Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Milton Keynes Bus Users Group (BUS 42)

In reviewing the impact of the reduction in the funding for Bus Services, it is hoped that the Select Committee would consider broader issues when looking at the proposals.

For the majority of bus users, particularly outside of the major cities, most people have only one choice for their local transport needs. Those with cars have two choices. Therefore any effect on local transport will be harder on those who cannot afford the alternative transport.

As bus companies are driven by a profit motive, this biases the better services to more populated cities, and means that smaller towns, cities and rural areas are at a disadvantage. This creates the problem of social exclusion, as lack of bus services has a detrimental effect on personal interaction with local communities. This then impinges on the health economy, as depression and lack of mobility can cause other medical problems.

The bus companies have over the past few years been able to dictate their own rules, and are very adept in providing data to justify their actions. This has occurred for a number of reasons:

—  (a)  The Current Transport Act has lead to "Operational" based bus services rather than "passenger focused services".

—  (b)  Most problems with public transport tend to be local issues and /or transport contractor specific. This leads to a non consistent picture of the actual local transport problems across the country.

—  (c)  Continuous changing of routes, timetables and removal of services from many areas that the bus companies operate leaves whole areas of population without reliable, punctual or consistent services. In the case of Milton Keynes, the main bus contractor, Arriva, without consultation with the public has changed routes and/or times four times in the last nine months. This situation has gone on for some time and resulted in a massive level of complaints and public meetings to try and get some semblance of a better service. The list of problems include missing buses, reliability, driver attitudes, and lack of services for whole districts within the city. The current 56 days statuary notice required before changes are made is too short for both the public and local authorities to discuss issues. The problems in Milton Keynes have been debated in Parliament, but despite every effort by the public and local council to get a better service, there has been more need of subsidised routes to provide even a basic service. Reduction of the Bus Operators grant or Local Authority grant support will have a considerable effect on the local economy. Already the MK Chamber of Commerce has reported that their members have had to restrict employment opportunities to those who depend on public transport to get to work. So reduction in the grants will have the effect of increasing benefit costs if taken across the country.

—  (d)  As there are no operating contracts between Councils and Bus operators, they cannot be held to account by the local council. This lack of measurables means that the local council does not have any monitoring powers. So the passenger struggles on trying to get action. The Milton Keynes local contractor has been inundated with passenger complaints, as has MK Council.

—  (e)  Local councils are held to account by the local public, and have to produce Transport Strategy documents to meet government requirements, but have no real control of the most important element - the provision of local transport.

The Implementation of the free off peak travel for elderly and the disabled passengers has had a very positive effect on those able to take advantage. Many elderly and disabled people have found that their wellbeing has improved considerably. However the flaw in the system has been the processing of the funds from central government through local authorities to the bus companies. Firstly because the money allocated was not ring fenced and has been processed through Environmental Services. Secondly because of the way the money is requested by the local transport contractors is not fully verified by regular audits. Certainly in the Milton Keynes area we have witnessed over a period of time seemingly improper charging of pensioner journeys. But the success of the free travel concession can be measured in the way it has helped many older and disabled people to be more mobile and not feel isolated.

The data used to determine what bus services are profitable is in question, because of the shifting sands of what services are available. Locally we have seen the effect of missed buses, unreliability of vehicles and timing issues on the figures being used as justification that a particular route is not profitable, and lacks clientele. It is very easy to manipulate the data to advantage if you are the bus company. The local councils have no power to challenge that data. The result is loss of routes without any ability of those affected passengers to challenge the changes.

The attitude of bus drivers is very variable around the country, and in Milton Keynes, there is a lot of frustration with their employers, and this often results in abusive shouting at passengers, or passengers being treated to buses careering round corners and throwing passengers off their seats. We have an example a few days ago, where a passenger asked to alight at a bus stop to be told it wasn't a designated bus stop. The passenger pointed out that there was a bus stop, shelter and timetable being displayed, and if that wasn't a designated stop, what was? The driver wouldn't answer the question, and the passenger had to walk back a considerable distance with heavy bags. This type of story is repeated over and over again, but because drivers do not have to display their driver number anymore, it is hard to prove incidents and also for any response to be taken by the bus contractor. Although the ticket issued should have the driver number on it, in reality if it often intelligible. We also have many reports of buses starting off before frail passengers have sat down, resulting in heavy falls. This seems to be a national issue, as we have heard of other areas suffering similar incidents.

In summary, there would be no need to reduce the operators grant or local authority grant if better value for money was achieved. There is certainly a need to get more people into buses, thus reducing the carbon footprint, and providing less traffic problems in the city centres.

The local public transport problems in Milton Keynes have resulted in the setting up of an independent Milton Keynes Bus Users group (MKBUG). The aim of the group is to improve the services being offered by the local transport contractors. It is entirely self financing, and is in the process of setting up a monitoring group to provide accurate data on the services being provided. In due course this will be shared with the Council and Bus operator, and will be used to hopefully improve the bus services offered.

However, since establishing the group, we have managed to monitor the fleet, and some of the buses being used are over 30 years old. This impinges on reliability, and has implications on safety. Data is already coming in from bus users, and we will be submitting accurate data on time keeping to the Traffic commissioners for appropriate action in due course. What is already apparent is bad man management by the main contractor, which has resulted in a blame culture. In may ways passengers seem to be getting in the way of the working day of the contractor.

Community Transport in Milton Keynes, would not be able to provide an alternative bus scheme for the elderly or disabled, as it is heavily oversubscribed at the present time.

So the prospects of local transport travel for many older and disabled passengers is now in jeopardy, and we would ask that consideration is given to the poorer members of society, so they can remain mobile in the future.

We would respectfully suggest an enquiry into the way bus contractors operate would be an important way forward. This would ensure best value for money and we would hope a national standard for bus services could be set up, which would be the minimum to be expected by passengers from the bus contractors and local councils.

January 2011

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Prepared 11 August 2011