him filming the driver with his mobile phone whilst continuing to threaten him. Lord knows what that was all about, but my fellow 2 passengers looked on with a mixture of bemusement and anxiousness. You can bet the topic of conversation at some point later would be along the lines of “I’m going to try and avoid the bus in the future”. Our “friend” needless to say had no mask on.

Later, I try something positive. A new limited stop express service between Wolverhampton and Walsall, introduced by National Express West Midlands. it’s a useful addition to the local bus network. I even pop my headphones on and listen to Janice Long on Greatest Hits Radio playing a classic bit of Freddie Mercury, on what would have been his 74th birthday. Yet just before Walsall bus station, I hear a voice above the great Queen vocalist’s dulcet tones shouting “last stop”. I make my way downstairs, where the driver informs me that this is indeed the last stop.

“Aren’t you going over there?” I point at the bus station.

“We have to unload here mate. Centro’s rules”.

I thank him and disembark. To get to the bus station, I now need to cross 2 roads, both using crossings, one on a bend. Within the bus station, I find a Supervisor. “Ah yes”, he tells me, “it’s the Combined Authority’s decision. It’s so we don’t have too many people on the bus station. I ask him, maybe unfairly (it’s not his fault, after all) what if I had mobility issues? What if someone ignores the red light on the bend on the crossing and knocks me over? He sheepishly grimaces and doesn’t really give me an answer. I thank him for his answer anyway. But whether this is “health and safety gone mad” or a well thought-out measure, it again gets me thinking. If you weren’t great on your legs and you came across this impediment, maybe, if you had a car, might you be thinking it’s all too much hassle and you might as well just drive into Town?

Then it’s a jolly romp all the way from Walsall to Merry Hill on the 4M. Ordinarily a single-deck operation, these days it’s a double-deck route ostensibly for social distancing. I take an upper deck seat as our elderly but decent enough Trident meanders through West Bromwich, Oldbury, past half of Sandwell queuing in cars for McDonalds , Blackheath and a mostly deserted Cradley Heath. I count a total of 11 upper deck travellers, 6 of whom don’t bother with face coverings. 2 late-teen girls plonk themselves opposite me and one joyfully recites a recent encounter where she was asked to put a mask on in a shop and told the assistant to “**** off”. Her friend giggles. I despair quietly.

In Merry Hill, I wait for my final trip home. The bus is parked up in the waiting area and is due in 5 minutes. Departure time comes, and our bus is still there, driver chatting to his mate and messing with his phone. 5 minutes later, he’s still there. Then another route – on time – correctly assumes position on our stand. A gaggle of elderly ladies – all masked up by the way – sigh profusely. “This happens all the time”, says one. “Then they speed off because they’re late, flinging us everywhere”, adds another.

It’s a familiar tale of woe. Our man eventually pulls onto stand and departs 8 minutes late. Then predictably does his Formula One driver impression. Another sigh inside. I’ve complained about this and other issues to the company involved. They didn’t even reply pre-covid. What’s the chance now?

Our elderly lady shoppers probably have little choice, but the experience, whilst of course a “first world problem” nevertheless adds up to other niggles on public transport. Nervousness over covid. The increase in people not wearing face coverings. The feeling that the Government messaging on using public transport has stuck longer than it should have.

These are incredibly difficult times for transport operators. We should be in recovery mode now, looking at the long, winding road to get back to where we were at the start of the year, where, ironically, it all seemed so rosy with a decent future for buses, and some reform for the railways.

Now, while we’ve all been dining out for half price and trying to get the massive recovery going, public transport seems almost like it’s been left at the starting block. Yes, the Government has pumped vast amounts of money in to keep it afloat, but a combination of negative messaging going on too long, the lack of a really positive Government message to promote public transport effectively, a growing number of refuseniks not wearing face coverings undermining the whole environment, and individual operators shooting themselves in the foot when they should know better, all adds up a transport sector that feels like it really is a mode of last resort.

We all have to do better, and that includes Government.

The Curious Case of the 582…

Green Bus 582_1 pic

Who doesn’t love a jolly romp around green fields and country villages aboard a double decker bus, peering over hedgerows at unsuspecting horses and other startled country folk?

It’s worth getting up early on a Saturday morning in August experience The Green Bus 582, which is running for one month only. Connecting Wolverhampton with Kidderminster via narrow lanes and bits of road that haven’t seen buses for many a year is a joy indeed.

Let’s be clear. This is commercial bonkers. I’m, pondering this as I’m awaiting said service in Wolverhampton city centre early one Saturday morning. There’s no indication where it goes from, apart from “The Art Gallery” – a collection of on-street stands. To be fair, Transport for West Midlands has removed timetable information for all of the services leaving from said stands – covid-19 strikes again. There are two other likely lads lurking around, peering down the road, awaiting the, let’s be frank, in-your-face livery of The Green Bus.

The Green Bus primarily is an operator of college services. It’s dipped its toes in service work before, but hasn’t largely been successful. The emergence of the 582 is curious indeed. Why? Is it a shopper’s service, intended to give people a couple of hours in Kidderminster? Is it aimed at enthusiasts? People who like to meander around country lanes, letting someone else do the driving?

It feels like something of a bygone age. The halcyon days of Midland Red, where you’d find the operator literally everywhere across great swathes of middle England. What doesn’t feel like something from a bygone age is the appearance of the large green monster at the traffic lights, then turning in the opposite direction, and disappearing off down towards Wolverhampton bus station. One of the likely lads bursts into a sprint, then decides it’s largely pointless as the elderly double decker in it’s eye-catching shade of green rolls out of view.

“You waiting for the 582?”, I offer, knowing full-well he is. “Yeah”, he replies, breathlessly. The three of us stand around, me constructing a complaint in my head already.

And then it reappears. We then sprint back towards the Art Gallery, flagging it down. “Sorry about that”, our friendly driver says, greeting us, saying something about having to drive around the block in order to charge something up. Sounds promising.

It’s £3 single or £5 return Kidderminster. My new-found colleagues opt for the return, and offer their cards, as “this bus is cashless”. But the kit isn’t tap and go. It’s a more rudimentary affair, linked to a mobile phone. Last time I’d seen this set up was when buying a rather large gin at a food fair last year, after spending out on my real money on an outrageous burger that would had fed a family of four for a fortnight. But this bit of kit isn’t working. Our driver sighs and declares to fiddle with it. We all mosey upstairs. A few minutes later, we are summoned by our bellowing driver that it’s now working, and can we all come and pay?

The kit throws another hissy fit, as does our human driver, but in the end finally accepts our cards.

And we leave the sprawling city of Wolverhampton, three of us on board, first via the charming South Staffordshire village of Wombourne, with it’s quintessential cricket pitch in the middle of the village, then further out into the wilds, where no service bus has laid a tyre on proceedings for many a year. The delightfully-sounding Halfpenny Green is next, with it’s airport, infamous for an accident which killed the Queen’s cousin Prince William of Gloucester, then on to Six Ashes, and then the village of Kinver, which does have a regular bus service. To prove that no one ever looks at the destination display of a bus, a small gaggle of intending passenger shuffle forward, and the groans of disappointment are heard clearly from the upper deck as our driver informs them that the bus isn’t actually what they think it is – it’s going to Kidderminster.


Green Bus 582 pic_2

rural fields of South Staffordshire

From here, it’s on to another rural outpost, Caunsall, then into Kidderminster itself, looping around the Swan Centre for the shops, then terminating at the faceless Crossley Retail Park, where myself and the two others hop off, point cameras at the vehicle, then disappear off to negotiate several lanes of traffic that are part and parcel of car-orientated shopping parks.

The 582 is that most curious of operations. It’s only running for five Saturdays in August. The timetable wasn’t even on the Green Bus website for the first Saturday of operation (it is now), so hardly time to build up awareness. And, nice as it is, it isn’t even really an “excursion”-style route to somewhere “touristy”. Awareness seems largely the preserve of the local enthusiast fraternity on Facebook.


Green Bus 582_pic3

low-hanging branches haven’t seen a double decker in years

And yet…. As I make my way home, I ponder a few things.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing the local countryside from an angle I’ve never seen it before. Maybe with covid, and more people considering “staycations”, simple, inexpensive jollies like this may be part of “the new normal”? If the idea is to recreate a rural facility for a shopping service for the locals, might they consider life without a car? We used to have loads of routes just like the 582 before years and years of cutbacks left rural and semi-rural areas decimated when it came to public transport provision. Whether rural dwellers liked it or not, the car had to become the default transport option.

The 582 clearly is bonkers. Delightful bonkers, maybe, but commercial bonkers. But it opens up a much wider debate – post covid – about what we want “the new normal” to look like. Pre-virus, the environmental argument was starting to gain traction. There may still be large numbers of petrolheads, but the words of Greta – and others – are moving up the political agenda, slowly. And this all includes public transport. Lots of our beautiful countryside and rural areas are lost to us, if we don’t drive. Employment and education opportunities are made more and more difficult if you live in these areas and don’t drive.

Clearly Green Bus aren’t going to rake in the dough by operating the 582 with a double decker running along country lanes with very few on board. But should we think more about provision to rural areas and Shire County locations that opens up opportunities for both locals and other curious travellers, who’d like to spend time in rural villages? The local economy might benefit greatly from people who have decided a flight to Spain in a stuffy mask is just too much to risk, yet a pint in the local pub or some delightful cake in a local shop might be a nice day out  – and you can do it without the hassle of driving.

Opening up our rural areas to better public transport will require a long-term vision, commitment and funding from the powers that be. And it also will require some of the flair and ingenuity shown by commercial bus managers. These don’t need to be fixed bus routes, but could be Uber-style demand-responsive. They could link in with other options, such as other fixed bus routes in urban areas or taxi companies. We need to think outside of the box in “the new normal”.

The curious case of the 582 gives us all food for thought.

You can check out The Green Bus website here


On Yer Bike!

Ahh, good old Norman Tebbit. For younger readers, you’ll have to Google what the Tory “big beast” was on about when he uttered those words. But it’s a phrase that lingers, and one that people who dream of a less car-polluting world certainly dream of.

I’m approaching 50. Not being one for the gym and rather fond of any meal that has “and chips” as the title, I’m not exactly healthy. I’m the kind of bloke who would benefit greatly from regular cycling. I live around 3 miles from where I work, so a nice 6 mile round-trip I’m sure would benefit me significantly (coupled with a substitution of lettuce instead of chips on the odd occasion).

But, like many others, I’m put off by idiots. Idiots in cars. And not just idiots. People who don’t take driving seriously. They aren’t concentrating, but they’re in charge of a pile of metal that can seriously injure and kill if not driven with due care and attention.

And a short stretch of white paint doesn’t help. Nor green tarmac at traffic lights. A non-statistical survey in the pub (before the virus put paid to my ale-supping) revealed that many of my fellow drinkers either don’t know what the green section for cyclists at traffic lights is, or don’t particularly give a monkeys.

Yet giving over newly properly segregated space for cyclists has also seen that space reallocated from bus lanes. Boo-hiss, you may well say, and I’ll probably agree with you.

However, cycling and buses need not be natural adversaries. Buses need, more than ever now, to become part of the “alternative” to cars, where possible, and that alternative includes cycling.

In recent times, I was involved in something called “Whim”. It was a notion that you could live without a car, and all sorts of modes were integrated into one app. So, for a monthly fee, you got all the usual bus/train/tram, but also car hire if you needed it short-term, and taxis, and where there was a scheme, bikes. I still think it has tremendous potential, and I was even flown (yes, I know) to where it all started – Helsinki – to see it for myself. Whim even launched in Birmingham, and I was part of a trial that inevitably needed some ironing out, but nonetheless became a “thing”. What happened to the Birmingham trial, I don’t know. It went quiet. And the great Covid disaster will no doubt have repercussions for it. But I remain a enthusiastic convert to MaaS (“Mobility as a Service”) and I really hope it’s time comes.

I’m also enthused by something I spotted recently in the trade press, that is simple, but potentially really effective.

When we talk about public transport, we often come across the issue of “last mile” connectivity. Whatever you think of your local rail service, for example, taking the train is extremely popular. But people still drive en masse to their local rail station because buses can be confusing and taxis too expensive. Cycle storage at stations is often hit and miss – and people often aren’t willing to leave expensive bikes chained up to primitive cycle parking (although that’s not always the case – the rail world is getting better at this). The interface between bike and bus is even less connected.

Yet Cardiff Bus and nextbike have joined forces to provide a simple option – pop the nextbus information onto the Cardiff Bus app. Users now have the option to take the bus, then, if the bus isn’t going close to home or work or wherever they’re going, they can check the app to see how many nextbikes there are at hubs along the route, hop off the bus and grab a bike to their ultimate destination – “last mile” sorted, and no need to actually own a bike.

From this, you can see that Cardiff sees cycling as very much in their future vision, but by integrating it with buses, it utilises the strength of both.

This requires the buy-in of more cities across the UK, coupled with smart ways of making road infrastructure much more cycle friendly – and not necessarily removing that all important bus priority. Manchester too, apparently, is looking to get a cycle scheme going again, after the failure of it’s original one following thefts and damage. Birmingham too seems close to it’s own scheme.

Buses need to be central to the future of “Maas”. In Helsinki, the question was asked as to, if taxis were part of this “eat-all-you-can” scheme, wouldn’t people just grab cabs everywhere? Apparently, initially, there was some evidence of this, almost as a novelty factor, but it soon settled down to sensible use. People hopping on  trams, then using buses, hiring cars at weekends if they were taking a long drive out, and taxis if they were on a late night out. Imagine throwing cycles into that mix too. No need to own a car, which is parked up 95% of the time at home or at work, no polluting the atmosphere with your own vehicle, more money to spend without tax, insurance, fuel, wear & tear etc – and potentially getting fitter.

I know this won’t work everywhere, and large cities will be the initial recipients, but just getting into the heads of people that there really are other options has to be the future. When covid is just a horrible memory, attention will swing back to the environment. People may actually remember the months of lockdown where, actually, traffic levels went right down and the air felt cleaner.

At the risk of sounding like an overweight, 50-something bloke-like version of Greta, there IS a future where the car isn’t at the centre of everything. The bus industry needs to quickly integrate itself into that future vision, to have a future itself.

Franchise By Default?

There’s much to be commended about how the bus industry has gone about it’s business during lockdown. A quite decent skeleton service has been there since day one. But with very few passengers using it – many estimates suggesting usage down around 90% in those early weeks – it is quite clear that a rather hefty amount of subsidy has been required to keep the wheels turning. A near-£400m package agreed at the start of April between Government and the industry was for a three-month period, involving a mix of existing grants that cover fuel consumption rebates and new emergency funding, for which services were expected to cover up to 50% of pre-lockdown service levels.

And by golly they needed it. On my daily strolls, I observed a fair number of buses passing through my village. Barely any passengers were on board. Now further emergency funding to the tune of £254m from mid-May for the next three months will hopefully help to see buses play their part increasingly as the country slowly climbs out of lockdown.

Predicting the future of the bus world is worse than ever. Warm words and promises of lots of extra cash from the recent election campaign had led many of us to believe the bus industry really had a promising future. As environmental concerns rise up the political spectrum and Greta’s message resonates with increasing numbers of people, public transport could be the centre of a better world.

And now this. The stuff of science fiction movies. A real, devastating message. “Don’t use public transport unless absolutely necessary. Use your car”. This, from Government.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps even admits its an opposite message to what he should be proposing. But the science has spoken. If buses were ever the mode of last resort, they certainly are for the time being. And the longer this goes on, the worse it will be for the bus industry.

Down the road from me, in Worcestershire, local operator Diamond has taken the opportunity to revamp one of it’s poorly performing routes, and withdraw two others. These are your classic Shire County examples. The sort of routes that barely wash their hands commercially. Ten years of austerity has also seen the piggy bank of the local authority shaken empty, when it comes to topping up these marginal services. The locals doth protest, but, as ever, the issue is a far wider one – made all the more difficult by the invisible invader.

What of the future of buses? Not even Mystic Meg can predict for certain, but the industry must be guarded and ready for new challenges. Notwithstanding the social distancing nightmare, the long-term market may be scarred and dammed irreversibly. The issue of home-working may have been heavily accelerated. Even when Covid is over, is the genie out of the bottle that says working from home more and more is the new norm? The virus hasn’t stopped home deliveries – be it food shopping or stuff from Amazon. In fact, a whole new range of people have discovered how easy online food shopping has become. Yes, there may be a delivery charge, but in the same way that the likes of Uber appeared on the scene, folks are increasingly making a mental trade-off in the minds. Twenty minute wait for a bus with heavy shopping bags? Or £5 delivery charge dropped to your front door, no hassle?

So what might buses be used for in the future? I think a framework of services will probably always need to be there, long into the future. People who can’t work from home, people who aren’t pre-disposed to home shopping deliveries, and of course leisure will all require buses to be there. And I think large City-Regions will ride the storm. My concern, as ever, is for rural services, but also increasingly, those oft-marginal Shire county routes that serve mid-sized towns. It also depends on who is running these services. The large groups have large overheads. They have shareholders that require profit levels. Perhaps for these, big City-Regions work in the business plan, with high-frequency operations and enough users to justify investment. Does that model work in smaller towns surrounded by green fields? Or can it work better with smaller operations? Less expectation of profit, fewer overheads. Are they best suited to Independent operators? But where are these small operators? Many have gone to the wall already, and for those who, traditionally have been both coach & bus operators, the coaching industry is facing an even more dire future than their stage carriage sisters.

If society isn’t ready to ditch the bus lock, stock and barrel, is the future based more on local authority control? If the Government money keeps rolling to support these covid-times timetables, then it surely is more and more likely. There is a requirement with the current batch of emergency funding for commercial operators to agree the level with local authorities required, as demand increases following the easing of lockdown. And that, of course, is perfectly reasonable.

However, as lockdown eases and baby steps are taken, who knows how long social distancing will be required. Many are suggesting that we may have to live with covid for a long time. What if a vaccine is never found? Or it takes many years? Jo Bamford, who brought vehicle builder Wrightbus out of administration seems a confident chap. He is calling for £500m of Government funding to help fund the introduction of 3000 hydrogen-fuelled buses. All positive stuff, but he is also aware of the effects of covid on the long-term future of the image of bus travel, suggesting ways in which buses may be redesigned internally, including handrails manufactured from hospital-standard stainless steel, and ventilation systems that extract air rather than recirculate it internally. Some operators are making real efforts to ensure the internal appearance of buses doesn’t look like a war zone, with bits of seat taped off like a murder scene. There’s some real thought going into making it look more appealing to travel by bus.
The future battle will surely be all about wooing passengers back. But with much reduced capacity, and networks propped up with Government cash, where is the commercial attractiveness?

In those aforementioned Shire County and rural areas, is the future possibly franchise by default? Many industry watchers were keeping an eye – pre-covid – on what is happening in Cornwall, where a new authority-led operation including single branding, simpler integrated ticketing and long-term bus service tendering to one operator, with investment in new vehicles is emerging, although plans for completely free bus travel across the summer appear mired in confusion (see Roger French’s blog on the situation here). There is no doubt that the Cornwall operation has attracted funding above and beyond the usual scrimping and struggling experienced by other Shire/rural areas. Many years ago, Gwynedd Council in North Wales attempted a version of this, with buses visibly painted red on the front with “Bws Gwynedd” logos amongst other initiatives. Is covid more likely to bring an area where the current operator decides to throw in the towel completely, leaving an area bus less?

Meanwhile, in Manchester, where Transport for Greater Manchester has the Government piggy bank, some disquiet has emerged regarding what it is telling operators they must do in order to receive the subsidy. No comment as yet from the City’s major bus operators, but Julian Peddle, the Centrebus Director, and a well known and respected figure on the bus industry scene has vented his frustration publicly. He suggests (amongst other issues) that conditions TfGM are imposing on operators equate to them having total control of the network and a fixed sum of money that may or may not be sufficient. Manchester is the scene of a bid by the Mayor Andy Burnham to consider the first franchise system of a major city-region area in the UK for it’s bus network. There appears not (at least publicly) to be similar situations elsewhere but it isn’t on the face of it a good look.

Chris Cheek, the industry analyst, thinks that bus use is unlikely to recover to more than 55-60% of where it was immediately prior to lockdown. He goes on to say that, in the medium term, lifestyle changes and economic issues could keep demand between 18-26%below pre-virus levels.

All of this potentially paints a bleak picture for the future of the bus industry, but, of course, we still know so little about this virus, and how it will act in the coming months and years. Maybe, if we’re looking at long-term Government support for the bus industry, the operators need to get on the front foot and utilise their undoubted commercial nous ahead of what will probably be inevitable calls for the paymasters to call the shots – franchising by default?

Stagecoach appear to be suggesting such ideas (see previous blog Out of the Darkness? ) which involve deep, long-term partnerships with authority partners.
For passengers, long-term, well thought out, well-costed plan can only be a good thing. But it requires the commercial talents of the bus industry to play their full part. Government funding for all sorts of industries since covid emerged has cost the country an unimaginable sum of money. If that has to continue into the mid and even long term, a bus operation dictated by local authorities may well find itself competing for scarce funding with others. Far better surely to have a long-term, fully planned, well costed network that encompasses the commercial talents of the bus industry, and the civic responsibilities of the local authority.

Out of the Darkness?

My last bus journey before lockdown was unspectacular. It was a 57 from the village 2 miles down the road to mine. The only other passenger, an elderly lady, giggled nervously with me and we both wondered what was going to happen. Then, the next day, Boris locked us down and I haven’t caught a bus since. And I’m missing it terribly.

But, seven weeks on, as we seem set to move mouse-like into some sort of slight lifting of the lockdown, I’m not sure if I’m feeling some sort of miniscule relief that the end is beginning to appear in sight, or if I’m feeling very nervous at the thought of taking a bus ride – especially if it’s a busy service.

Like most other industries, Coronavirus has been devastating for buses. The Government has moved with admirable speed to arrange temporary funding to keep a decent framework going throughout lockdown, but it’s what comes next that is arguably even more important.

Before all of this, it seemed like buses were on the cusp of something good. Boris likes them, and Rishi had promised them all sorts of funding. Politicians were talking about buses, and not always in a negative light. The virus might have cruelly whipped the rug from under the inspection pit, but does this unprecedented time give us all a blank piece of paper to try something new?

We all know buses are important, and they will remain so long after Coronavirus has become an unpleasant memory. What is important though, is that the sector comes out fighting.

There are some interesting stats and research emerging from our time in lockdown. Urban Studies reports that over half of people surveyed are not missing their car commute. Can buses capitalise on that? Before we get too excited, Transport Focus also report that around 60% said they would drive more than use public transport once restrictions are relaxed. A similar percentage said they would cycle more than use public transport. Around 40% also expect to work from home more, going forward.

How much of all this is fear of the unknown? Probably a lot, given that social distancing has been drummed into us, military style for the last month. Keeping that up on buses and trains is, on the face of it, going to be extremely challenging. First in Scotland has commented that, whilst demand for it’s services during lockdown had fallen by 85%, going forward it was going to be “unsustainable”, given that social distancing would require more vehicles to provide capacity. I agree. At least in the short-term, once things start to pick up who is going to co-ordinate thousands of businesses in city centre locations so that they don’t all work office hours and recreate the rush hour? And we seriously can’t expect bus drivers to police social distancing regulations. All of this has the potential to dent confidence in bus services.

Stagecoach though, takes a more holistic, long-term view that is both refreshing and potentially exciting, as it appears to challenge the “either/or” argument over deregulated or franchised operations. In Tony Blair-speak, it is a potential “third way”. We’ve seen evidence of Stagecoach’s out of the box thinking in recent times too. Before Covid, it was proposing a profit-sharing scheme for Manchester, in order to challenge the idea of a franchising arrangement there. Is this evidence of some real mature thinking on behalf of the private sector that realises that, perhaps in Manchester particularly, the game was up? This too from the industry giant that ruthlessly set the standard for Thatcher’s deregulation era. Have the descendants of the Souter era gone soft?

Not a bit of it. With the withdrawal from America and UK rail (and seemingly Sheffield Supertram in the not too distant future), Stagecoach is focussed solely back on buses. As the UK’s largest bus operator, it is, perhaps, looking to the long term. Indeed, at least pre-Covid, the UK bus industry big boys were showing an inclination to get ready for the long haul. First effectively reversed their decision to flog their UK bus operation and now seem intent on staying here. National Express has bought it’s last diesel bus and intends to run clean and green for well into the future. Go Ahead has always been a group of consistent high quality, and only Arriva appear to have a question mark over it’s long-term future in the UK.

Given that buses still seem important to the big groups for the foreseeable, it is welcome that the biggest of all – Stagecoach – is looking to the future framework of how buses are operated in this country, and suggests with it’s latest proposals that true partnership is the way forward.

Based on a unique opportunity to emerge from Covid with a clear long-term plan, Stagecoach suggests;
1. A joint operational and investment plan developed by industry and government to ensure a sustainable transition of Britain’s bus networks from the emergency levels of lockdown to more comprehensive links which support the country’s recovery. Measures needed include steps to rebuild confidence in mass transit, a move away from peak-time commuting to spread demand, and investment in transitional support for transport operators as passenger numbers take time to grow;
2. Radical, permanent changes by national and local government to infrastructure and planning. Road and street space should be prioritised for walking, cycling and high capacity public transport over private cars, with a fundamental reallocation of limited space and steps to encourage first and last mile connections. Public mobility hubs rather than private car parking spaces should be requirements for planning new housing developments, offering public transport connectivity, electric charging points and cycling;
3. Wide-ranging measures to deliver on the government’s levelling up agenda for regions outside London, with many hit hard by the economic shock of Covid-19. This includes new place strategies for towns and cities to rethink high streets, promote local spending and create new attractions, as well as leveraging public transport’s capacity to bring shoppers and visitors to regions on a scale that will not damage the environment;
4. Lifestyle changes, particularly around travel, as well as a focus on technology to address the damaging impact of transport emissions. Pollution, already responsible for asthma and lung disease, is now being linked as a contributor to Covid-19 deaths. Many single-user car trips – the transport equivalent of disposable plastic bags – should be replaced by public transport in urban locations;
5. A “grown-up conversation” to re-examine fiscal policy as the government considers how to pay for the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary actions the country has taken. This would include a complete transformation in how transport journeys are taxed. A move to a system where the polluter pays and sustainable behaviours and use of buses, trams and trains, as well as active travel, are rewarded to make these modes more affordable and accessible to all; and
6. Targeted investment in decarbonisation, including sustainable transport and infrastructure, to help restart the economy, put Britain at the forefront of the green revolution and speed up recovery. Maximising the potential of Britain’s world class and world-leading bus manufacturing sector by accelerating government investment in electric bus fleets will deliver a cleaner environment, improved health and cement Britain’s position as a clean-tech leader.

It’s easy for those of a cynical disposition to pick any or all of the above apart. And it is, of course, true that a real partnership between the industry and the public sector relies, bluntly, on the people involved. But what is different about this is that, while of course preserving Stagecoach as a business in the long-term, it looks on a far wider basis at how, once we are out of lockdown, we move forward with issues such as infrastructure, cycling, rethinking High Streets, the environment and fiscal issues. It also cleverly creates an image around how single user car trips should be replaced by public transport in urban locations: “the transport equivalent of disposable plastic bags”.

It’s a start. And perhaps other bus operators need to get behind this sort of thinking, perhaps as part of their revitalised trade body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport.
Before Covid, there were increasing examples of really good bus operations, beyond the usual excellence. Reasons to be optimistic, you might say. And as we eventually emerge from lockdown, buses will be not only as important as ever, but part of the solution to revitalising our poor environment. The country has had to do what it did with the emergency lockdown, but the future requires serious planning, new ideas and new thoughts about how to do everything, given the huge demands hurled at us by Covid. The threat of another era of austerity should spur us to do things differently, to work together to embrace the skills of a vibrant commercial bus industry coupled with a public responsibility to create real, environmentally-friendly ways to get around.

Maybe the bus industry recognises the deregulation model of the last thirty years isn’t the long-term way forward, but the public sector similarly needs to recognise that clunky authority control isn’t best placed as a transport model in 21st century Britain. A responsible mix of the two however…