Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by FirstGroup (RT 35)



  FirstGroup PLC is a major international public transport operator with a market capitalisation of £1.4 billion on the UK Stock Exchange.

  The Group's subsidiary companies operate a total of nearly 10,000 buses in the UK, 24 per cent of the total local bus market. Three rail franchises are operated, First Great Western, First Great Eastern and First North Western and the Group has a controlling 51 per cent share in Bristol International Airport. Internationally Group subsidiary companies are responsible for the operation of some 10,000 school buses in the USA and, in joint venture, 700 local service buses in Hong Kong.

  The Group supports the Government's Transport Policy, is a keen participant in some 40 Quality Partnership corridor agreements and invests heavily in public transport. Current investment in new buses totals almost £100 million per annum, over £100 million of new trains are in order for the Group's rail franchises and the Group is committed to long term investment in quality public transport.

  The term "Light Rapid Transit Systems" covers a number of guided transit modes, but principally involves light electric rail and various systems for guided buses. The Group takes the view that light electric rail systems will only be justified on cost benefit grounds on a relatively small number of extremely busy corridors in the major cities. Guided bus systems are more flexible and much cheaper and therefore would be cost effective far more widely, but for the vast majority of corridors the most cost effective solution will be fast, frequent conventional bus services operated by state of the art vehicles using effective bus priority measures.


  The Group has significant experience in several forms of LRT.

  It is currently the only operator of Kerb Guided Bus Transit systems in the UK, with existing operations in Ipswich and Leeds.

  It is the preferred bidder for the City of Edinburgh Rapid Transit system guided bus scheme (CERT) and the major operator on the second project in Leeds for kerb guided bus, the York Road corridor (East Leeds Quality Bus Initiative).

  FirstGroup is a member of the Consortium (Tramtrack Croydon Ltd) (TCL) which won the concession to design, build, operate and maintain the Croydon Tramlink project. A FirstGroup subsidiary company, Tram Operations Ltd, will operate the system when it opens, before the end of this year.

  The Group is also involved in discussions in respect of other Light Rail schemes, notably in Bristol and Portsmouth, and further kerb guided bus schemes, the most advanced being projects in Bradford and Manchester.


(A)  Leeds

  The kerb guided bus scheme on the Scott Hall Road services in North Leeds was opened in four phases between 1995 and 1998 and involves 2 kilometres of guideway in several sections either in the central reservation or adjacent to the carriageway up to bottleneck points, mainly roundabouts, particularly in morning peak periods inwards to Leeds, or outward from Leeds at the evening peak period. The scheme also involves 0.5 kilometres of conventioanl bus lane and other priority measures.

  The bus guideway bypasses queuing traffic then activates its green phase of traffic lights, to enable the bus to emerge at the head of the queue. A park and ride site, currently used by some 50 cars daily, is available at the outer end of the corridor where the services fan out to provide fast frequent services to a number of housing estates.

  The services require some 30 peak vehicles, all of which are state of the art low flat floor low emission engined single deck or articulated buses with flat access for wheelchair passengers at guideway stops—the buses have a built in ramp for use at other stops. A small rota of drivers trained in customer care operates the services which are supported by high quality marketing, with regular service adjustments to meet customer suggestions submitted on passenger survey cards.

  Construction of the guideway was not controversial with local residents, even those who lost their grass central reservation to accommodate the guideway.

  The services have been well supported with growing patronage. Recent surveys indicate that patronage growth has been up to 65 per cent as compared with four years ago.

  As the services are faster than cars to the city centre at peak times, and can achieve the same end to end journey times at peak and off peak they are regarded as different from normal bus services and have attracted former car travellers at both peak and off peak times. Regular surveys indicate that up to half of the growth in patronage is as a result of passengers transferring from cars.

  The success of the services has prompted the quality partnership involving West Yorkshire PTE, Leeds City Council and FirstGroup to press Central Government for authority and funding for a second larger scheme in east Leeds.

(B)  Ipswich

  The Ipswich guided bus scheme, with a 1 kilometre guideway joining two estates without direct road links, has enjoyed similar growth and success since its introduction in 1995. In the four years since then, passenger numbers have grown by 68 per cent on the route using the guideway.

  It is envisaged that the guided bus services will be enhanced during 2000-2001 under a Quality Partnership with the Local Authority. Under the proposal the guided section will be widened to accept full width state of the art low floor low emission engined buses as planned when the project was originally implemented.


(A)  Croydon Tramlink

  The Croydon scheme is fully described in the enclosed brochure. It will operate under a 99-year concession granted by London Transport to TCL, in which, as described, FirstGroup is a shareholder.

(B)  East Leeds Quality Bus Initiative

  FirstGroup will be the major operator on the second major project for kerb guided buses in Leeds on the York Road Corridor—the East Leeds Quality Bus Initiative which involves the operation of some 70 peak vehicles on services including 2 kilometres of guideway and 3½ kilometres of additional bus lane.

  Work commences on the £10 million project in Autumn 1999, with completion scheduled for Spring 2001. The provision of £5 million funding has been secured from central government with the balance of £5 million towards the infrastructure costs being committed by FirstGroup and Arriva. Additionally new state of the art buses will be committed to the services. It is envisaged that significant patronage growth will be generated.

(C)  City of Edinburgh Rapid Transit (CERT)

  FirstGroup is a member of the ConCERT consortium together with Edison Capital and Abbey National—ConCERT is the preferred bidder for the City of Edinburgh Rapid Transit scheme (CERT) linking the Airport with the City Centre with a kerb guided busway some 9 kilometres in length.

  The scheme will require 36 state of the art buses and will open in early 2002 at a total cost of £50 million.

(D)  Bradford Manchester Road

  FirstGroup will also be the major operator on a guided bus scheme for Manchester Road Bradford,a £10 million project to commence in Spring 2001. The Group has offered to contribute £1 million to infrastructure costs in addition to using state of the art buses on the corridor.

(E)  Other projects

  In addition to some 40 Quality Partnerships covering major corridors, development of further substantial corridors is being progressed throughout the UK. The Group is also involved in detailed discussions in proposed LRT schemes in Bristol and Portsmouth.


  FirstGroup would wish to see the development of a "horses for courses" policy for Light Rapid Transit schemes as part of an integrated transport policy, in order to fully exploit the substantial flexibility that public transport can provide in contributing to the resolution of urban traffic congestion.

  The optimum public transport solution corridor by corridor, city by city needs to be developed to reflect the individual characteristics of the corridor and city. In many cases, this is currently being developed within Quality Partnerships.

  The factors which govern the appropriate solution include:

  (A)  The characteristics of the city centre served:

    —  road network capacity

    —  parking capacity and charging policy

    —  nature of shopping/business/industrial traffic generators

  (B)  The nature of the corridor served:

    —  level and density of housing estates

    —  within ½ mile of the corridor

    —  beyond ½ mile of the corridor but principally served by it

    —  traffic generators on the corridor

    —  business

    —  shopping

    —  industrial

    —  recreational

    —  educational;

    —  current traffic flows, both public transport and cars;

    —  expected growth in traffic flows, public transport and cars;

    —  congestion levels;

    —  current and projected patronage levels;

    —  scope for incorporating pro public transport measures in socially, environmentally acceptable manner—bus lane, park and ride, guideways, LRT track and overhead power supply;

    —  cost implications.

  Light rail rapid transit solutions are most appropriate where there are high levels of existing or potential passenger flows:

    —  high density passenger flows between a relatively small number of nodes;

    —  high density housing within half mile of corridor;

    —  very large traffic generators within half mile of the corridor;

    —  maximum scope for providing off road track on the corridor using median strips, adjacent spare land, and, new bespoke developments incorporating LRT facilities;

    —  minimum need for track provision on existing congested stretches of road, junctions, etc;

    —  scope for incorporting stops with safe, level boarding arrangements for passengers.

  Guided bus solutions are most appropriate for corridors with:

    —  relatively high density housing spread over a wider area with the corridor as the "spine" linking them to the traffic generators;

    —  large traffic generators, in some numbers located in various areas around the corridor which provides the "spine" linking them;

    —  scope for providing bespoke sections of guideway either along most of the corridor, or at key bottlenecks on the corridor allowing the bus to bypass traffic congestion pinch points.

  Bespoke bus priority measures are appropriate for the vast majority of corridors which serve:

    —  a large number of housing developments scattered around the "spine" corridor;

    —  a large number of traffic generators spread around the corridor;

    —  a very large number of complex medium to heavy level traffic flows, with the major flows being to or from the urban centre at peak times, which can only be effectively served by a pattern of frequent high quality bus services with appropriate high quality bus priority measures at bottleneck points.

  Thus, light fixed track transit systems provide a high cost solution most cost effective for very high passenger flows between a relatively small number of origin and destination points where a substantial proportion of the system can be off road or in dedicated streets.

  Guided buses offer the vast majority of advantages of fixed track systems at lower cost (20 per cent—50 per cent of the equivalent LRT) but in general have a lower capacity of passengers per hour and a rather lower ability to attract car passengers as they are perceived as less of a step change from conventional buses than light rail systems. However this can be overcome to a large degree by providing state of the art buses with interior features akin to light rail vehicles and as they are more flexible they can offer similar lower end to end journey times to a larger number of passengers.

  The vast majority of urban corridors can most efficiently and cost effectively be served by a fleet of flexible state of the art buses operating reliable high frequency services supported by effective bus priority measures, high quality shelters at stops, strong marketing, etc.


  Local Authorities and PTEs are through their Local Transport Plans, working in Quality Partnerships with operators keen to invest in high quality public transport. These plans, it is hoped will develop a comprehensive integrated transport policy incorporating the appropriate mix of heavy rail, light rail, guided bus and high quality general bus services supported by bus priority measures. However, even if the optimum mix was achieved to provide an effective integrated transport system, this alone would not in all cases resolve traffic congestion, as new car borne traffic would be generated to fill any space created by a switch to public transport.

  FirstGroup therefore support the Governments policy of developing a fair and equitable system of charging for scarce urban road space and work place parking charging, balanced by an optimised integrated public transport system, with developments funded by bypothecated revenues from the urban car restraint and private investment. Such a policy can win widespread public support if it is sensitively planned.

  The revenues so generated would be very considerable, and could support the development of light rapid transit systems where appropriate. However, it would be important to ensure that the "horses for courses" approach is followed, that best practice and value for money assessments are thoroughly carried out and that the appropriate balanced integrated transport system achieved.

  If public support for such a policy can be achieved, it will be hard won and could be undermined if there is a perception created either that the money is not appropriately hypothecated, or is used to develop "white elephant" systems inappropriate to, or out of scale with local needs.

  FirstGroup would therefore propose that any scheme for which the infrastructure costs exceed £10 million should be called in by the DETR and asssessed to ensure it meets an established set of value for money criteria.

  Guided busway construction is technically well understood, relatively simple, and needs in any case only to be actioned where buses cannot freely run in other traffic. Thus very substantial benefits can be gained from relatively small pieces of guideway construction. Future growth of guideways is strongly recommended and the Leeds example demonstrates that government policy will be very much assisted by encouraging guided busways where appropriate. Much encouragement can be given by government endorsement of worthwhile schemes during current and future consideration of Local Transport Plans.

  So far as light rail schemes go, there will always be a relatively limited number of viable schemes, both from the part of view of corridors with existing high volumes of public transport patronage and financial viability. Such schemes, however, should not be discouraged generally as they apparently have been in recent government policy, but it should be indicated that government policy is only to support such schemes where existing and potential volumes of traffic justify them. As it is, there are a number of projects on which significant development money has been spent which seem unlikely to go ahead and where cheaper solutions would be quicker to implement.

  On the other hand, extension to existing light rail systems may well be good value as incremental capital costs will be less.

  The most recent schemes, Croydon and Nottingham, are ones in which PFI funding techiques has been used successfully, although significant public money is still always needed. FirstGroup believes that a two stage PFI process, in which the operator is selected first, would be beneficial and practical. Schemes should have early operator input, to ensure the maximum commercial and operational viability; construction partners could come on board as a second phase.

  In the PFI process, risk allocation takes much time and is costly in legal fees; previous experience and a degree of reality from both private and public sector will minimise this cost

  The unfair burden of the cost of utilities diversions, recently increased by Government, contributes to the high capital cost of light rail schemes; as will charging for the time of the Railway Inspectorate, a proposal currently being made by the Health and Safety Executive.

  It is, however, believed that the greatest encouragement that could be given to light rapid transit is to encourage the growth of bus priorities on all major urban corridors, so as to enable the public trasnport market to grow and support the more expensive enhancements to guided busways and light rail.

8 October 1999

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