Lobby group CBT is lamenting the ‘crisis’ facing subsidised local bus services, but commercially-operated services are the future

‘Buses in Crisis’ – so screams out the headline from the Campaign for Better Transport’s report into the state of supported bus networks across the country. The media picked up on this report enthusiastically, spreading the sense of impending doom, of buses vanishing from our streets, of residents left without anything but a taxi to get them from home to wherever they need to go.

Newspaper picture editors delved into their libraries for pictures of buses – The Independent managed to find a lovely picture of two Southern National-liveried Mercedes minibuses to represent the bus industry’s product.

For once, it was a lobby group that was spreading the tales of woe, not the industry which appears to have most to lose from spending cuts. Generally the bus industry hasn’t spread predictions of impending disaster. As I have written before, bus operators have got their heads down, faced cuts in Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) and tenders, rises in National Insurance and fuel costs, and found ways to survive. While commercial mileage may have been removed in areas, in many cases this has been a due (rather than overdue) opportunity to examine the demand against supply, and to undertake a bit of good housekeeping. What we should not lose sight of, is the continuing growth in commercial networks where operators are continuing to deliver high quality, customer driven product.

The fact is that buses are not in crisis, the bus industry is not in crisis. It is true that operators who rely upon non-commercial, supported services are seeing their business base waste away, and in some cases mid-way through contracts and in big leaps. But the bus industry is delivering better commercial bus networks and products in many areas of the country, innovating with technology, investing in new vehicles, and indeed experimenting with lower fares and different fare offers to boost the customer base.

Working in Cornwall of late, the reality of funding cuts to supported journeys brings home some interesting comparisons. Look at the timetables from around the time of privatisation and deregulation, and the frequencies are much lower than those in more recent times.

Rural Bus Grant was a good tool for providing more comprehensive rural networks, and for stimulating demand. It never drove demand to anywhere near financial viability. Kickstart may have had better results to be fair.

We hear little of bus operators campaigning for supported routes. Is it simply that, having examined our own costs for years, worked hard to drive commercial growth, we can generally see the pointlessness of arguing for the least-used supported routes? Can we see the disproportionate cost per passenger of these routes that are tendered to us? The ‘austerity years’ appear to me, if nothing else, to at least have made people finally believe that public spending does in fact involve spending real money that is in very short supply – that there is no place to berate every local government cut, because we finally recognise that the money has, quite literally run out.

More than ever there is a clear divergence in the work that bus operators undertake. Our commercial networks are now highly commercial. There may be peripheral routes that require some minority part funding, but generally operators are very clear about their ‘core’ networks. More importantly, we are clear that we have to make them work – that we can’t expect any extra funding, and that the future of these networks lies in our own hands.

For non-commercial, supported networks, these now stand out as being very much provided at the sole and arbitrary discretion of local councils. Nothing can be taken for granted, either by users or by operators. Perhaps at last, these networks will be properly seen for what they are – ‘social services’ – services which in reality should and will be measured against other social need provision. As an industry we have to recognise this situation. In the short term there is little likelihood of bus services being given priority over education, social care and fire and rescue services. In the longer term, there is little likelihood of funding returning.

My own prognosis is that we will see more local, car and community based solutions to rural travel – the days of £100k Optare Solos burning 10mpg for a handful of local residents to travel once or twice a week are over, and in the close examination of costs, more appropriate provision for travel will have to be invented and developed.

 

This article, and many others, appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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