Bus Services after the Spending Review - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from T N D Anderson (BUS 63)


Successive governments have maintained a range of subsidies to the bus industry, largely in pursuit of social inclusion and modal shift objectives. The continuing low modal share for buses, in whatever variant, and in many areas declining, suggests that the industry requires rather more scrutiny than the current inquiry will afford.

As Transport for London has demonstrated, there are ways to increase bus ridership to some degree (albeit that many users are captive to bus in London and elsewhere). This submission contends that the unsatisfactory nature of the mode itself, especially for urban commuting, will ensure that its modal share will remain low, and that fares will continue to rise, subsidies will be required for the foreseeable future, or both.

As Ministers are aware, there is an alternative. Affordable British-made Light Rail is now available, and is capable of attracting a modal share that would ensure profitable operations. Cross-subsidies to feeder buses in an integrated network offer the potential reduction or elimination of Government subsidies to urban bus services in the medium-term.

There is good practice exhibited in rural bus services in the Gower Peninsula and Bwcabus in Wales, for example. But generally, bus services suffer from a lack of imagination and innovation among profit-maximising providers, a fixation with technology (eg alternative fuels) rather than the "soft engineering" of passenger comfort factors, and pre-eminently, the provision of free or low-cost urban centre parking.


At least part of the problem undermining the widely sought-after modal shift to public transport is the over-reliance on buses. The bus mode is not popular, and is especially not an attractive option for car-users. Inevitably in most locations, it requires public subsidy.

The modal share for buses in OECD cities is proportional to the size of the population. Larger cities tend to have more routes and more complex networks, outlying bus interchanges and P + R sites, all contributing towards a slightly higher modal share for buses. Many also have suburban rail and metro services available as well, limiting bus modal share.

For example, buses in Cardiff (0.4m population) have about 8% modal share, in Dublin (1m) 10% and London (8m) 18%. Figure 1 illustrates the approximate relationship—probably affected by the prevailing economic climate to the extent of 1-3%.

Figure 1




Undoubtedly, improvements in what is typically poor information design and provision, interchange and integration with all other modes, and other passenger comfort factors could increase bus modal share, probably by a total of 1-2%. These could be achieved at relatively modest cost, though a more holistic and critical analysis would be required than hitherto.

While growth in ridership will rise in with economic growth, total transport volume will also grow, and the above proportions are likely to be close to the maximum attainable by the bus mode in the respective cities.


—  bus rapid transit (BRT) makes little impact on bus ridership. High-end bus variants may cost   up to 80% of the cost of Light Rail (LR). Partly because the operating costs of LR are lower than bus, over 30y LR is cheaper than BRT; and

—  there is an understandable reluctance to re-allocate roadspace away from cars while the alternatives are so unattractive, and the political consequences potentially severe. The re-allocation of roadspace for bus lanes is typically uneconomic however, even on many routes in London. Bus lanes are simply not justifiable on the modal shifts that might occur (and invariably do not).

Any investment in bus and coach infrastructure should initially be directed at...

—  critically reviewing their routes, interchanges and potential degree of integration;

—  investigating the conversion of mainline bus routes to LR; and

—  reconfiguring services as feeders to nodes, heavy rail (HR) and existing and future Light Rail (LR) or Tram-Train (TT).


One of the implications of the above is that additional investment in buses may never realise the ridership increases that might justify conversion of routes to Light Rail. Their need for subsidy will continue.

The utilisation of LR and/or TT, and the expansion of HR services where possible would generate a modal shift of a considerably greater magnitude. LR has been shown to attract a 25-45% modal share along a corridor—and importantly, mostly from car. Moreover, investment in LR has been shown to generate additional bus, coach and taxi use, and more walking and cycling.

While capital investment in these modes (LR, TT, HR) may appear high, the cost would be less than continuing with inefficient road-based modes (and their environmental costs and other externalities) which are already highly over-capitalised and largely unsustainable.


Hitherto, LR has been considered unaffordable by many cities and towns and dismissed without more than superficial review. However, our Client, TramPower Ltd (www.trampower.co.uk), produces state-of-the-art LR products which are half the cost of those of their global competitors. Their lower capital and operating costs mean that on "commercial" routes (where a high modal share would be secured), there would be a positive Internal Rate of Return that would attract private finance.

With one exception, so-called Light Rail in the UK and in most of Europe has been based on scaled-down heavy rail. It is therefore over-engineered, not light and expensive. TramPower's products will revolutionise the business case for Light Rail globally.

Capital Traffic's research has suggested that, pending pre-feasibility studies and by utilising TramPower products, towns and cities in the UK with more than 60 000 residents could support one or two Light Rail lines. Preliminary work suggests that there may even be a viable scheme for Aberystwyth (28,000 including students).

Rapid construction is a key feature of TramPower products. Subject to planning approvals, privately funded Light Rail could be operating within 3-4y.

TramPower have recently received permission for a demonstration line in Preston, and are developing a planning application for a new line from the city centre to the northeast to a business park and a P + R facility adjacent to the M6.

If deployed widely, Light Rail would contribute to air quality objectives, reduce traffic noise, fumes and congestion, and improve journey times and public transport modal share. Light Rail may also carry freight, which would create a secondary revenue stream for the operator (as well as reducing truck deliveries in central areas).


Because the revenue per passenger-kilometre is so low, few bus operators have been prepared to invest in route and service reviews, or better information design and marketing with other than profitability in mind.

There is probably a case for a more detailed inquiry into the bus industry not hidebound by the ideology of "competition", which has caused so much damage to services out of London. Now that monopolies are largely in control, stability has returned to a marked degree, though at the cost of continually higher fares and restricted services (nights, weekends).

"Showcase" routes and Quality Partnerships are just another way for (local) government to subsidise bus services, with negligible impact on modal share though increased profitability for the private sector operator in most cases. The service ethic that public transport is supposed to exhibit is lacking in many areas of the UK.

Despite a sometimes indifferent public, bus drivers nevertheless offer a dedicated and courteous service under almost any management regime. There is a strong element of professionalism there which ought to be built upon. With no disrespect intended, the tier above (eg service delivery managers) appears to require a more sophisticated level of training in service design and marketing.


The major competitor for buses (and for all other modes) is the private motor vehicle—the least efficient tool that has ever been put into mass production. Future resource constraints will ensure that the more sustainable mass transit modes (ie. not electric vehicles) will dominate the market.

Public transport modal share is most seriously undermined by policies that have allowed free or low-cost parking in urban centres and at workplaces. Attempts to change this have been tentative to date, and ineffectual.

While in some areas there is adequate cooperation between the local authority and bus service providers, other than in London the former are hamstrung by a regulatory and purportedly "competitive" regime that has empowered private sector providers to the detriment of the public interest. The adoption of a London-style model of bus regulation in all areas is recommended.


There is a conceptual blindness within many local authorities which does not allow them to look beyond the traditional answer of 'more roads' to any question about traffic management.

For example...

—  In Weymouth, there is a serviceable rail line that could have been redeveloped at low cost for LR for the Olympics, and beyond, as the spine of a small network (the opportunity remains). No doubt such a scheme would have been considered unaffordable.

—  Instead a "relief" road has been built at a large cost, but undoubtedly deemed to be affordable. It remains to be seen as to what benefits, if any, this road will bring.

—  In South Wales, the M4 Corridor Enhancement Measures Programme (M4 CEM) focuses not on the corridor (defined as the South Wales East-West Corridor in the National Transport Plan), but only the road. The name of the programme is a misnomer.

Yet the most cost-effective methods for increasing the capacity of the Corridor (as defined)   would be...

—  to provide for more home-working using ICT and reduce full-week commuting;

—  to enhance HR passenger and freight services between South Wales and Bristol; and

—  to provide Light Rail between Cardiff and Newport.

Local authorities and Integrated Transport Authorities should be encouraged to develop more expertise in rail and Light Rail planning to overcome what appears to be a serious skills deficit and a policy vacuum. They should also institute appropriate parking controls in off-street locations.


Reliance on buses to provide efficient and frequent services in many areas will be negatively affected by the reduction in Bus Service Operator Grants or other forms of public sector support (fuel duty rebate etc). This would have a serious impact on access to employment and on social inclusion.

The continuing use of government funds to subsidise private sector businesses that seek to maximise profits rather than public utility ought to require a commensurate quid pro quo, which the London model does reasonably well. However, bus routes in London have never been systematically scrutinised, and rationalisation would lead to savings.

Passenger information needs to be radically enhanced, but it is predicated upon near non-existent locational information and often vague or ambiguous directional information. Serious consideration needs to be given to comprehensive information design if the efficiency of movement by any mode in the UK is to be significantly improved.

With respect, the Committee is invited to recommend

—  a thorough inquiry into current and future urban and rural public transport provision;

—  application of the London model of bus regulation throughout the UK in the short-term; and

—  positive consideration of Light Rail for mainline routes in larger towns and cities.

February 2011

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Prepared 11 August 2011