Are buses on the verge of a breakthrough?

Are buses on the verge of a breakthrough?

Brexit is the B-word that dominates political conversations right now, but those of us in the transport sector have noticed that the Prime Minister regularly utters another one – buses.

This is not normal. Buses haven’t been given the attention they deserve from politicians. Some Prime Ministers have come and gone without ever mentioning them – and some Secretaries of State for Transport have come close to achieving the same thing. That’s odd when you consider that they carry more people in the UK than all other modes of public transport combined.

Boris Johnson can’t stop himself from talking about buses. He began in June by claiming that he likes to transform wine crates into model buses in his spare time – but he has subsequently made a transformation of local bus services a central policy objective for his government.

Are buses on the verge of a breakthrough? Not since John Prescott held the office of Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, some 20 years ago, have buses had a champion at a high level in Government.

In his speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last week, Johnson confessed to being “a bit of a bus nut”.

We want to make our buses cleaner, greener, zero carbon, zero emission, across the country, with contactless payment by card or by phone, so that people want to use those services, we get the cars off the roads, we reduce congestion and we reduce pollution,” he told the party faithful.

A good [bus] service can make all the difference to your job, to your life, to your ability to get to the doctor, the liveability of your town or your village, and indeed to your ability to stay there, and start a family, have a business there.”

These words are now being backed up by actions. Chancellor Sajid Javid allocated an extra £220m to buses in his Spending Review. And last week the Department for Transport announced how that money will be used to take “the first steps in a bus revolution” in England.

This revolution will see new low-fare, high-frequency ‘Superbus’ networks, Britain’s first all-electric bus town and the reversal of “many” service cuts.

The government’s commitments include:

  • A National Bus strategy focussed on passenger priorities;
  • A review of £250m-a-year Bus service Operators Grant (BSOG) to ensure it supports the environment and improved passenger journeys;
  • A £20m investment in bus priority measures in the west Midlands;
  • All new road investments receiving government funding to explicitly address bus priority measures to improve bus journey times and reliability;
  • Refreshing the government’s guidance to local authorities to provide up to date advice on prioritising vehicles which can carry the most people;
  • Investing up to £50m to deliver Britain’s first all-electric bus town/city;
  • Improving information for bus passengers through new digital services and at bus stops;
  • Challenging industry to deliver a campaign to attract people to buses;
  • Incentivising multi-operator ticketing with lower fares;
  • Trialling new ‘Superbus’ network approach to deliver low fare, high frequency services and funding a four-year pilot of a lower fare network in Cornwall;
  • £30m extra bus funding to be paid direct to local authorities to enable them to improve current bus services or restore lost services;
  • £20m to support demand responsive services in rural and suburban areas.

The announcement was also welcomed by the Urban Transport Group. “It’s great that leading politicians across the political spectrum are now making
the future of the bus into a headline rather than a footnote,” said Stephen Edwards, chair of the Urban Transport Group and executive director of South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. “Rightly so, as the bus is both the main form of public transport and the one in the biggest trouble.”

Responding on behalf of bus operators, Confederation of Passenger Transport chief executive Graham Vidler hailed the announcement as “excellent news for bus passengers”. He said that the lack of a national strategy had to date “restricted innovation and resulted in piecemeal, often uncoordinated, investment”.

About the Author

This post was written by Robert Jack. Robert is Managing Editor and Publisher of Passenger Transport. He has worked as a journalist, editor and publisher in the passenger transport sector for 18 years. He has played a key role in many transport-related conferences and events.

Robert Jack

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