Use It or Lose It

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It’s always depressing to open the local paper (if you still have one) and be confronted with a picture of a gathering of (usually older) bus users looking a mixture of faux anger or sad resignation, gathered around a bus stop waving a petition. It’s usually the withdrawal of a bus service – and it makes for terrible headlines for the bus industry.

“Use It or Lose It” sometimes becomes the phrase, should the operator decide to have second thoughts, or the local authority find some money down the back of the proverbial sofa to keep it going – but what sort of phrase is that? It’s a bit like the Health Secretary asking you to make yourself ill in order to use your local GP or A&E – or it’ll be gone. We all use our GP surgery from time to time, but it is a community asset. Why don’t we see bus services like that?

Lightly used, but seen to be essential bus services being faced with the chop is certainly nothing new. But instead of this perennial run-around and bad news stories abound, isn’t time we had a bus strategy that begins to look at people’s basic mobility requirements and plan for it accordingly?

Let’s be honest. Having a bus rolling around country lanes on a fixed route, picking up handfuls of folk will never be a commercial proposition. Back in the days of post-deregulation, we seemed to be content to fund this through local authority tenders, although I suspect there was disquiet in certain corners of the Town Hall. Nowadays, the last of that coinage down the back of the sofa has been spent, and we’re all too busy arguing about Brexit to notice what is going on.

The people in the picture are complaining about a long-standing National Express West Midlands service. There are several of them in the west Dudley area, some of which cut across the invisible border into South Staffordshire. And here’s another problem. Folk in the West Midlands conurbation area have largely avoided large-scale cuts to vulnerable services because they had Centro – and now Transport for West Midlands – to ride in on horseback and save the day. Logistically, some of these routes cut across the oddly-shaped South Staffordshire border area, and it’s often caused issues. Before the universal England-wide concessionary pass, you had bizarre rules whereby you could get on in the Centro area, ride through the bit of South Staffs if you didn’t get off, but if you did get off, you couldn’t get back on again unless you paid. That’s all thankfully history now, but you get my drift. What do you do with a problem like an administration border?

This far corner of the Black Country border has long-been a commercial concern for National Express West Midlands. It’s nothing like the cash generator of Greater Birmingham. The problem for the operator is that if you drop the frequency, you make the service even less attractive. “Round the houses” services provide lifelines for some people, but they certainly aren’t attractive for people going to work, who pay good money, who want something that gets them there in the least amount of time with no fuss. NXWM are good at some of these, with high frequency, limited stop offerings covering large parts of the West Midlands conurbation. The other side of the coin is the more traditional estate services that need to be there, but increasingly don’t wash their face in commercial terms.

So we have the traditional photo, with local Councillor centre-stage. And often, we have the quote that includes something about how franchising would solve all of this, because the politicians would control the network for the good of us all. Sounds good? You bet! Except we’ve either got short memories or we’re too young to remember what used to go on, and would no doubt go on again if the Town Hall ran the show.

How long do you think the 4×4-driving neighbours of these semi-rural lack-of-bus protestors would take to open their council tax bills over the latte machine one morning to protest about how they’re paying for a bus service that is hardly carrying anyone in the traditional sense? I’d give it about ten minutes. And with little money in the piggy bank, the local politicians would be looking to shore up votes by spending it on other, more politically vote-winning projects. This week’s petition-waving pic of bus-less pensioners in the paper is next week’s fish & chip paper, as the saying goes.

So I have little confidence that franchising bus services in this sense would be anything more than a photo opportunity for the local Councillor – who has “saved” the bus service – only to be quietly withdrawn six months later, because people haven’t “used it” – they’ve now “lost it”. You simply can’t expect a commercial company to keep on subsidising loss-making services. You wouldn’t expect Hovis to carry on making peanut butter flavour bread because only me and half a dozen others liked it and no one else did – it makes no commercial sense. And this is the bitter situation that people in loss-making local bus service areas face. “Use it or lose it” may sound like a passive-aggressive threat, and everyone understands it, but it’s a basically empty phrase, because if people already “used it”, they wouldn’t be under threat of “losing it” – and are we expecting people to radically change their lifestyles to “use it”?

We need better solutions rather than cheap threats. Provision of bus services are radically different animals depending on where you operate them. Yet, we have bizarre views on how to do that. We see successful commercial operations in large conurbations, but seem to want to turn them over to politically-led franchised networks. But we see struggling set ups in marginal, often rural areas with no clue as to what to do with them. It’s the wrong way round. Leave the professional high-frequency city operations to the experts. Instead, why not look at the rural stuff and create a nationwide bus strategy that has minimal levels of public-based mobility available. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean full-sized buses trundling around country lanes, but other options, such as demand-responsive operations, or options that include merges with local non-emergency ambulance provision. Revise the contentious concessionary pass issue that often ends up with people having a “free” pass, but no service to use it on. How about providing a number of tokens for local residents to use on such demand-responsive operations every year, with more rides charged for at a low rate for pass holders and a commercial rate for others? Of course people will argue that most rural dwellers use their car, and whilst this is undoubtedly true, there should be alternatives available, should this suddenly not become an option. And what about choice? In this environmentally-concerned world, shouldn’t everyone have the choice of not motoring?

If our new leader Boris is such a bus-loving person as he makes out, perhaps an innovative bus strategy that benefits everyone, makes best use of commercial innovation and provides effective mobility in areas where it isn’t commercially viable, ought to be high up on his list.

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