Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-158)



  140. Because what you are really saying is something that I intended to put to the previous witnesses, that because of the differences between your situations, each one of you is trying to develop a new bus ridership, but you are doing it in slightly different ways, and you are penalised by existing legislation, which, frankly, I think the House of Commons would be a bit loathe to change because many of those things, as you realise, are tied directly to safety. The question of the mini buses actually arose out of a safety question, so of course it would be something that the House of Commons would look at very closely. But there is no reason why, presumably, if there was to be a direct link between the Bus Operator subsidy and the standards that they had to observe, that the Government could not insist on a number of trial systems across the United Kingdom.
  (Mr Cross) I think some of the constraints which we are finding, particularly in implementing the demand responsive services are governed by regulations and, therefore, relatively easy to change.

  141. So anything else other than the size 16 seater?
  (Mr Cross) We do have an issue about registration of demand responsive services as well because the Bus Service Registration process requires that we set out a route and the stopping points. We have a type of demand responsive service which is unique, I believe, and it is fully flexible. It operates within a wide operating area and we were only able to do that through the cooperation of the Traffic Commissioners, but I do not think all Traffic Commissioners would have agreed with that interpretation.

  142. And you can demonstrate with your results that that has been really useful, is that right?
  (Mr Cross) Yes. We believe that we have achieved the objectives we set for the project.

  143. Yes, but it is a demonstrable increase?
  (Mr Cross) Yes.

  144. That is important.
  (Mr Cross) It means that every person living in that catchment area has access to an hourly service.

Chris Grayling

  145. One of the things that you are inevitably prompted to think about when you hear about situations that authorities like yours face is, "Does the bus model itself really work in rural areas?" You have described getting 900,000 extra passengers as a result of the new support structures, but, at the same time, it is quite clear that your bus services are still operating on the margins. Are they really ever going to be viable? The profile of passengers that are using them, do they suggest that there really is growth potential there or not, or are we looking at a social service?
  (Mr Chorlton) Depends on your definition of viability. If you look at it not just financially, but socially, health, and other issues, access to work, access to education, then I think that has to come into it. There is room for growth. There is a whole area just below the commercial viability where we have had some very successful services carrying what is successful in our terms, 70,000 passengers per year, but that still does not make a profit.

  146. Can you give us a sense of what kind of passengers are using that service? What kind of market have you attracted?
  (Mr Chorlton) It depends on the service. A quick canter—some of them are inter-County services now, which is something the Bus Subsidy Grant has enabled us to do—cooperate with people across boundaries. Subsidised services used to go towards the boundary and back again on both sides; now they actually cross over. If I take one, for example, which goes from Weymouth in Dorset to Dorchester, and then through to Exeter, that is carrying 80-90,000 passengers per year. Some of that is work, some of it is education, but much of it in the day is other purposes. When we get into the deeper rural areas it is about education, it is about work, and I think you have to look at what it is that people need public transport for. They will go from their Hamlet, as it were—we are talking deep rural areas—to the local village for the Primary School. If they are going for the Secondary School, the Doctor and so on, it is the market type. If it is culture and other things, it is the City, and we have to actually look at that variety of needs and try to come up with something that will work. So a combination of commercial services, subsidised services or contracted services, and then I think the demand responsive ones, which will bring people to interconnect to those, is the way forward. But for commercial viability in deep rural areas, the answer is no, it will not happen.

  147. But in terms of the nature of what you are doing—Mr Cross, you have offered some interesting thoughts about different kinds of services, more flexible kinds of service, different kinds of vehicle. When you are talking about 80-90,000 passengers per year, how many people does that actually mean are sitting on a bus at any one time?
  (Mr Cross) If I could just explain our experience. Our strategy is to help the operators build a strong commercial inter-urban network. We are having some success on that. On the first route of InterConnect we doubled the ridership, equivalent to 165,000 passengers per year. We are then using that network to serve the wider rural areas by having demand responsive transport services from the deeper rural areas feeding into that network. The type of people using the feeder services are the ones you would expect to be dependent on public transport. They tend to be elderly, many of them are female and have no alternative transport. The numbers that are being carried are small, and we recognise that, but then so is the population in those areas. We are talking about deeply rural areas. If we have an objective of trying to address social exclusion in rural areas, I believe that is a cost effective way of doing it, using small vehicles operating on demand.

  148. On your route from Weymouth to Exeter, how many people will I find sitting on that bus at any one time?
  (Mr Chorlton) I do not have a figure for that, but I think it is between 20 and a full bus. It is actually a coach. The nature of the service, it is an express service and it varies between about 20 and being full, and it still is not commercial.

  149. And it never will be. So we are dealing with a situation where these areas are always going to require support, and any expansion in the service is going to require public support?
  (Mr Chorlton) Yes, it is.

Andrew Bennett

  150. Community vehicles: is the problem paying drivers?
  (Mr Welch) Can I answer that question. Certainly. We have had a big expansion in community transport in Northamptonshire, but to run a local bus service with community transport requires volunteer drivers, and it has got to the point now where the services that we have got in place are finding it very difficult to persuade drivers to run regular, scheduled services voluntarily, so a paid driver on those services would definitely be beneficial.

  151. But if it was a paid driver, would it make the service uneconomic?
  (Mr Welch) It would certainly cost more than it is at the moment, but it still would compare favourably, possibly, with the alternative, which is seeking a commercial bus operator to provide that service.

  152. You have also described how people can get out of, if you like, these "rural prisons", with the various imaginative services, and get back at the end of the day. How far are any of those services useful to people visiting the area as tourists or for other reasons?
  (Mr Welch) If I just give you an example about tourism, because Northamptonshire is not noted for its tourist potential, we have introduced a tailor-made service called Saunterbus to take people from urban areas into the countryside at weekends.


  153. Called what?
  (Mr Welch) Saunterbus. To saunter around the countryside. It is very very popular, and sometimes we get full double-deck loads of people, but it is a niche market.

  154. I thought all buses came in that category.
  (Mr Welch) Some of them are quite direct, actually. Some of them go from A to B direct. But this is a target market where we have identified a niche market and met that market by specific product. I think if you try to do too much with a particular type of service, you might end up serving nobody at all, so I think you have to target your market very very carefully and know who you are targeting.

Andrew Bennett

  155. With this question of targets, the Government's target for increasing the proportion of rural households to within 10 minutes' walk of an hourly service, is that appropriate?
  (Mr Cross) I do have a view about this. I said that we are helping the operators to build an inter urban network. Through that, 50 per cent of the rural population is served by an hourly service. The problem is the other 50 per cent, and through the demand responsive services which operate every hour, people do have access to an hourly service. What I would suggest is that we cannot achieve the Government's target of a direct hourly service, but we can provide access to an hourly service. We are putting together a bid under the Public Service Agreement which uses that definition, and I think the DTLR are sympathetic to that approach.

  156. And the question of the de minimis limits for purchasing, is that a significant barrier?
  (Mr Cross) The main problem with de minimis, and where I would like to see a change, would be where we have a partnership agreement with an operator and we want to enhance the frequency of that service. Then I would wish that the rules on compulsory tendering were waived to enable us to negotiate in those circumstances within the framework of a partnership agreement. The new limit which Government is proposing is going to be £25,000 per contract. That still would not be sufficient for us to enhance services in the way we are trying to do it.

  157. What limit would you like?
  (Mr Cross) I would like it waived in those particular circumstances. It would be no limit in those circumstances.


  158. The Government say they have given quite considerable amounts of extra money. Will it all appear in transport?
  (Mr Cross) Without a doubt.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, you have been very helpful. Thank you very much indeed.

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