There is a welcome and overdue revolution in the air for the world of bus operations, aimed at raising standards, driving up passenger numbers and reversing the deregulation introduced with the 1985 Transport Act, now widely seen as an unmitigated failure.
The Bus Services Bill, heralded by the last Queen’s Speech, is currently at Report Stage in the House of Lords.
The Government is seeking to improve the quality of bus services and increase passenger numbers in order to reduce the carbon footprint of local travel, reduce congestion and improve air quality.
Buses are heavily used in some areas but are less popular in others. They are most heavily used in London.
The difference is stark. Whilst 2.36 billion bus journeys were recorded in London during 2014/15, this exceeded the 2.28 billion recorded in whole of the rest of England! However, it should be recalled that the 1985 Act only deregulated services outside the capital.
The Government believes that if services are improved by reintroducing a level of public control, people will use them. They have pointed out that the average annual number of bus journey per head of population outside London is about 50. However, in areas of good, reliable services, such as Brighton and Nottingham, the number exceeds 150.
The intention of the Bill is to introduce policies which will increase frequencies, improve value for money, raise standards and ensure more buses turn up when they are supposed to.
When it comes to the ‘how’, the Government says it aims to ‘make bus services more attractive and benefit passengers, helping to improve patronage’.
New powers would allow elected mayors and local authorities to exploit the tactics that have been shown to drive up bus use, ie to:
- demand higher fleet standards from bus operators, with more comfort, better online connectivity and improved disabled access;
- set improved standards for service frequencies, especially at evenings and weekends;
- reduce the isolation of rural communities;
- provide more effective online timetabling and real time information about when buses will arrive;
- introduce contactless ticketing methods for easier payment;
- require new discount structures, for example for apprentices and jobseekers;
- better connect the places where people live to places of work.
This will effectively give local authorities the same powers as have been available to, and successful for, the Mayor of London and Transport for London.
From the Lords, the Bill will pass to the House of Commons. There is rumoured to be a desire to make rapid progress so that it is on the statute book in time for the ‘Metro Mayor’ elections, including that in the West Midlands, due to take place in May next year.
More detail is available on the Government website.