Avoiding ambiguities in common transport parlance

George Shillibeer provided the first omnibus service in London in 1829

We still create confusion about some of the key means of transport simply because of the nomenclature we use. Everyday descriptions such as ‘bus’ conjure up different images to different people, some of which may be hampering the evolution of passenger transport. Perhaps the first problem area is ‘public transport’ which has connotations of other public institutions such as libraries and toilets which are used only if necessary. The term ‘passenger transport’ is more personable but there remains a stigma that it is hard to shift.

Finding the omnibus

The origins of ‘bus’ can be traced to 19th Century France: Stanilas Baudry operated a horse vehicle between Nantes and the suburb of Richebourg where he owned hot baths. Near the Nantes terminus was a grocer’s shop owned by M Omnes, calling his shop ‘Omnes Omnibus’. Baudry adopted the name ‘L’Entreprise des Omnibus’ for his new coach services on ten routes through Paris. The epithet transferred to England with George Shillibeer who had been a coach-builder in Paris and provided the first omnibus service in London in 1829. The Latin ‘omnibus’ describes the function of the bus well as being transport available for everyone. The derivation of ‘bus’ could arguably be transitioning in the same way that ‘phone’ is overtaking ‘telephone’ and losing its apostrophe; properly, phone is ’phone and bus is ’bus.

What used to be termed a railway or rail station is increasingly referred to as a train station

There are some more disturbing developments though in the lexicon of the modern railway. What used to be termed a railway or rail station is increasingly referred to as a train station and worse, ‘train line’ seems to be a creeping replacement for ‘railway’. While ‘permanent way’ may seem antiquated, it still sounds better than ‘train track’. Inevitably there is a wide range of opinions and the question is whether or not it matters, the evolution of language reflecting many aspects of modern life. This has reached a point where some television dramas are incomprehensible or maybe I am not down on the street as much as others. Further confusion reigns on the railway which appears not to be comfortable with what the rolling stock is called. Sometimes we term them ‘coaches’ or ‘carriages’ (from road coaches) or abbreviated to ‘cars’. Even in the birthplace of the railway, we have never really settled on common terminology.

Lack of continuity

The same problems arise for road transport. The majority of the travelling public have some idea what a bus is and what a coach is due to their different type of function. However, the difference isn’t particularly clear, not least because our American friends muddy the waters by referring to coaches as buses; the inconsistency is probably never going to be resolved. There are other horrors such as ‘signage’, mis-uses of ‘alternate’ and some perfectly reasonable terms morphing into verbs e.g. ‘impacting’. Perhaps on the journey we need to reach out beyond our hygiene factors piece, revert to boilerplate and re-mode to create a soft landing – I don’t know what it means either.

Of more significance is what the term ‘bus’ brings to mind. For many, it is something that conveys them to work or for other purposes quite satisfactorily. For the car-dependant majority, it raises images of something to be avoided being poor quality, unreliable and smelly; to them the bus is something that gets in their way. We can be reassured that this image is some way from the reality particularly with buses accessible for virtually everyone and reduced emissions for which the technology has outstripped car manufacturers by a mile. Maybe that should be 1.6 kilometres but we have been wrestling with metrication for decades and largely failing. On the railway, we have the dilemma that everything was built to imperial standards such as 60 feet rail panel lengths with distances and radii in miles and chains. Having adopted international units of measurement, Network Rail wrestles with the legacy of the railway builders on a daily basis.

Capturing an image

The populist view of the bus remains a default to the London Routemaster which is not quite the image that most operators would want to project in the 21st Century. There may be some missed opportunities here – I recall First’s introduction of three axle buses in Glasgow which could have been imaginatively marketed but instead looked much like everything else to the layperson. There have been some attempts to update the popular psyche. London’s New Routemaster is unlikely to be followed by a ‘New Atlantean’, ‘New Wulfrunian’ or similar. The bus also recalls experiences best left in the past such as the ‘school bus’ which for many was a necessary evil rather than something to look forward to using. The same goes for what is euphemistically called ‘rail replacement road transport’ (i.e. bus) that brings fear and trepidation, conveying an image of tedious and uncomfortable journeys that leave behind anyone with a pushchair or bike; rail replacement has become transport of last resort.

Rail replacement has become transport of last resort

The concept of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is gaining a foothold in the UK, following on from some spectacular applications around the world. BRT aims to offer faster, unimpeded, high-quality journeys but surely this is what normal buses should be doing? It would appear that the traditional bus has faded to become an offer that is slow and unappealing, neglected until it becomes deserving of the contempt that so many ascribe to it. In many less populated areas, the bus service has withered away entirely, becoming even more of an irrelevance that it was when it staggered on, supported by any subsidy available. Sadly, bus services and the people who provide them have lost the respect they deserve.

Every so often, a new dawn is heralded under a heading of ‘rapid transit’ or similar. The reality is that a ground-breaking concept usually ends up being a bus although this is nothing to be ashamed of. If only we could avoid the heart-searching before we realise that the concept of a good bus network actually addresses unapologetically what is needed. A recent example is the Mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough combined authority who promised a new rapid transit system which is likely to materialise as a bus network. Cambridgeshire’s busways have been hugely successful in meeting emerging demands, so far not involving tunnels under the city centre as the Mayor envisages. The point is that busway services spill out beyond the segregated sections of route to draw in users from a variety of places within a wider transport strategy. Bus doesn’t have to be the poor relation but so far BRT has been the best way to convey what a modern bus service should be.
ome, buses continue to be the poor relation.


Various attempts have been made to call bus services something different. We have ‘Eclipse’ and ‘The Star’ in Hampshire, ‘Vantage’ and ‘The Witch Way’ in the north west and many other examples which aim to lift public perceptions of bus services. This sort of marketing may involve whole networks being re-branded to present a fresh image. Such initiatives appear to work, putting a new face on the traditional product although of course a comprehensive improvement is needed of which branding is a part. For example, City Red services in Southampton are viewed rather more positively by the locals than the previous offer although First continues to provide them.

The same is true of ticketing products. Transport for London’s Oyster card gave a new name for a trusted product. Naming a multi-modal smart card after maritime creatures shows that there are different ways of presenting something superficially dull. In other areas we have everything from ‘The key’ to ‘Mango’ and ‘Kangaroo’. The names bring some relief to the barrier to passenger transport use that is finding out what ticket to purchase. It is a bright means of securing customer dialogue and loyalty. Essentially there is a great deal in a name.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

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