Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by CEPOG


  1.1  CEPOG is the West Midlands Local Authorities' Chief Engineers & Planning Officers Group, responsible for advising the West Midlands Joint Planning and Transportation Sub-Committee on strategic transportation and planning issues.

  1.2  In particular, CEPOG is responsible for the LTP2, its programmes, targets and delivery. Since buses are at the heart of our LTP2 strategy, we welcome this opportunity to share our experience and views on the importance of delivering quality bus services that can and must contribute to our overall transport strategy. Bus services contribute to both tackling congestion and improving accessibility, particularly for socially-excluded groups. The ability of deregulated services to contribute to both these policy areas will be critical to the overall success of our LTP2, the successful regeneration of the Metropolitan Area and maintaining its contribution to the national economy.

  1.3  This submission focuses on the key ways that buses can successfully contribute to our transport strategy. Issues linked to detailed operational matters will be covered in the submission by Centro, the West Midlands Metropolitan Area's PTE.

  1.4  The West Midlands Metropolitan Area has the highest level of bus use outside London, both in absolute numbers (315 million passenger trips per annum in 2004-05) and in terms of trips per head of population. Buses account for 90% of public transport journeys in our Area and bus services are vital for a significant proportion of our population who do not have access to a car or who cannot drive.

  1.5  Whilst not directly responsible for the co-ordination of local bus services, the seven Metropolitan Councils fund these activities through their support for the Passenger Transport Authority and Executive (Centro). The value-for-money of this support and its effectiveness and contribution towards LTP2 targets is extremely important. Our 2005-11 Bus Strategy, which accompanies the LTP2, provides a detailed framework for improving bus services in our Area.


Deregulation, Competition, Co-ordination and Integration

  2.1  The 1985 Transport Act was designed to increase competition in the bus market through deregulation and privatisation. Whilst the break-up and sell-off of National Bus Company operators, which some saw as state-owned monopolies, initially created smaller individual companies with greater potential to compete with each other, business mergers and takeovers have given us a virtual private-sector monopoly with one company, Travel West Midlands, accounting for approximately 81% of bus operations in our Area. Thus the delivery of bus-related LTP2 targets is strongly influenced by the business decisions of this company.

  2.2  There have been benefits arising from the 1985 Transport Act; low-floor buses, better frequencies and, in some places, more customer-orientated routes. However, it is a mixed picture. Some of the increased frequencies are due to on-road competition for passengers. This can lead to an excessive number of buses in key locations with individual competing timetables that do very little for customers. This increases congestion, or at least the perception of congestion, in key locations at popular times. It also equates to poor use of overall resources.

  2.3  Although in many places there are higher service frequencies, actual delivery in accordance with registered timetables is poor. Punctuality in 2004-05, as reported in our LTP2, was below 60% within the Traffic Commissioner's "window" of no more than one minute early and five minutes late. Our LTP2 target, in line with Government expectations, is to see operators achieve punctuality levels of 83% by 2010-11 and 90% by 2012-13. This will be extremely challenging.

  2.4  There are opportunities for better integration between buses and our Midland Metro and local rail network. It is pertinent to note that National Express Group own Central Trains, which provide all the stopping services within our Area, the Midland Metro, which operates through the Black Country between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and Travel West Midlands, the dominant provider of local bus services (with approximately 80% of the local bus market). If integration could work under the current deregulated system, it should have happened in the West Midlands Metropolitan Area, but the system is not "joined-up".

  2.5  The way services are currently delivered acts against integration. There is not co-ordination of services providing the quality, frequency and value-for-money that would persuade motorists to leave their cars at home for many journeys. This mitigates against attempts to tackle congestion and it adversely affects our achievement of social inclusion objectives as multi-mode public transport journeys are more difficult than they would be with better integration. This has an impact on local businesses in some parts of our Area where people without access to a car either cannot take job opportunities or are not reliable time-keepers because of difficult bus journeys. This is an adverse factor in the regeneration of our Area and its contribution to national productivity.

Service Standards

  2.6  The current deregulated situation does not appear directly to compromise the provision of high quality local bus services where operators choose to provide them. However, the regulations for entry into the local bus service market appear to be too low and monitoring of standards is poor. This allows low quality services to operate in direct competition with better quality operators. The size and captive nature (through low car ownership levels) of much of the Metropolitan Area's bus market is such that competition has not necessarily led to higher standards. It is not uncommon to find buses that are dirty inside. Altogether, there is not a perception of local bus services being a quality alternative to travel by car. Unfortunately, there is a perception of services being operated for the benefit of the private companies rather than to meet customer needs.

  2.7  Perceptions of personal security and actual crime at or close to bus stops or in bus stations are a Local Indicator Target in our LTP2. Centro have set up a Safer Travel Police Support Unit with Community Support Officers who give a uniformed presence on parts of the bus network in order to increase passenger confidence that bus travel is safe. This is supported by ad-hoc high-profile initiatives involving Police Officers and "sniffer" dogs alongside Community Support Officers, working in partnership with operators' revenue protection staff.

  2.8  Actual crime has declined in recent years with a 17% drop between 2003-04 and 2004-05. However, this was accompanied by a 4½% increase in people's lack of satisfaction with security. This perception, of course, affects actual bus patronage.

  2.9  Some off-peak services can become the subject of a cycle of decline. Services carrying limited numbers of passengers, including early morning and later evening services, are particularly vulnerable to frequency reductions to maximise vehicle loadings and improve their commercial viability. This often means that the service is less attractive to users who then choose to use other modes or not travel at all. If patronage continues to fall, such off-peak services are likely to be withdrawn and only retained if Centro can afford to support them. With increasingly widening trading, working and leisure hours, this situation is incompatible with our accessibility objectives, particularly access to jobs outside normal working hours.

Delivery of LTP2 Targets

  2.10  Our view of whether or not deregulation has worked is based on today's context of buses being at the heart of our transport strategy. The role of Centro since deregulation has been to react to market failures, principally by seeking to secure socially necessary services not provided by the privatised bus companies. Today, we must focus on meeting our bus-related targets in our joint LTP2. Delivering better accessibility in a deregulated environment, especially for those who do not have access to a car, is likely to require increased revenue expenditure on socially necessary services.

  2.11  We aim to reverse the decline in bus patronage from its 2003-04 baseline, 325 million trips per annum, by 9% to 355 million by 2010-11. This is an extremely ambitious and aspirational target in today's deregulated situation. We have a strategy but the risks to achievement are great with many of the key factors being outside our control. Above-inflation fares increases, especially when the real cost of motoring is falling, leads to passenger losses. Failure to provide quality services that are punctual, reliable and clean will deter existing and new passengers, as recognised by Government—"the public need to see clear evidence of reliable and efficient services in their neighbourhood".1

  2.12  Neither Centro, nor the Metropolitan Councils, have the means to influence these important LTP2 targets, except at the margins. This is regrettable since failure to meet them can adversely affect assessment of our Annual Progress (Delivery) Reports with significant consequent financial penalties.

  2.13  Very simply, poor bus service delivery is outside our control but it adversely affects the finances with which we seek to deliver improvement across all modes, including buses, in pursuance of our LTP2 objectives and targets.

  2.14  Issues such as bus service routes, frequencies, reliability and hours of operation, co-ordination of services with each other and other modes for interchange purposes, integration of ticketing and fares and quality and cleanliness of vehicles are key factors influencing people's choices about bus use. Making deregulation work, without the ability of the local authorities to have a strong influence on all these aspects of service provision requires voluntary action by the operators to enter into partnerships. However, we are not convinced that the longer-term strategic view set out in our LTP2 sits happily with the more immediate business concerns of the bus companies.

  2.15  The former Secretary of State stated that "decisions on road, rail, bus and tram need to be looked at together by the same people, so that they can make sensible choices and decide on their priorties".2 We agree with this on the basis that it includes all aspects of quality bus service delivery.


  3.1  The current revenue resources generally provide for a "safety net" to secure socially necessary services, as per the provisions of the 1985 Transport Act. In the current deregulated environment, increased resources are needed to secure supported services, alongside commercially-provided services, linked with bus-related LTP2 targets, including those relating to reducing congestion and improving accessibility. Such resources would also need to be adequate to secure quality rather than "safety net" services.

  3.2  If the provision of additional services was done without working in partnership with the relevant operator(s), there would be difficulties if public-sector supported services were seen to be undermining the viability of commercially-provided services. It would be extremely difficult, probably impossible, to achieve. The obvious solution is to work in partnership with the relevant operator(s), but the current legislative framework specifically excludes fares and frequencies from such partnerships and we believe these factors to be vital in the delivery of our LTP2 patronage target, as well as being important in terms of accessibility.

  3.3  The other option is greater public control or statutory influence over operational issues, including fares, frequencies and quality standards. Allowing Centro greater control over bus operations would mean that delivery of quality services would be within a framework that would be accountable to the local authorities that are accountable for LTP2 targets rather than shareholders and the stock market.


  4.1  We are concerned that the Traffic Commissioner does not have adequate resources to "police" local bus service operations. Operators are answerable to him for non-compliance with the details of their registered services and yet there is only one Compliance Officer for the whole West Midlands region. It is not difficult to understand why the public believe that operators are able to be a law unto themselves with regard to how they deliver their timetabled services. Such poor public perception damages the image of buses as an alternative to travel by car.


  5.1  Bus priority measures are often key factors in delivering the enhanced bus services that will contribute towards LTP2 targets. However, it can be difficult for Ward Councillors to support strategic needs that may have detrimental local impacts especially when there is no certainty that the outcome will be beneficial for significant numbers of local people. This situation is not helped by the fact that service frequencies and fares can change at anytime and are important factors in improving patronage.

  5.2  Similar considerations arise with regard to public investment in quality bus stop infrastructure. Commercially-provided services can be withdrawn or altered with little or no consultation, even after close partnership working. Not only does this mean abortive investment by the Authorities, but also it reinforces the poor public perception of the provision of local bus services.

  5.3  We are concerned about the delay introducing camera enforcement of bus lane violations, exacerbated now by the type-approval process.


  6.1  Residents of our Area aged over 65 and those with specific disabilities already had free travel on bus, Midland Metro and rail services. This was extended to people aged over 60 in 2005, in advance of the Government's deadline, although it has not been possible to extend this to before 09:30 due to capacity and funding constraints.

  6.2  We welcome the Government's proposal to introduce free travel anywhere in the UK. In the local context, it will allow our residents access to surrounding (rural) areas, both for recreation and family visits, thereby enhancing their quality of life. More cross-boundary journeys by bus will also make a minor contribution towards reducing congestion within our Area.

  6.3  There is a strong case for having concessionary fares for other groups of people, including job seekers, younger people and scholars. This would help reduce the school journey by car and, during immediate post-school or college years, provide affordable accessibility to jobs as well as establishing an understanding of how local bus services work. This could build on successful TravelWise initiatives, such as Workwise, piloted in the West Midlands Metropolitan Area.


  7.1  We must be optimistic about the future of local bus services in the West Midlands Metropolitan Area because they are central to our strategy to tackle congestion. Local rail and tram services are vital, but it is only bus-based services that can penetrate all parts of our Area, thereby providing people with the ability to leave their cars at home either for whole journeys or for journeys to interchange facilities.

  7.2  Buses are also critical for delivering improved accessibility across our Area, which includes a significant rural area between Solihull and Coventry, but especially in the deprived parts of the Metropolitan Area, where household car availability is extremely low (up to 60% non-car availability).

  7.3  The London model is one way of providing local bus services that people will use within a framework of public accountability. Patronage growth in London has been phenomenal in recent years, although support for buses is approximately three times greater in London than in PTE areas3. Similar powers and funding would help achieve the quality bus services in our Area that are needed to meet our patronage targets and other objectives.

  7.4  As recognised by the former Secretary of State for Transport, "passengers need to have confidence in what the bus will offer. This means the adequacy of the whole network—routes, frequency, fares, as well as the day-to-day service of the bus company".

  7.5  We also want to see more people using buses as part of our contribution to the health agenda. Just the walk to and from bus stops is healthier than always sitting in a car.


  8.1  Ministerial statements about the Transport Innovation Fund have acknowledged the need to improve public transport and that rail, light rail, buses and Park & Ride must work together. In most cases, buses are expected to provide the alternative to the car. There has been a clearly stated link between tackling congestion through demand management measures and better bus services, and reliable services, noting that the TIF "will have a positive impact on how buses are run"4.

  8.2  Delivery of our LTP2 depends heavily on there being better bus services, better focussed on people's needs within an overall strategic framework. Buses are central to our congestion and accessibility strategies but most aspects of service delivery are market-driven and the bus operators are not responsible for achievement of LTP2 targets although they control most of the inputs. Some business decisions act directly against patronage targets, for example it is recognised that putting up fares leads to some patronage loss. Private-sector business decision-making is often seen as having shorter time horizons than LTPs that plan for five-year periods and beyond.

  8.3  Many elements of customer service are outside the control of the Authorities and need to be tackled in partnership with public transport operators. These include cleanliness, customer care, enforcement of no-smoking regulations, security and the image and attractiveness of public transport. However, partnerships cannot include frequencies and fares and some form of "regulated competition" is needed in order to co-ordinate these vital elements with delivery of LTP2 objectives and targets.

  8.4  Competition needs to be harnessed to drive up quality standards in a way that will provide people with what they need and want and will use. We recognise that people will only be prepared to get out of their cars if there is an affordable, reliable, high quality alternative. The future of travel in the West Midlands Metropolitan Area is too important to be left within the control of individual private companies whose first responsibility lies to their shareholders whilst competing with each other.

  8.5  We are serious in our intent to tackle congestion and are pleased to have been one of the areas chosen to pilot TIF work. We share the former Secretary of State's belief that "for road pricing to work we have got to have reliable public transport—including reliable bus services that people can depend upon".2 However, we are concerned that local bus service delivery in our Area is not yet adequate to deliver the step-change in quality that will be needed to give people a feasible alternative to travel by car. We believe that current partnership arrangements are not adequately proven as the basis for sustainable long-term improvement of local bus services.


  1  Quotation from speech by Karen Buck to ATCO, 29 November 2005

  2  Quotations from speech by Alistair Darling to the CPT, 26 January 2006

  3  Figures from Transport Statistics, Great Britain, 2005

  4  Extracts from speeches by Alistair Darling to the CBI, 28 November 2005, and to the CPT, 26 January 2006, by Karen Buck to ATCO, 29 November 2005, and by Derek Twigg to the LGA, 14 December 2005.

23 May 2006

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