The Politician’s Bus Journey

It must be local election time, says cynical me. What other time do local councillors – and wannabe councillors – discover buses?

To be honest, the bus industry is an obvious target, waiting to be whipped by vote-hungry local politicians at this time in the political calendar. And the industry often doesn’t do enough to counter some of the more outlandish claims. Local councillors – let alone local people – often don’t understand the make-up of their local bus services.

I’ve only had one disagreement with a local candidate this time around, so I consider that quite a success. But it’s not just local councillors putting the boot into our buses – it’s the big boys too. Enter one Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour leader was sneered at a while ago when he raised the issue of local bus services at Prime Minister’s Questions. Granted, it made a refreshing change to Brexit (quite frankly even the vexed topic of lettuce imports would make a refreshing change to the “B” topic) and some of us even mildly cheered on Jezza for even recognising buses in such lofty political circles.

But he’s back. Jezza’s back. The old lefty has come up with – gasp – whole new plan for Britain’s buses. In fact, £1.3bn worth of plan.

Now, before you – like me – rush to dismiss this plot to revitalise our bus networks as the work of an outdated socialist and his cronies, chew it over a tad more.

There’s no doubt, apart from notable exceptions, that buses continue on a downward trajectory. As passengers, we often feel the tired image of bus travel. The bland interiors, the late running, the congestion, the adverts for getting STDs checked out, the utter blandness of a Dennis Dart. I could go on. You know this. (Other, upmarket, bus success stories are available). As I stood waiting for a bus in Dudley bus station last week, I felt thoroughly depressed about it. And I felt depressed for feeling depressed about it. The people using buses out of Dudley last week were, in the main, those that HAD to. I honestly think at the point I stood there, I was the only one who had a choice and was there voluntarily.

Are there votes in this? You bet there are. From the retired contingent, who have seen some of their services disappear – often for reasons understood in the back office, if not necessarily on the front line – there’s simmering unhappiness. From young people, who increasingly aren’t aspiring to car ownership, but have mobility needs like the rest of us – and are being seduced by Uber and the like – buses often aren’t seen to be delivering. Is Corbyn tapping into something the Westminster bubble class actively dismiss but Joe Public actively sees?

But…and when it comes to politicians getting involved in buses, there’s always a but…we need to look cautiously at Corbyn’s new-found bus love.

Labour’s policy is of public ownership. This has found popular support when it comes to similar on the railways. But is it real politicking? We don’t see a clamour for renationalising British Airways. What about publicly-owned taxi cabs? Nope. It is dodging the real issues that get up people’s noses when it comes to public transport.

Bus passengers want the bus to turn up on time. You can trawl (as I do – yes, I’m the one) through Transport Focus’s excellent Bus Passenger Survey stats until the cows come home – and go back out the next morning. But ultimately, if the bus is reliable, happy days. The trouble is, it often isn’t. But Jeremy’s plot talks more about the great socialist ideals of you and me owning that double decker over there, rather than it actually just turning up on time. Actually, Jeremy, I don’t particularly want to be a taxpayer part-owner of my local bus – I just want it to be there at 08:23. Cutting through the long lines of cars with one driver in them, polluting the atmosphere much more than one bus could ever do. It might be some sort of class warfare to imagine fat cats in suits licking up the cream in boardrooms across the land, slashing bus services , making us all suffer. But, as ever in life, it’s never really that simple.

Corbyn talks about “thousands of routes axed”. Granted, some have suffered, but again, we’re dodging the bullet. Even if these figures are accurate (and some of these “withdrawn” services are tender losses that are replaced by “new” registered services), we need to look long and hard at these lost services. Maybe they’re lost because very few are using them, in the conventional sense. I’m not saying we dismiss lost links as just a function of “the market” – in fact, quite the opposite. We need to not promise some sort of nostalgic battle cry to return mostly empty buses on rural routes riding around carrying fresh air on fixed routes. We need some real innovation. Maybe it will cost money, but what about more demand-responsive operations? What about merging non-emergency ambulance provision with some minimum level of service to outlying areas? How about a real national local mobility strategy (note I didn’t use the word “bus”) that guarantees people in certain areas a basic level of mobility, but not left to the mercy of high taxi prices?

Another Labour politician is also missing the point. In Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham seems determined to have publicly-controlled buses without addressing the amount of private cars free-wheeling around the City. It’s barmy, and entirely misses the point. By all means, simplify ticketing and paint them all orange, or something. But the industry is offering to provide a step-change in this great northern City that will be quicker to implement than the saga of public control and expose tax payers far less. Maybe the threat of losing their businesses in Manchester has gee-ed up the bus operators there, but hey-ho – a public/private partnership done properly is always the best way.

It’s a challenge for the industry to respond to proposals like Labour’s. Another strand to this plan is the removal of fares for young people. It’s all very noble, as is the current concessionary pass, but there’s no indication that there will be sufficient funds to pay for it adequately. The conundrum for those of us who argue about the concessionary pass now is that any move to discuss funding for it sensibly is often seen incorrectly as a call to abolish it! Those cows are still coming home as my face turns an increasing shade of blue as I tell people I’m NOT suggesting the concessionary pass is withdrawn or even watered down – merely that it requires proper funding for it in the back office. And I can see myself having similar arguments when it comes to free young persons travel too. The bus industry needs to put some of these points succinctly and intelligently – merely plastering adverts on the side of buses anti-Barbara Castle style or anti Thatcher’s 1985 Transport Act style would just be seen as scaremongering today.

Labour says it will fund all of this with vehicle excise duty. I’m not at all convinced. But even if it is the case, it merely alienates the “already hard-pressed motorist” – and if they’re paying more for their motor, they as sure as hell are going to make sure they use it! It’s an already well-worn comment – “if I’m buying, taxing and insuring a car, and filling it with fuel, I’m going to use it for all of my journeys”. And again, it’s entirely understandable. We need motorists to convert SOME of their journeys to public transport – and again it’s reliable services that will achieve this. Who is the politician who will tackle congestion rather than bash the bus industry because it’s the easy option?

So beware politicians local and national bearing gifts this polling day. As is often, the real issues are the ones swept under the carpet.