In a fairly anonymous Council building on an industrial estate just outside Kidderminster, a crowd had gathered. It was standing room only as Traffic Commissioner Nicholas Denton held his Public Inquiry into the affairs of Diamond Bus.
Diamond has had issues with it’s Kidderminster area operation. I’ve only been to a few Public Inquiries, but I’ve never been to one with this many of the public in attendance. Maybe they were expecting some sort of gladiatorial event, but of course it doesn’t work like that.
Nevertheless, TC Denton did make reference to the amount of public interest in the Inquiry, and in the subsequent decision, referred to his Office receiving “large numbers of complaints” about the Kidderminster operation.
Details of the Inquiry and subsequent decision have already been published, but what about the wider issue of how bus services are regulated by the Traffic Commissioner, and how the public interest is served?
Kidderminster, as an example, is typical of many a mid-sized town in the UK these days. The former carpet-making community has seen retail decimated by internet shopping and, like so many other towns, is dominated these days by a rather huge Tesco – and rather huge car park to cater for it. Once part of the mighty Midland Red empire, Kidderminster’s bus operation latterly ended up within FirstGroup, who sold it – along with nearby Redditch depot – to Rotala, hence Diamond are the main operator in the area today. It appears not to be great bus territory. Local estates surround the area, and the town’s railway station (awkwardly positioned by the Victorians half way up a steep hill) has regular services into Birmingham one way and Worcester the other. It isn’t easily servable, and thus cars dominate the scene – even though their drivers are paying a premium to park there. Elsewhere, just down the road is the town of Stourport, which attracts many Black Country folk – in their cars – when the sun comes out. Gridlock ensues, and Diamond’s blue buses become the victims, often unpredictably.
Underlying all of this are often low-ish frequencies. Only the problematic route 3 – referred to in the inquiry, and ironically passing the back of the Traffic Commissioner’s head during the hearing – has anything like an attractive frequency (every 15 minutes). The rest of Kidderminster’s bus network has half hourly, hourly and less than that on it’s routes. The problem is laid bare if a journey on these routes doesn’t operate. Do other operators in other areas with higher frequencies have similar issues, but the public aren’t adversely affected because another one arrives soon after, and thus avoids the TC’s radar?
The Traffic Commissioner standard is 95% of journeys operating within the “window” of no more than 1 minute early and up to 5 minutes late. Thus there is a 6 minute “window” to get it right. In the passenger interest? I would say so. During the Inquiry, TC Denton made regular reference to it. Following much deliberation between the company and DVSA (who monitored 1443 services), the agreed figure of compliance was 91% – still below the 95% standard. But here’s something. Next door in the (admittedly often more congested) Transport for West Midlands area, the average is apparently 82% compliance.
Recently, Coach and Bus Week reported the case of Stagecoach in South Wales, who also found themselves in front of their Traffic Commissioner, Nick Jones. They too had been suffering from non-compliance, which at one point was as low as 47% on two routes in the Cardiff area. This had further risen up to 93%, but was still below the accepted standard.
In Diamond’s case, the Traffic Commissioner issued a fine of just over £9000, also referring to a clause in the Transport Act which allows compensation to be beneficial to passengers, maybe in the form of free or reduced travel. The TC decided that this should apply to route 3. The company is deciding whether to appeal the Traffic Commissioner’s decision.
What does the consumer – the bus user in this case – take from all of this?
In the case of the dreaded route 3, Diamond argued that it effectively ran at around 80% compliance. What to do? Continue to attract the attention of the TC and his bulging postbag, or dump the route altogether and leave users with no service? The Traffic Commissioner said that he didn’t accept excuses about traffic congestion being worse on specific days, and that the 95% compliance rate takes account of this. As a user, I’d like to agree – but I see for myself from the top deck of my local services how bizarrely random the traffic seems to be these days. Take my local services. They are scheduled for different running times at different times of the day, but even these are subject to the increasing vagaries of congestion. What should take 12 minutes to my nearest town can often take double that – and often without any discernible reason. When local politicians wave glossy brochures about the future of our towns and cities and proclaim new transport plans will provide public transport systems to be proud of, I seem to endlessly sit on my bus services stuck in never-ending traffic, without any sort of plan to effectively tackle this. I sound like a cracked record, endlessly repeating my mantra, parrot-fashion, that the bus really is part of the answer, if only it could shine and bypass this endless, polluting line of cars. But to do that takes real political guts. Motorists have votes, and rival would-be politicians are always the people’s friend when it comes to votes via attacks on hard-working citizens in their cars.
There’s no doubt Diamond has had it’s problems in Kidderminster. And it’s entirely correct that the industry regulator – the Traffic Commissioner – has a role to play in looking after passenger interests, including the setting of standards that users can expect the operator to function by.
But if we’re happy to wheel the operators in for a grilling and consequent fine for poor operation, should we at the very least expect others in the game to face their responsibilities too? I didn’t see the Local Authority being questioned about what they intend to do about keeping the highway clear when the sun comes out and loads of Brummies turn up in Stourport for an ice cream. I didn’t see any local Councillors being asked about what ought to happen about local congestion, the effect it has on bus users and on operators trying to provide a reliable service.
No one comes out of this smelling of roses. The operator has it’s reputation pulled through the hedge backwards. The user stands at the bus stop with no sign of the bus. One industry friend of mine – a former bus company owner – suggested to me that the Traffic Commissioner standards may not be fit for purpose. I would suggest they probably are, but there needs to be a process of looking at the much wider picture of just how much traffic congestion – and it’s often wide vagaries – plays in non-compliance. That will require further resource , political will, and shine a light on just how much the public sector does or doesn’t do when it comes to keeping the highway flowing.