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

Memorandum by Wokingham Unitary (Bus 09)



  1.1  Local authorities are experiencing increasing difficulty in funding the social network. There has been particularly severe pressure in the last two years, largely due to increased costs on bus operators, notably because serious staff shortage has forced increases in wage levels well above the prevailing rate of inflation. As a result, there have been cutbacks and deregistrations of those services, both commercial and tendered, which no longer provide a rate of return to satisfy the operator. Local authorities have had to either increase substantially their subsidies to maintain services, or allow cutbacks in services and so worsen social exclusion.

  1.2  Funding through initiatives such as Rural Bus Challenge and Urban Bus Challenge is very welcome indeed, but is targeted at innovative schemes some of which may give less overall benefit to the community than mainstream services which are being withdrawn because of operators' and local authorities' financial difficulties.


  2.1  Quality partnerships will only be successful if there is the same determination from each party to fulfil its share of the bargain. This may be difficult to sustain in the longer term if there are changes in management at bus companies, or changes in control at local authorities. There may also be a loss of faith if one party is seen to be slower than the other(s) in implementing its share of the agreement. They may work well in some circumstances but cannot be seen as a comprehensive and reliable solution for the country's bus problems. The inability to include service patterns, frequencies and fares is a particular deterrent.

  2.2  Quality contracts have a better chance of bringing the stability and reliability needed for the general public to have confidence in being able to use the bus. This is quite clear in comparison between London, where the network is planned centrally, and the rest of the country. In London service levels have been maintained or increased and the network is stable, leading to rising passenger use and confidence. Elsewhere, particularly outside the conurbations, the network continues to decline.

  2.3  However, there is a major barrier to quality contracts in the timescale of implementation. It is simply not worth the effort of trying to progress them when planning and negotiation, which may well occupy six to 12 months, is followed by a 21-month lead-in time. In the overall period of two to three years circumstances may well have changed—there may have been a change in control in local government, leading to redirection or lowering of priority, or even in national government, which may then be reluctant to approve such schemes.

  2.4  To be fully effective a quality contract must be able to include frequencies and fares, including a co-ordinated network of services, fares and through ticketing. There must also be a guaranteed funding stream for the life of the contract, to ensure continuing stability of the network and protect bus users. Some flexibility will be needed to enable additional services where justified, for example for new developments within the area of a contract. Only in exceptional circumstances should reduction or withdrawal be permitted, for example due to the closure of a major employer.


  3.1  We have seen from our Loddon Bridge Park and Ride service that bus priority measures can be very successful in attracting people to use buses, providing a more reliable journey time than would otherwise be available. Many of the people currently using the service would drive into Reading rather than take normal bus services, if the Park and Ride was not available.

  3.2  Enforcement is clearly vital and there need to be severe deterrents to the behaviour of those who selfishly drive in bus lanes, and park in bus lanes and at bus stops. Parking in bus lanes negates the benefits to bus passengers, because of the delay in moving out past the parked vehicle, even if it is only there for a couple of minutes as the car or van driver often claims. The importance of deterring parking at bus stops is all the greater with the growing use of low-floor buses, which need clear access to the kerbside to maximise the benefits for the people they are designed to help.


  4.1  It is clear that the beneficiaries of the 1986 deregulation have been bus company owners and shareholders and certainly not the bus-using public or, for that matter, bus company employees. Some action was admittedly needed out of the stagnant situation that prevailed before the 1985 Transport Act, but the instability since then has been a major reason for the decline in use of buses. The comparison with London, where planning and development is carried out centrally and operators compete for the right to run services, is obvious.

  4.2  Most shire counties, unitary authorities and PTEs now have staff with the knowledge and ability to plan local bus services effectively. Skills have developed to a high level over the last twenty years and they can now offer the bus user and potential user a comprehensively planned and co-ordinated network, and can draw on knowledge of local social needs. Bus operators are necessarily restricted to planning their commercial networks and have to do so in isolation for fear of investigation by the Office of Fair Trading. They may well, however, have the skills to be able to partner local authorities in planning networks which include commercial and non-commercial services if legislation so permitted.


  5.1  The existence of services which give opportunities to reach work, education, shops and leisure facilities is clearly fundamental to reducing social exclusion, particularly for those without their own means of transport. Again, stability is vital—there is little point in someone accepting a job offer if their means of travel can be removed at short notice as is the case under present legislation.


  6.1  One major barrier to offering the public a better service appears to be the Office of Fair Trading. The bus-using general public want co-ordinated timetables and fares. If two operators are each running hourly services along the same route, the public wants a co-ordinated half-hourly service with return tickets interavailable. The OFT would appear to prefer to have both operators' buses coming at the same time, and no interavailability of fares. Attracting people to use buses is a different matter from choosing between brands of baked beans in a supermarket, but the point appears to be beyond the OFT's willingness to accept.

Roland Clausen-Thue

Senior Public Transport Planner

15 April 2002

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