Bircham Dyson Bell’s Aaron Nelson considers how bus operators can be freed to invest in long term BRT infrastructure.

Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) made the national news this month thanks to the opening of the busway in Cambridgeshire. The first four days of operation have seen more than 20,000 journeys along its 16-mile route.

“The opening of the busway should be welcomed by all those involved with the development and promotion of BRT schemes” explains Aaron Nelson, associate, Bircham Dyson Bell LLP. “It’s a nice headline that it’s the world’s longest guided busway, but what’s more important is that it will provide a rapid, reliable and frequent service between Cambridge and its surrounding settlements, and to important local facilities like the Science Park and Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Local authorities, looking for solutions to congestion in their own areas, can now look to the busway to see what can be achieved with this technology.”

The busway joins a growing number of BRT schemes in the UK. There are guided systems in Crawley and Leeds (although over shorter distances than in Cambridgeshire) and unguided systems in Dartford, York, Swansea and other towns and cities. What makes them all “BRT” is that they offer something more than a normal scheduled bus service, whether that is bespoke infrastructure like a busway, segregation from or priority over normal traffic, a higher specification of vehicle, an “express” service, innovative ticketing, or a combination of these factors.

The range of BRT schemes, their flexibility and the fact they can be cheaper to implement than light rail can appeal to local authorities seeking to deliver improvements in urban transit in economically difficult times. But many local authorities struggle to attract investment from the private sector, particularly from bus operators – those who would ultimately run vehicles on the BRT system – in the early stages of scheme development.

“Local authorities and local transport authorities have to involve the bus operators in the provision of BRT schemes, because they are prohibited from running buses themselves.” says Nelson. “But the bus operators aren’t always enthusiastic to get involved with the development of a scheme like the one in Cambridge because of the length of time it takes to complete and the money they would have to invest into the project.”

Even where there is a degree of enthusiasm to get involved, the deregulated nature of the bus industry often operates to dissuade bus operators. The open access structure for scheduled services means that any bus operator who invests in a scheme to improve the route of its own services is providing funding for a route that must also be made available to its competitors. This makes it difficult for bus operators to justify investing in long term route improvements.

The changes made to bus regulation in the Local Transport Act 2008 make it easier for councils and bus operators to cooperate to provide a bus service without having to resort to a statutory Quality Partnership Schemes (QPS) or Quality Contract Schemes (QCS). The first voluntary partnership agreements, signed this year, have seen bus companies cooperate with the local authority on both ticketing and timetabling.
But there are no proposals as yet for a partnership between a local authority and a bus operator to provide a long term investment in the funding of route improvements or of new infrastructure, like Cambridgeshire’s Busway.

“A shift in regulation to give bus operators the security to get involved in the development of BRT schemes would give local authorities another avenue to explore” concludes Nelson. “Partnerships between the bus companies and local authorities on ticketing and timetables are underway now – and I’m sure local authorities would be delighted to see the bus operators take a real long term stake in the provision of route improvements, with all the increases in patronage and benefits to passengers that would bring.”

This story appeared in the latest issue of Passenger Transport. Click here to subscribe.