Why does the bus struggle to get a hearing?
26 October 2015 | Author: Anthony Smith, Chief Executive, Transport Focus

Nationalise! Privatise! Buy! Sell!

While debates swirl again around who controls, owns and awards the contracts for public transport services, passenger needs remain remarkably constant. All our experience as passengers, and all Transport Focus's research on passenger satisfaction and priorities for improvement show passengers want some simple things: buses, coaches, trams and trains that arrive on time, are clean and are value for money.

Long-term investment and political commitment underpin the ability of public transport to provide good choices. Debate about changes to the way public transport is run should start with the questions: how will this improve things for passengers? How will this boost investment? Decide what you want to achieve and then think how best to structure the delivery.

Debates at the party conferences centred on dealing with the side-effects of success of the railways: more passengers, seeking more space on trains and track. If you stand back from the industry it all looks fairly rosy: passenger numbers up, passenger safety good, revenue pouring in (£8bn annually from fares, making passengers the main running-cost funders), investment pouring in from governments, satisfaction OK in many parts of the country and the Government driving HS2. The rail industry may be struggling to prove it can carry out its investment programme with value for money, but many industries would love to have this level of growth.

However, when asked if rail should be renationalised, apparently most people say they think it should. It is, of course, a cod question. There are no values attached. Nationalisation with less investment? Privatisation with more investment? The Government owns or specifies the railway at present to a large degree anyway.

I think what people are saying when they answer the nationalisation question is that they don't trust the current system. How can you build that trust? Our 2014 research Passengers'
relationship with the rail industry gave some clues. Until the basic promise of the timetable is more regularly fulfilled, passengers cannot move on to higher levels of trust and relationship building.

The timetable is the basic building block of trust. How delays are dealt with remains the main indicator of how the industry copes when that trust is breached. The industry's retail systems don't help this – seemingly designed to catch you out, they are being updated at a glacial pace.

Great projects like Birmingham New Street, Manchester Victoria and King's Cross prove what the railway can look like. The London Bridge saga shows how painful that process can be. You have to work very closely to understand passenger needs before, during and after major projects. Communication is key. Waterloo and Euston rebuilds are looming. Passengers must be in from the start. Transport Focus has done some really good work with GWR and Network Rail which shows this can be done.

Bus debates, on the other hand, are often more about how to arrest decline. Moving on to how the bus contributes to the pro-prosperity debate, not the anti-austerity agenda, will be crucial. It would be great if we could be talking at party conferences and elsewhere about how to deal with the success of buses outside London; how to cope with the tide of passengers... Look at what has been done on Merseyside with the £2 MyTicket for under-18s, going for growth and long-term commitment to bus use.

New Transport Focus research comes out soon on bus passengers and non-users, trust in the industry and local authorities, and bus passengers' priorities for improvement. We hope this will work will help to change the tone of the debate.

Budget pressures are making things happen that seemed impossible before. Health, school and local authority budgets are being examined to see if they can be pooled to common benefit. This might be of particular relevance in rural areas where the days of the scheduled bus may be gone. Transport Focus's forthcoming work on passenger satisfaction with demand responsive transport will help here.

Our work with the freight industry shows what can be done. An idle truck is an asset not earning revenue. Trucks are driven hard and replaced frequently. A great potential advantage of bus is the flexibility of its use; there is no reason why buses cannot be in use 20 hours a day.

It seems hard to move the bus up the political agenda. Transport Focus was heavily engaged this year on London Bridge and Operation Stack. In both cases MPs were being very vocal with ministers about the need for action. Will the bus ever achieve such notoriety? Or has it fully become a devolved, local issue? How has the cycle lobby been so successful?

The bus seems to fall into a lobbying crack. Rail passengers place massive reliance on the delivery of a timetable. Cyclists seem to have a messianic fervour about their choice. Bus passengers don't have this fervour, but the bus does have an important role in the economy. The time has come for more effective advocacy on behalf of bus passengers. It would be great if we could be talking about how to cope with the tide of passengers.

Reference: Transport Times, October 2015 Issue

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