Bus Services Bill [HL]

Written evidence submitted by FirstGroup (BSB 07)

Submission to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee

Written evidence on the Bus Service Bill


1. Many aspects of this Bill are welcome, particularly the emphasis on partnership, which will help FirstGroup build on the many successful partnerships it already in place with a range of local and combined authorities.

2. A central feature of all of our most successful partnerships is their commitment to introduce bus priority measures on their roads and to enforce those measures strongly. This in turn enables b us operators to invest in new low-emission vehicles, better ticketing and enhanced passenger information. So producing a virtuous circle of better performance and more investment.

3. T he Bill is a missed opportunity to recognise the impact congestion has on running good public services and put in place measures which commit all stakeholders to tackling congestion and improving bus priority in our towns and cities. This evidence focuses on this missing aspect of the Bill and how it could be amended to address this shortcoming.

About FirstGroup

4. FirstGroup plc is a leading transport operator in the UK and No rth America. We employ around 11 0,000 people and we transport more than 2. 2 bn passengers every year across our five divisions - First Bus and First Rail here in the UK, and Greyhound, First Transit and First Student in North America .

5. First Bus operates around a fifth of local bus services outside London. We are one of the largest bus operators in the UK with a fleet of approximately 6,200 buses. We employ 17,500 people at around 70 depots. Since 2010 we have invested £455m in more than 2,500 new buses, helping us to improve punctuality, fuel and cost efficiency and reduce our environmental impact. We have introduced mobile ticketing onto all of our networks . We will be rolling out contactless payment across our networks during 2017 and 2018.

6. We serve 40 of the UK’s largest towns and cities , including eight of the 11 most densely populated. The majority of our services operate in city centres and transport people from suburbs into and across conurbations. Thus, our passengers feel most acutely the impact of congestion.

Overview of the problem

7. Buses are a critical enabler of economic growth, with more commuters reliant on the UK national bus network every day than on any other form of public transport. We share the aim of local councils and national Government to get more people out of their cars and using buses .

8. Congestion prevents buses delivering their full potential of providing high quality, attractive services which enable communities to prosper. It is an issue which has not always been the focus of those discussing bus policy and how to improve bus services, yet dealing with it is vital to delivering the reliable services that our passengers and stakeholders expect. ( T he Transport Select Committee’s current inquiry on urban congestion is a very welcome exception to this absence of debate [1] .)

9. Nevertheless, congestion will continue to be an issue inhibiting effective bus services, regardless of the chosen regulatory framework .

10. Congestion is the single biggest problem faced by all bus operators in the UK – not just the delay it causes in itself, but the unpredictability and variability of that delay . Operators are obliged to operate services in accordance with their registered timetables and disciplinary action is taken against those who do not, ultimately leading to license revocation by the Traffic Commissioners . It is worth noting that its significance has been recognised by the Chancellor in his recent Budget, with the introduction of a £690m fund for local councils to tackle urban congestion.

11. More importantly, congestion inhibits bus operators’ ability to run reliable, punctual services. Congestion arises from flows of traffic on roads ( particular ly at junctions ) which exceeds the capacity of the highway. This often has knock-on effects across a wider network, including parallel corridors and throughout city centres (Manchester c ity c entre is now frequently affected by total gridlock in the winter months during the evening peak and early evening) . This means that the time taken for identical bus journeys may fluctuate widely from day to day, o r successive journeys on the same route , may see a doubling of journey time even though they are timed ten minutes (or less) apart . T his ins tability and variability i s a major problem for operators and our passengers .

12. Furthermore, r esearch undertaken by Transport Focus in its annual Bus Passenger Survey has found that passengers are consistently less satisfied with service punctuality than they are with other aspects of bus services. In th e latest survey , satisfaction with punctuality ranged from 64% to 84%; whereas overall satisfaction ranged from 79% to 94% .

13. Professor David Begg’s recent report [2] for Greener Journeys also illustrated the significance of congestion and its adverse effects on the economy and the environment. He found that over the last 50 years, bus journey times have increased by almost 50% in the more congested urban areas; and estimated that, had this growth in congestion not happened there "would arguably be between 48% and 70% more fare paying bus passenger journeys today". Crucially, he also found a direct correlation between operating speeds and patronage: a 10% decrease in speed reduces patronage by at least 10%.

14. For operators, in the absence of new bus priority measures, in order to maintain our timetable in the face of increased congestion, we often need to add additional vehicles to our service. For instance, in the last five years we have needed to add (on a like for like basis, to maintain frequencies) 18 vehicles in Manchester and 39 vehicles in Bristol – some at the expense of services in more rural areas.

15. Not only is punctuality/reliability one of the most important factors that influences people’s decision to take the bus, but slow buses are bad for our city economies. Research from Leeds University has shown that if the trend for bus journey times increasing by almost 1% per annum continues we can expect to continue to lose access to around 5,000 jobs per year as a consequence [3] . Also slow buses are bad for air quality. In heavy congestion, tailpipe emissions can be increased by a factor of three or four [4] .

Solutions to congestion: bus priority

16. Close working with local highway authorities is a pre-requisite for providing reliable, well-used bus services. To coin a parallel with rail, councils are bus operators’ Network Rail, providing the infrastructure on which we operate. Ultimately, they have responsibility for introducing bus priority measures (which is why we find a strong working relationship with local councils is a pre-requisite for providing excellent bus services) .

17. Measures to tackle congestion and give buses priority need not be expensive to be effective, but they will not be effective unless they are maintained and enforced. Bu s priority measure s can take a number of forms. These include :

· bus lanes

· priority for buses at junctions and traffic signals

· guided busways

· car-free zones

· parking controls, car parking zones, restrictive car park pricing in city centres

· Park and Ride schemes

· road pricing

18. Not all of these measures will be appropriate for all areas (particularly road pricing), but all can play a part in the right context. Bus priority measures are most effective where they offer continuous priority over considerable distances, and less effective where they stop short of junctions and are interrupted by measures designed to assist other road users . More detail on the different priority measures we have developed with councils in our operating areas is available in our evid e nce to the TSC urban congestion inquiry; two examples are worth citing.

19. In Leeds, whilst average bus speed has fallen by three per cent at peak times since 2012 , speeds on routes 40/56 which use the East Leeds guided busway have remained constant . Leeds City Council has just announced a major commitment to improving conditions for buses in the city with extensive priority on five major corridors and two new Park & Ride sites designed to achieve a doubling in bus use by 2026 – this is very much welcomed [5] . First West Yorkshire has responded by committing to invest over £71m to provide 284 new ultra-low emission buses by 2020.

20. Our Vantage service, which links Leigh with Manchester city centre , provides an excellent example of how congestion can be alleviated by effective bus priority. This guided busway covers 4.5 miles of a 14-mile route and the Vantage service provides quicker and more punctual journeys (as well as a more comfortable ride than possible on normal road surfaces ) . The a verage journey time saving is 20 minutes (from 80 minutes to 60 minutes at peak times; from 70 to 50 in off-peak). The service has proved extremely popular; we have just carried our two millionth passengers a couple of weeks short of our first year of operation. Passenger numbers average around 47,000 a week, up from 28,000 a week at the start of operation in April 2016 (an increase of 166%).

Amendments to the bill

21. In order to ensure that tackling congestion is a central feature of all efforts to build better bus services, we would advocate amending the Bill so that a ny local authority taking advantage of new powers in the Bill (whether advanced quality partnerships, franchising or enhanced partnership) should be required to put in place a Bus Performance Strategy , a Performance Improvement Partnership and appropriate metrics , underpinned by statutory guidance .

22. The requirement for local authorities to have mandatory Bus Strategies was abolished in the Local Transport Act 2008. Th ey ensured that highway authorities had considered opportunities to promote bus priority and allowed operators and other interested parties the opportunity to feed into that process of consideration. This fits well within the spirit of partnership and responsibility between local authorities and bus operators which the Bill fosters .

23. Performance Improvement Partnerships can commit both partners to a range of measures designed to improve services across a number of metrics , including:

· Bus punctuality and reliability

· Modal share for bus

· Scope of network, including commercial and tendered/supported services

· Bus e missions

· Passenger information

24. In terms of measuring improvements in congestion, we would support metrics which focus on improved journey times and average speeds on specific corridors.

25. This already happens in the best authorities, but too many authorities pay lip service to the bus performance agenda or worse. By placing a duty on authorities to develop bus performance strategies and partnerships, with the detail fleshed out in statutory guidance, the Bill can reinforce expectations of local government and operators to work together for their mutual benefit and ultimately for the benefit of passengers.

Other issues

26. As indicated, this evidence has purposefully focused on congestion and urges , as a priority , amendments to ensure the Bill is not silent on the issue. However, there are some miscellaneous areas for amendment towards which we would direct the Committee’s attention:

27. Independence of franchise scheme auditors : given the considerable levels of financial and operational commitment and risk potentially at stake with the introduction of franchising schemes, it is important that the independence of auditors is clarified on the face of the Bill. We would urge an amendment that ensures a truly independent auditor by ruling out the use of existing auditor of the franchising authoritie s’ accounts.

28. Public benefits of franchising : franchising authorities' assessments of proposed franchise schemes should set out the benefits that the scheme will bring to passengers which cannot be delivered through other mechanisms. This will help to demonstrate to council taxpayers and other stakeholders why the potential cost and upheaval of franchising is necessary to achieve the authorities’ goals. Given this would presumably be the rationale for any franchising proposal, this should not be an onerous burden on those councils.

29. Meaningful consultation : authorities making any new scheme (whether partnership or franchising) should re-consult on their proposals if they make significant changes following consultation. This will allow them to fully understand the impact of their revised proposals on stakeholders.

30. Statute of limitations: operators, like all businesses, require a degree of certainty and stability in order to invest adequately in their business and grow bus patronage. Thus we would argue that, following an unsuccessful attempt to introduce a franchising scheme, the authority should be prevented from attempting to introduce another franchise scheme within a certain time period, unless specifically permitted by order of the Secretary of State ( in the case say of a newly elected Mayor with a fresh agenda and clear mandate).


31. For many years, and through several acts of legislation including the Bus Services Bill , there has been a focus on structural change to improve bus services. Whatever the merit or otherwise of these reforms, the provision of bus services will not automatically deliver improvements in bus use without a concerted effort by highway authorities and their partners to tackle congestion. Changing the way buses are owned and operated will not, by and of itself, tackle congestion and thus improve bus services which are more attractive to bus users and non-users alike.

32. In its current form, the absence of any focus on congestion it is a significant absence from this Bill. We would urge the Bill Committee to remedy this in the way we have outlined above or through amendments of equivalent effect .

March 2017

[1] FirstGroup’s evidence to the TSC inquiry can be found here: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/transport-committee/urban-congestion/written/44264.html

[2] The Impact of Congestion on Bus Pass engers by David Begg, Greener Journeys, 2016: http://www.greenerjourneys.com/publication/the-impact-of-congestion-on-bus-passengers/

[3] Daniel Johnson, Institute for Transport Studies, Leeds University [Source: Begg report. ibid]

[4] Environmental Factors in Intelligent Transport Systems, Prof Margaret Bell. IEE Proceedings: Intelligent Transport Systems, Vol 153 Issue 2, 2006 [Source: Begg report. ibid]

[5] Leeds Public Transport Investment Programme, published 6 Dec 16: http://democracy.leeds.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=59880#mgDocuments


Prepared 15th March 2017