Select Committee on Transport Memoranda

Transport Committee Inquiry into Bus Services across the UK

Submission by Dr. Alan Storkey 5/5/2006.

Strategic Overview.

  The title of this inquiry is "Bus services across the UK" and I want to stay with the strategic level of the review. The argument will be that, at present, bus journeys are very limited in their strategic aims, and especially that buses have not been part of an "integrated transport policy", as is claimed by Government policy. This contribution will show why full integration has not occurred, how it can be remedied and why subsidies are needed at present, but may be less necessary with a reformed road-based national transport system.

  The advantages of buses are important. By bunching journeys they economize on road space use in crowded areas. They also cut fuel consumption and greenhouse gases. By addressing congestion, they also reduce the fuel consumption of other vehicles. Potentially, they are crucial for green, uncongested travel.

  This depends on utilisation and occupation levels. Though there is some improvement in London, the overall level of use is disappointing and it seems that bus occupancy levels are low, especially outside rush hours and at the outer margins of the routes.

  The reason for this, I suggest, is the limited kind of journeys which can be undertaken by bus. They are used for commuting and shopping, and for suburb to city centre travel, but they are rarely part of longer journeys. Usually, as buses move into the outer suburbs they are relatively empty. It is difficult to establish bus occupancy rates, but they may be not much more than 10 overall. London is more successful partly because many routes hardly have an outer end, given the greater size of the metropolis, though at the edges the same phenomenon exists. Effectively the routes peter out and leave no alternative but the car. Train and coach are normally geared to city centre rail and coach stations, and there is no link to longer distance travel.

  There is, in effect, no integration with bus travel beyond the suburbs. There is not an integrated bus policy. Given the volumes of car traffic moving on the M25, the Manchester and Birmingham orbitals, the failure to provide road-based public transport beyond bus routes and on motorways is serious, and explains our inability to cut into car transport.

A Reformed Coach System.

  A similar problem exists with coaches. They remain at present organised around city centres, and are therefore locked into inner city patterns of congestion, even when passengers come from the suburbs and are travelling outwards. Travel speeds for the journeys are as low as 30 or even 20 mph, although these vehicles travel comfortably at 60-70mph. Because coaches are infrequent, they need booking. At present they are the most unreformed part of the transport system, a residual service for time-rich and poorer travellers.

  Yet, again, as with buses, they are the most efficient powered form of personal transport. Each coach hoovers up a mile of car traffic at 60 mph assuming normal (not full) occupancy. They save road space by a factor of fifteen to twenty, simply by bringing people together and eliminating the space between vehicles. They cut fuel consumption by 80%, but because they cut the congestion and slowness of other vehicles this pushes up towards 90% or more, making them greener than any other possible form of transport. They can tackle congestion where it occurs, because coaches can be put where car traffic is heaviest, on motorways, orbitals and major trunk roads. Because they are smaller units than trains, with reasonable demand it is easy to push up frequency times and offer an on-off service. As the Oxford-London route shows, despite its disabilities, a frequent on-off service increases demand five fold or more, even though the full journey speed is little over 30mph.

  What is needed to reform the coach system is a comfortable, fast, frequent network with congestion free transfers into the heavy centres of population. Orbital services round London on the M25, Birmingham and Manchester motorways are crucial. Coach stations with platforms and flat entry, allowing easy and rapid transfers, need to be moved to motorway and major trunk road intersections. Clearly, this would allow rapid transfer to and from buses and coaches, without getting embroiled in city centre congestion, and would provide a true alternative to the car. Crucial, too, would be systems of coach priority, justified by their efficient use of road space, which would guarantee their journey speeds and reliability.

  Compared with all other transport infrastructure, the capital costs of such a reform are remarkably low, because coach reform largely uses existing infrastructure, the road and motorway network, more efficiently by a factor of fifteen and most of the capital is going into vehicles. A full M25 coach and transfer system would possibly cost less than £1 billion. A far fuller explanation of this model is available to the Committee.


  Such a reform would then open up the way for a fully integrated coach and bus service. Buses would then pick up long-distance travel, out of town commuting, shopping, orbital movements, start of journey travel and a range of other journey purposes. The UK with high population density should be ideal for this journey gathering road-based system. It would complete the integration of the system which is at present so obviously limited.

  Let us consider a concrete example which could be duplicated hundreds of times. At present the 298 bus moves through North London, out from Southgate, Cockfosters and then Potters Bar. Often in the outer stretch of the journey the level of occupancy is very low as it passes through greenbelt land. With an M25 Orbital Coach system in place all the journeys to and from the M25 into North London and to Potters Bar would be accessed by this bus. It would enable a transfer from Junction 24 to the Piccadilly Line at Cockfosters and would quickly expand its demand and frequency. Its effectiveness as a service would be increased many times. Moreover, all the journeys from and to the M25 transfer from car to coach and bus would ease congestion. Presently there are several hours a day where these roads are choked. Some more bus priority measures would enhance this mode of travel over the car.

  Most people live in suburbs and the outer area of cities. At present, buses integrate with city centre trains and coaches. Usually, that involves an in-out movement which makes the journey time grossly inefficient. Bus-coach integration would completely change this process.

Marketing strategy.

  At present, buses are subsidised because they are such a virtuous form of urban transport helping congestion, fuel consumption, greenhouse gases and people without cars. We are used to subsidised bus transport, but it is expensive and the DfT wants to keep costs down.

  Parsimonious responses from the DfT suggest that there policy in relation to coaches consists only in a fear of opening up another subsidised market. Yet, this response shows a failure to see the full scope of the bus and coach market. Where buses and coaches are frequent they are much more fully used, as the London-Oxford or Oxford Road, Manchester examples show clearly. By contrast, the level of frustration with motorway, orbital and outer urban movement in cars is volcanic. Yet, as the underground shows, people can cope with multi-transfer journeys if they are reasonably comfortable, cheap, frequent, fast and reliable. If an integrated bus-coach system were created, there would be a chance to move into the £100 billion a year budget that people spend on cars in a substantial way. It would open up a market in which buses and coaches would be highly competitive.

  The present distortions of the transport market are known, but unaddressed politically. The public cost of using cars would involve a tax of something like £1.75 a litre, and car costs are lower than they should be, partly as a result of New Labour's failure to tax responsibly. Yet, still this is a vast market, with vast private investment, and it is very cost inefficient; a ton of steel moving 1.4 people nationally with all the associated costs does not add up to a cheap system. Even at current prices, there is probably a vast suppressed demand as a result of the inefficiency and infrequency of coach and bus transport. Coaches cost only a fraction of the amount, save capital, resources, fuel, driving time, parking and garaging costs and are a cheap form of travel, even with leg room and comfort. This is a cost effective, marketable policy in which both coaches and buses can be closer to unsubsidised market provision.

  This market needs to be built up, so that revenue can begin to provide investment funds. The key is the vast amount of traffic moving round the orbitals, the outside of the conurbations and the major motorways. The volume of car traffic guarantees high demand, if the frequency, speed and comfort of coaches and buses is established.


  At present, the DfT collects hardly any data on coaches and relatively little on buses. The department has not had a considered policy on coach transport for a decade or more and has thus turned its back on the most effective form of powered transport available in terms of energy use and addressing congestion. Whereas coach transport with low levels of investment increase the capacity of the road system by a multiple factor, road charging at great cost adds no capacity to the road system. The failure to address this alternative to road pricing and to look at integrated coach-bus transport policy is culpable and should be addressed. Policy is being driven by high cost companies rather than ecological and transport sense.

  The recommendation, therefore, is that the Government does some proper work on coach transport and reviews the relation between coach and bus transport so that proper integration of the two services can be considered and developed as policy. Part of this is evaluating a coach system with orbital coach services and intersection based coach transfers. Such a system could be up and running in five years, transforming the potential of bus transport and giving the British public a full effective road-based public transport system.

Dr Alan Storkey

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