Phil’s on the bus stand of 2015 – parked up and pondering the year past, and what might be on the road ahead…..
Investment in new buses continued apace in 2015 – but for how much longer?
The festive period, apart from too many turkey sandwiches and drunken sing-alongs to the Pogues, always allows us a moment to pause, reflect on what has been, what might be to come and where we stand on all sorts of topics – maybe even life itself.
OnThisBus maybe isn’t so philosophical as to question the meaning of life itself – it’s really just all about buses. So, as we park the bus on the stand for 2015, where have we been, where are we going, and who’s on the stand with us now?
Maybe the biggest upheaval is the road ahead. In 2016, we reach the milestone of 30 years of deregulation. In 1986, I stood with my camera, as a spotty 16 year-old in Dudley bus station, capturing the very beginning of this brave new era. Deregulation has grown up, from a moody, argumentative, competitive child into a well-developed, matured adult. Like it’s human-being equivalent, it’s been through a lot, made some mistakes along the way and isn’t the perfect specimen. But every day, it gets up, goes to work and plays it’s full part in the very fabric of our nation. Maybe it isn’t fully understood, and again like it’s human version, there’s always room for improvement – but a failure it can’t claim to be.
Yet one of the biggest stories of the bus world in 2015 – the decision on the North East Quality Contract – which would have effectively reversed the story of the last 30 years – is only the very tip of the iceberg. When Chancellor George Osborne – one of the most politically astute Chancellors of modern times, and supposedly heir to David Cameron’s Premiership – creates a most un-Torylike situation as part of his grand plans to devolve power from Westminster, the bus industry needs to be on it’s toes like never before. The political party of free enterprise, the true-blue force that has long been business’s friend, is prepared to see private bus operators fold as part of it’s devolution masterplan.
in which direction are bus services in the North-East heading?
The independent panel may not have thought too much of the North East’s plan to enact existing laws to introduce a Quality Contract, but the long-term Tory plans for City-Regions across the country will surely not fail. There is much political shadow boxing to come.
The bus industry has been slow out of the traps. Apart from a few laudable examples, the behemoths of the transport world have carried on, year-by-year, providing decent, solid bus services to the masses. But it’s been unexciting. I look, every year, at the winners of the UK Bus Awards and wonder – maybe unreasonably? – why we can’t have such excellent service universally. Am I being naïve? On one level, possibly. I know on the face of it, bus services are “easy”. You provide a bus, make sure it arrives on time, clean and smart, charge a reasonable fare, and Bob’s your Uncle. I also know through years of both observing it at a close level and being a passenger, that it is anything but that easy.
The industry continues to invest well in the kit. Shiny new bus sporting sexy, attractive liveries are all over the place (although how much that investment continues as the uncertainty over Government policy continues to rumble on is anyone’s guess), but the “smart” revolution, taking a lot of the confusion and fumbling over fares away, seems to move at a snail’s pace – and in many examples, it only seems to replace one set of confusing ideas for another.
“Swift” is the smartcard brand for the West Midlands – but it’s nowhere near as easy to understand as London’s Oyster….
And yet the bus industry can only do so much. Despite new buses, bleeping smartcards and apps to count down your waiting time at stops, the one thing that passengers REALLY want – on time buses – continues to be the biggest single turn off when it comes to attracting new users, or even retaining existing ones.
As I write this, I’m watching National Express West Midlands’ Twitter feed. It’s the week before Christmas and the traffic has yet again descended into a shambles in central Birmingham. There are diversions, short-running of services, and long delays. It’s not only the City Centre. In my corner of the Black Country, I’m watching buses appear with strange destinations – short-running again in a desperate bid to get back on time. It’s a short-term remedy by the hard-working bus company controllers, but inevitably it’s rebounding on them, with real-life moaning at the bus stop and cyber-expletives on Twitter from irate users.
Irate passengers quickly take to Twitter to vent their spleen!
Naturally, they blame the operator rather than think about the bigger picture of nose-to-tail Christmas shoppers in cars. If I had one Christmas wish, it’d be for more City Centre managers in the retail world to read Greener Journeys research into just how important buses are to the economy. It is buses that bring the most people to the shops of any mode, and for local councillors, listen to this: more Greener Journeys / KPMG research reveals that for every £1 spent on local bus infrastructure (including bus lanes, busway schemes and local infrastructure), up to £7 in benefits can be generated. Doesn’t that tell you something?
In 2015, I’ve had several, often heated debates about Quality Contracts and the forthcoming similar proposals for devolution of transport. I’m on the side of the deregulated, current model. Not because I’m a free-wheeling, free enterprise enthusiast – but because I simply don’t think the case for Authority control of bus services has been effectively made. If the North East QC proposal had clearly said “we intend to significantly increase the provision of bus priority at the expense of the private motorist in order to provide a more punctual service” I might have sat up and taken more notice. As it was, all it seemed to me was a power-grab that would have provided no noticeable improvement for Joe Bloggs at the bus stop. Of course, I’m making it sound simplistic, but overall, that’s what the provision of bus services is really all about – what happens at the bus stop and the experience of those who rely on the bus.
The provision of a well-performing public transport service is the goal of any City-Region leader, but are our City-Regions’ bus services currently failing that badly that they need major surgery to improve? I think not. Yes, always room to improve, yes, the bus industry has been to slow generally to push through some of those improvements, but please don’t tell me that local politicians, or someone imposed on us as a “Mayor” know more about “what the public want” than teams of dedicated professionals working in the bus industry at operator or current Authority level. We usually only hear from these local politicians come election time, when there are votes to be potentially won by slating the local bus service. I’ve heard these arguments a thousand times, and even stood up and argued back at them, some of their points revealing a true lack of understanding how bus services operate. Do we want more of this type of influence?
If we want more bus services (irrespective of whether they are financially viable or not), someone has to pay. The taxpayer? What happens when these new services – as advocated by the megaphone diplomacy of local councillors – appear day after day, week after week with little or no passengers? A waste of taxpayers’ money? You can be pretty sure that, with a private business and shareholders to satisfy, private commercial bus operators know what broadly works, and what doesn’t. And that is the “beauty” of deregulation. On the whole, it provides for where and when people want to go. Buses aren’t taxis. I’d like a bus 7 nights a week down to my favourite country pub in case I fancy the occasional few pints. Of course I’d be the only one on it, so is that either commercially viable or worthy of taxpayer subsidy because I’ve lobbied my local councillor? Of course it isn’t. For that, there is another form of public transport – it’s called a “taxi”.
That brings me – very neatly as it happens – onto another potential upheaval for the bus industry in the coming years – taxis. Or more specifically the “Uber” model.
Taxis and buses have lived side-by-side for time immemorial. The “trade-off” largely specific – buses are cheaper, taxis significantly more expensive, but with the “immediate” door-to-door offer. What Uber is increasingly offering is a blur of the two. What happens when the price of a taxi falls to within a ball-park bus fare figure? That is the challenge for the bus industry.
Uber for savvy smartphone users is ridiculously simple. You whip your phone out, it knows where you are, you type in where you want to go, up pops a Google map and you watch a little cartoon car glide across the screen to where you are. You hop in, go to your destination and no money changes hands – because you’ve already linked the smartphone app up to your bank account. No waiting for buses stuck in traffic, no complicated fare or ticketing offer, a cheaper ride than a traditional taxi, and back at your front door (or other destination) quick and easy. What’s not to love?
There are downsides. There have been reports of Uber drivers accepting, then declining the job, whilst the app finds another driver. Then the fare increases with demand at certain times, so that a trip on a quiet Tuesday morning is significantly cheaper than on, say, a Saturday night.
It’s all new and it’s not a threat – yet – to the established bus service, in my view. But how long is a piece of string? When I sampled the Uber experience a few months ago, the driver told me there were hundreds of drivers signing up for Birmingham and that the service was getting busier every day. It is regularly launching in towns and Cities across the UK and around the World. It is another example of how the bus industry must not rest on it’s laurels. This may seem like something a 20-year old savvy technology geek might use, but if it kicks off big style, the bus industry may well find itself challenged far more significantly. It’s all about price and convenience.
Which brings me full circle back to what people at bus stops want. Whilst Taxis and Uber drivers can dart down side streets to avoid congestion hotspots, buses are on a fixed route. I was asked earlier this year why people seemed to prefer trams to buses. For me, it’s about certainty of journey. Whilst the street-running sections of tram lines can prove problematic if they aren’t segregated, the tram whizzes along on its’ own section of track, as do trains. Buses too could do this too if only they had more bus only priority lanes. And properly policed, with real fines for offenders.
The issue of bus lanes is an almighty problem for those who could authorise them. It isn’t, of course, easy to put them everywhere. Our road infrastructure often doesn’t allow for it. But, there appears this default “objection” to any suggestion we take away road space from motorists and give it to a form of transport that is a far more efficient user of that space than any car can be. So often, it isn’t a case of “can’t” but “won’t”, for reasons political. In 2015, we’ve seen another year of stagnation when it comes to effectively tackling the scourge of congestion. Grand plans there may be for City-Regions and blueprints for City Centre “regeneration” that always come with blue-skied illustrations of handfuls of smiling people strolling around. But I sadly take the depressing view that I’ve seen too many of these “visions” before, and I’ll believe them when I see them. The traffic in Birmingham City Centre now is as bad as I’ve ever known it, and until our political leaders decide to bite the bullet and do something for the long-term benefit of people’s mobility in Cities rather than short-term political backlash from motorists, we’ll be forever stuck in this perpetual downward spiral of decline.
But 2015 hasn’t all been a grim cesspit of grease in the back of the bus depot.
National Express Group became the first private sector transport group to commit to the living wage. First continued to improve in various parts of its’ (now shrunken) empire, Reading Buses – under the guidance of one of the best bus managers Martijn Gilbert – won several awards, including Operator of the Year, at the UK Bus Awards, and in the West Midlands, the first “bus alliance” was agreed between operators and the Integrated Transport Authority that will see £150m invested over 5 years – and hopefully prove that there is a valuable alternative to simply handing over control of bus services to local Mayors. And of course, we must not overlook the fact that, despite an underlying feeling of general malaise about buses, the industry continues to achieve satisfaction levels that other industries would die for. Buses must be doing something right.
The long-awaited Buses Bill should arrive in 2016, and then we’ll be able to see whether or not this means the biggest shake up of the bus world in 30 years.
Our nation’s bus operators continue to provide a tremendous service overall. To Britain’s army of bus drivers, controllers, cleaners, managers, shunters, fuellers, inspectors, tweeters and anyone else I haven’t listed, I thank you, as a passenger. I know from my own job as a train driver that getting up at half past three in the morning never gets any easier, or going to bed at gone 1am. Providing Britain’s bus services is a monumental effort from untold thousands – and I salute every single one of you from my usual position – next to a bus stop somewhere in the UK.
You’ll always find Phil near a bus stop pondering something!