Bus Back Burning

Every day, invitations to online seminars appear in my email or elsewhere requesting my presence at events discussing Bus Back Better (BBB), Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIP), Mobilitiy As A Service (MaaS), Dynamic Demand Resposive Transport (DDRT) or some other current buzzphrase (with accompanying acronym) which is going to be the magic panacea to make everything brilliant in the passenger transport industry.

The trouble is that i don’t think we’re ready for this seismic change. Passenger usage of most bus and rail services which existed before Covid has not yet returned to a level where services are viable, let alone ready to be improved. The government has set ridiculously short timeframes, during which operators and local transport authorities are expected to produce detailed plans of how they’re going to spend huge sums of money making everything better within three years so that services will never need funding every again. Competent authorities local to us have produced decent action plans of what they intend to do, whilst others have engaged hugely expensive consultants from the likes of Atkins

There have been major issues facing local bus services for many years, some of which are attributable to government. Legislation has made PSVs massively more complex and they consume more fuel than comparable vehicles 25 years ago. OpenBusData requires us to spend significant sums of money on facilities which will offer very limited gains for those of us providing occasional bus services to sparse rural areas. Workplace pensions have added an extra tax on employment being borne by the employers. For an industry renown for working on tiny margins of huge turnover, there is only so much more that can be given from the bottom line before the losses start mounting up. At the same time, socialist leaning commentators are busy blaming evil capitalist bus companies for every failing they’re percieved to have made.

Post Covid, off peak private traffic has quickly returned to levels observed prior to the pandemic. This has made reliability and punctuality more difficult to achieve for the remaining passengers who are still travelling by bus. Roadworks signed off by local councils are ever more disruptive. Despite B&NES slapping their own backs and hailing their permit scheme a huge success, unnecessary closures and works are still happening too often and for far too long.

Peak hour passenger usage has not returned (to bus or rail) as city centre workers are those most likely to be continuing working from home whilst their employers consider whether the expensive city centre office space is really a good use of funds. As a result, the passengers who have traditionally made the bulk of the contributions to the farebox aren’t there and previously strong commercial bus services remain a very long way from returning to viability.

Driving staff are increasingly hard to come by. As larger operators throw their scheduling over to automated scheduling systems, drivers become disillusioned with being milked dry for every minute of the day and take more reasonable work elsewhere. Once drivers have HGV licences and are earning £25+ an hour without the constant earbending often experienced by the urban bus driver, it is difficult to ever see them returning. Stagecoach West are currently cancelling some 25-30 journeys a day around North Bristol and Yate alone. Passengers who have a choice in using an alternative mode of transport will be doing so long before Stagecoach have addressed their driver issue. Those passengers will be very difficult to attract back to a mode of travel which has failed them.

So you’ll have to excuse my lack of enthusiasm in the likes of tech companies such as City Science and Urbanthings proclaiming they’re going to revolutionise public transport. We need to first stabilise the industry and establish what demand is going to look like in the future before introducing seismic changes. At the moment local and central government is intent on making plans to bulldoze a whole industry in order to build on quicksand which will quickly swallow up all the money being offered and leave nothing to show for it…

…except for a lot of very rich consultants and tech experts having new kitchens fitted in their Hertfordshire mansions.

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