Part of a story

This Monday, the BBC aired a Panorama documentary on Britain’s Bus Crisis (their words, not mine). It is available to watch on iPlayer here.

Richard Bilton followed a number of journeys across the North from Redcar to Blackpool and (spoiler alert) came to the disappointing conclusion that the system isn’t working.

Lets look at some of the things that weren’t working:

Council operated minibuses were featured providing a number of rural routes in the North East. Some had insufficient capacity, all used step entrance vehicles and one journey had a driver who didn’t know where he was going. These vehicles are operated by their respective councils – the organisations whom the programme would later suggest could have full control over the entire network, yet there was no suggestion that this could be a really poor idea.

Aren’t buses expensive compared to London? Yes, they can be. Fares outside of London tend to reflect the cost of actually providing the service, and also subsidising the concessionary fare scheme.

Isn’t ticketing a mess in Manchester? Not really, because there is an all operator ticket for buses and trams already available, which was conveniently ignored.

Oh, why can’t we have frequent buses for everyone? Bluntly, because there isn’t enough demand. And therein lies a big clue to something that wasn’t mentioned at all – costs of provision. Twenty years ago, i could have bought a new 30 seat bus for £50,000 (now nearing £150,000). Insurance would have cost maybe £2,000 a year (now around £5,000 a year). Diesel cost around 80p per litre, which doesn’t sound massively cheaper for two decades ago (compared to £1.20 today), but that 30 seat bus would do around 18 miles per gallon, compared to around 8-12 now. Buying a new bus in 2000 would also give you something that would be usable and maintainable in a normal cycle of use, something which appears to be a challenge under modern emissions and accessibility regulations.

And what about the driver? Well, you’d pay them each week or month and generally they’d be pleased with life. There was no faff concerning workplace pensions and the like burdened upon the employer. Drivers required an appropriate licence, rather than a licence, Driver CPC and appropriate DBS clearance. Average driving wages were probably about half of their current levels in 2000.

What about supposed benefits to the bus industry? Bus Service Operator’s Grant (formerly Fuel Duty Rebate) has become so arduous to claim (now requiring certification by a chartered accountant) that it simply isn’t worth bothering for smaller commercial operators (myself included).

Make no mistake – the cost of providing a bus and driver to operate a service has increased massively over the past 20 years. At the same time, running a car has remained remarkably static, or even got cheaper in real terms. Insurance prices have barely changed. Fuel has not increased beyond inflation. Leasing arrangements make ownership of plush new motors available to anyone with vaguely reasonable credit score. So many problems with buses in urban areas are caused by delays as a result of this boom in cheap private transport. We need to get some of these vehicles off the roads if we want more reliable buses. Current policy is not achieving this.

As an industry, we have been regulated in to requiring higher costing equipment to provide our services. As supported service budgets disappear and concessionary fares are frozen, the only people to whom we can pass these costs on is the fare paying passenger. Increased pricing reduces demand and service cuts result. Something has to break this cycle before we can blossom again as an industry, and local government regulation is not the answer.

So next time, i’d appreciate it if documentary makers would recognise the bomb craters in the playing field before criticising the strikers for not scoring enough goals.

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