Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Memorandum by First (OPT 05)



  First is the UK's largest bus operator and second largest train operator. We are determined to raise the quality of the services we provide to passengers including safety, reliability, frequency, comfort, price and investment.

  It is both good for customers and good for the business—because reliable, quality services will attract passengers back to public transport.

  While we clearly want our buses and trains to be busy—we do not want to see overcrowding. It gives public transport a bad name and suggests that there is market growth which we are not adequately meeting.


  Outside London there are a number of ways we can manage demand to prevent overcrowding and in our day-to-day operations we make full use of them.

  For example, on a new or developing bus route, we start with smaller vehicles at say 15-20 minute frequency. As demand grows we switch to larger buses, such as full size single decks, then double-deckers or articulated buses. We also introduce more buses to the route to increase capacity. That in itself makes it a more frequent and attractive service which attracts even more passengers.

  Another way of managing demand is to introduce attractive ticketing initiatives which encourage people to travel at non peak periods so spreading the load.

  Those measures are entirely within our gift. Other initiatives need the active support and involvement of local authorities and we refer to them later.

  On the railways, we have seen passenger growth in our rail division of up to 30% since 1996. However, opportunities for operators to manage growth and demand on their own are limited by the availability of spare train paths and rolling stock, the constraints of our franchise agreements and the availability of fully functioning infrastructure.

  Much of the growth we have seen, particularly at First Great Western and First Great Eastern, has been in commuter travel at times when there is less spare capacity in the network to cope with it.


  We have invested more than £230 million in new trains in the past six years and £430 million in 4,150 new buses. The business case for investment in new fleets depends critically on the number of passengers we can carry and the revenue they contribute.

  While we can see why Government wants more accessible transport—a policy area we clearly support—there is a price. Recent Government legislation has seriously damaged the business case for new investment and contributed to the overcrowding problems that we face.

  New vehicles are less fuel efficient (due to environmental requirements), cost 10% more to buy, are more expensive to run, circa 6% more to maintain and carry fewer seated passengers. Disability requirements mean the removal of up to six seats on every new bus. 85% of our services are unsubsidised and the reduced revenue per vehicle has an impact on the business case for investment and for passenger fares.

  On the railways, new disability requirements for both seating and toilets mean that each new 3-4 coach train has up to 20 seats less than the train it replaces. That reduces both capacity and revenue without offering any additional public support to encourage further investment to make up the seat shortfall.


  While we at First can cater for growing demand by laying on extra buses, there is another factor which can contribute to overcrowding on both buses and trains—traffic congestion.

  This is unpredictable and can trap several buses on the same route in the same problem. That can create a gap in service flows which can cause serious overcrowding when the first buses arrive at crowded stops.

  But congestion also inflates all our costs because more buses and drivers are needed to run the same level of service. If things worsen substantially even timetables need to be adjusted to reflect the problem.

  Bad parking and lack of enforcement of bus priority measures by both police and local authorities can cause similar problems.

  In some parts of the UK, public sector pricing decisions are having a major impact on overcrowding on buses. For example, free pm peak time travel for pensioners overlaps with children coming out of school and adults trying to get home from work.

  Parental choice for schools has a knock on effect on public transport too. With children no longer automatically going to the nearest and most accessible school more diffuse journey patterns are created.

  Local management of schools means there is no pressure to stagger school opening hours to reflect transport needs.

  Local authority planning decisions which allow the dispersal of housing, employment, hospitals and retail development create more complex and long distance trips which cannot always be efficiently made by bus. This in turn leads to more traffic congestion and knock on effects for overcrowding.


  On the railways, while passenger numbers on our franchises have grown by up to 30% since privatisation, there has been little major improvement to infrastructure across the entire network. The system is creaking at the seams.

  In addition, new open access services and additional freight services have led to over ambitious timetabling which leaves the railway unable to cope adequately with train or infrastructure failures.

  Network Rail are responsible for 57% of our train delays on First Great Western and 63% on First Great Eastern while we, as operator are responsible for 27% and 21% respectively. On any one-day we can have more than 100 temporary speed restrictions on the Great Western Main Line alone.

  This network has had no radical attention paid to it since it was upgraded more than a quarter of a century ago. As a result, track circuits are regularly failing; tunnels have to be closed after bad weather, cuttings and embankments are collapsing and sections of track are washed away in flooding.

  And with a crowded network there is no operational slack to allow the system to recover quickly. As a result, a single incident can have a ripple effect down the line disrupting services across a network for several hours. The net result is passenger frustration and serious overcrowding on the services that are able to run.

  We are also victims of changing demographics. For example, in recent years, we have seen enormous growth in long distance commuting. This is a particular issue on our First Great Western franchise. Although we are now running a third more trains than seven years ago there are still not either enough train paths or rolling stock to cope with peak time demand.

  On the morning commute into London our trains can be extremely busy from Bristol and almost full when they leave Swindon—still an hour by inter city train from London. A combination of rising London house prices, business development along the M4 corridor and fares regulated to an RPI-1 formula since privatisation have combined to make the route attractive.

  As a result we are not able to properly separate long distance inter city passengers, and their differing needs, from commuters. This impacts on the standards we are able to offer our customers.


  We believe there are separate solutions for both rail and road:


    —  Consolidation of the network. The consolidation of the FGW and Thames franchises, for example, would deliver 30-40% extra seats in the peak period, improve punctuality by 10% and seriously reduce overcrowding. Ten months ago we presented proposals to the SRA which could deliver these benefits in just over 16 months from now.

    —  Restoring network infrastructure to a proper state. With such a high percentage of delays due to infrastructure failure, a reliable network would allow both more trains to run and to do so at the full line speed. That would smooth the flow of trains and allow us to maximise the number of seats available on any day.

    —  Investment in longer platforms and longer trains. This is one of the proposals we regularly submit to the SRA as part of our bids for new franchises. This creates extra capacity within the same finite number of train paths and is particularly important for commuter journeys.

    —  Removing conflicts from the network. Rail privatisation created a range of divisive features that work against the passenger and combating overcrowding. For example, unlike in the days of BR, freight trains can be given priority over passenger services and connecting services are not allowed to await a delayed train without financial penalties. Also the allocation of train paths between different operators reduces capacity and builds in conflict and inefficiency. Removing these and other, similar, problems would do a lot to reduce overcrowding.


    —  Speeding up priority measures. While bus priority measures would increase the number of passengers, they would also improve reliability and shorten journey times allowing operators to run services more efficiently. This is without the significant other benefits which are not relevant to your inquiry including helping social inclusion and encouraging modal shift

    —  Better enforcement. Bad and selfish parking is a very disruptive influence on bus services. In most cities neither the police nor local authorities, where parking has been decriminalised, take enough action to clear roads for bus traffic.

    —  Disciplining roadwork contractors. The unpredictability of many road works means that operators cannot plan their way out of delays. This, again, leads to bunching of buses and overcrowding. In one UK city we have taken the initiative by appointing managers to chase up the public utilities and their contractors when they are not minimising road disruption. We would urge that local authorities nationally are encouraged to adopt this practice.

    —  Park and ride. Polls show this is the most popular measure with motorists to help attract them out of their cars—and create better traffic conditions for our buses. Linked to bus priority measures, it allows motorists to do the non-congested part of their journey by car before linking to a fast, frequent bus service going to the heart of a city.

    —  Congestion charging. We expect this to have a direct impact on overcrowding. By reducing congestion, charging will make bus journeys more predictable and efficient, reducing bunching and allowing the same number of buses to run more services

    —  More buses. As demand expands, it is in operators' interests to invest in more buses to meet it. The business case for doing so is overwhelming and so is the benefit to passengers—since more buses on a service not only mean more capacity but more frequent services.

    —  New bus routes to supplement crowded trains and metros. Once bus priority measures have been introduced on key corridors it becomes a commercial proposition for operators to introduce limited stop express services to ease congestion on trains and light rail and provide an alternative to passengers.

    —  Approval for 15 metre vehicles. DfT clearance for these vehicles—which already operate across Europe—would increase capacity on new vehicles

    —  Staggering school opening hours to reflect transport needs. Slight changes and co-ordination to school opening hours could allow one bus and driver to perform four loaded trips per day instead of two creating extra capacity during periods of peak demand.

December 2002

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