Connections & Commerces

This was something i started writing back in early November having had the seed of the idea planted by Graham Ellis’ post on Option247. In tidying things up at the end of the year, i decided to finish it off and merge it with another stub of a post about ticketing, but hopefully it still pulls together some relevant points.

Rethinking Connections…

Some campaigners are very keen on bus connections with railway services. In principal, it should be a relatively simple goal to achieve, but in practice there are far more obstacles than might first be percieved.

This post has been inspired by the Melksham Bus User Group‘s look at bus and train connections in the town. Thanks to Graham Ellis of Option247 for sharing it. I’ll preface this by saying that although Citistar has never operated a service marketed as offering rail connections, i have provided them as a driver and bid on contracts to provide them.

1: Well the Europeans manage it.
Railway stations are often focal points of local bus services around Europe (particularly Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and France). It is fairly common to find the bus station or terminus located adjacent to the railway station, particularly in provincial towns. The down side to such an arrangement is that sometimes services don’t serve other target destinations as well as commercially motivated ones do. Town centres and Supermarkets tend to get served if they are on the line of service, but it isn’t uncommon for urban and interurban services not to serve them if the logical route to the terminus doesn’t pass them.

Part of the reason why rail-bus interchanges happen so much on the continent is because they are far better established. Where reliable interchanges are a habit which has been formed over generations, support for them can be shown as genuinely tangible. In the UK, much of our transport funding comes from short term funding (perhaps from housing developments or government project cash) and can rarely be sustained beyond four or five years at most.

2: Early mornings.
How early should a connecting service start? The first train of the day? The first train which arrives at a tangible destination at an appropriate time for employment? This can be a really difficult question to answer. Whilst the traffic levels make very early morning connections, demand from passengers is unlikely to be sustainably high.

3: Late finishes.
In a similar vein to the previous question – How late do connecting services run? Last train of the day? Take a town like Westbury where the final trains of the day tend to terminate around midnight, is it reasonable to expect that connecting bus services will still be running to connect with them?

4: Rethinking the long day.
Whilst this post isn’t specificially concerning Wiltshire, their style of contracting where buses provided by independent contractors are often scheduled to use every minute a driver can legally work over the course of a day does not lend itself well to providing both morning and evening rail connections. It isn’t reasonable to expect the same driver who takes you to your train at 0615 to bring you back home at 7 or 8pm.

The rising cost of appropriately qualified and competent staff to pilot buses probably make any duty which involves a second driver prohibitively expensive, particularly when you consider that extending the hours of operation for an independent operator also involves extends the hours for supervision and support for breakdowns.

5: Rethinking flexibility.
A personal opinion that i’ve held for several years is that evening services connecting with trains would be better off running a flexible rather than fixed route. In somewhere like Melksham, there could be a vague order in which areas are served with the bus serving those point to drop passengers off as required. I’m sure taxi drivers would hate this concept, but in terms of providing the most useful service, having a bus waiting by the station to go wherever it is required would seem the best use of resources to me.

6: Ticketing is impossible.
2018 has been an extraordinarily frustrating year for ticketing agreements. We now find ourselves (as operators) at a situation where the bus ticketing systems in the Avon area could become incredibly simple, but it appears that some representatives of one operator are convinced that it cannot be done legally within the framework of the current Competition law and thus the project has stalled. Despite the will of operators and the WECAvon councils to deliver such a scheme (which would be an open goal to score numerous brownie points with passengers), it looks increasingly unlikely that it will be permitted to happen.

The problem is that competition law gets very tricky around this matter. Whilst the government are telling us that they want operator led, integrated transport services, they also lumber us with competition regulations which are unfit for purpose and do not encourage constructive collaboration for fears that bus operators may work as a cartel. Even the process of re-aligning AvonRider tickets to the same prices as current single operator equivalents is fraught with dangers of allegations (and potential legal battles) over price fixing. This is before we get to the ludicrous situtation of political representatives screaming that they want competition as soon as a bus company fails to deliver everything they want.

Nobody seems to mind in London where prices are fixed. And as politicians and left wing pressure groups keep telling us, the London system is better (and funded around 100 times more per capita than public transport elsewhere in the country, although everyone seems to forget that fact).

Attempting to add rail providers in to the AvonRider ticket family has added another hurdle and prospects of success are now sadly fading away in to the background. Schemes like PlusBus are simply inaccessible to the independent operator unless we are obliged to accept them by contract. There is scarcely any hope of smaller bus operators ever seeing any revenue from the massively overcomplicated melee of the railways’ protectionist revenue scheme.

I believe there are enough serious issues which need overcoming before we can provide more continental style integrated road and rail passenger transport services. The issues are almost entirely down to the regulatory bodies and the railway industry (whose management seems to move at a glacial pace). Such services cannnot (and will not) exist without sustainable, long term funding as part of a strategy because they will not generate huge levels of trade overnight. It is also likely that they will need proper funding in the long term due to revenue arrangements. If the public will is really there for such services to exist, then the public need to make their councillors and MPs aware of it in order that appropriate, long term measures are put in place to support them.

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