2013 – A curate’s egg of a year!

I think 2013 will go down in the memory as something of a curate’s egg as far as the bus and coach industry is concerned. Curate’s egg? – good in parts. The Government, or at least Chancellor George Osborne, spent much of the year telling us that the economy was improving and things were getting better, though I’m not sure anyone in this industry believes it. Local councils, thanks to three years of heavily reduced Government funding and caps on Council Tax, have seen their ability to fund vital bus services under severe pressure and the effects of those cuts are beginning to be seen. Bus usage has stayed more or less level for the last few years but this year there was a drop – even in London. I venture that we haven’t seen anything yet. The latest council funding announcements by the Government have sent Councils across the country into panic and bus services are in the firing line. Sadly, I predict that future annual reviews will record a continuing decline in bus passengers as more and more services are withdrawn. To me the bus industry is undergoing its own Beeching Plan, (coincidentally published 50 years ago this year) only this time the Government has tried to make sure the blame will fall on local councils and bus companies, rather than them.

It has been a year of reports and statements about how the bus services of the nation can be improved, much of it ill informed and inaccurate. With the exception of the West Midlands ITA, we are going to see the other English Integrated Transport Authorities follow Greater Manchester and combine their integrated transport responsibilities with those for economic development and regeneration to form Combined Authorities, probably by April. Will they be any better? The Jury is out? Good things are happening in South Yorkshire where partnership is working, bad things are happening in Tyne and Wear where dogma rules and sums don’t add up.

The industry is not blameless in this. We are incredibly bad at telling people, and especially politicians, how good we are and the vital contribution we make to the nation’s wellbeing and economy.

The Good

BSOG survived but I still feel directing it through local authorities will prove to be a disaster. Green bus funding continued to get Government backing and hybrids are becoming a familiar sight even in small towns and cities like Carlisle and Warrington.

Following 2012’s very welcome increase in new vehicle registrations, particularly buses, to a total of 8102 PCVs over 3.5-tonnes up 34.2% (excluding vehicles under 8.5 tonnes and converted vehicles the figure is 3694, 12.4% higher), some of it undoubtedly due to the Olympic Games, a drop this year was anticipated. There has been a drop but not a huge one. As I write this, registrations are about 8% down but steady improvement over the last few months has been reducing that figure every month. One welcome sign has been the steady increase of new coach registrations currently running 16% ahead of 2012.

The big groups all seem to have traded well during the year reporting good figures and are continuing to invest large amounts in new vehicles. I except First from that list which, has seen a very turbulent year, as it struggles to reinvent its business based on core operations. The year has seen it make a great deal of changes, disposing of various operations, gaining others and a long series of company and management structure changes. Top bus man, Giles Fearnley, says the company is continuing to trade well and is turning the corner, but there can be no doubt that this has been a massive, and at times painful, transition. One of First’s many announcements this year was that in future it will split its operations into Regions, each with their own Managing Director and management team – like my colleagues the two Rogers I also believe that ‘localism’, to coin a current buzz phrase, is the key to successful bus services and also changing public perceptions – now if we could only get First to borrow the colour pallets from Go-Ahead or Ray Stenning wouldn’t the country’s towns and cities be brighter places?

CT compliance

Another subject that has rumbled on is compliance, (another recent buzzword), and by that I mean whether CTs can bid for contracts when they are doing so with the benefit of advantages not open to commercial operators. It has been a divisive issue for many years but has come into even more focus since the Government introduced its localism agenda and encouraged voluntary backed CTs to go out and be more commercial. I suspect this one is going to rumble on, but I get a strong feeling that 2014 might just be watershed year as far as this matter is concerned. The Northern Ireland Assembly has ruled that CT operators cannot comply, which may not suit Westminster because it calls into question one of their policy planks and seems likely to bring them into more confrontation with Europe. It’s one to watch.

Disability access

Here’s another that came to the fore in 2013 and I suspect is going to become much higher profile in 2014. Britain has one of the most directly wheelchair accessible bus fleets in the World. I think the current problems of who has the right to ‘wheelchair’ space was inevitable from the day the first directly wheelchair accessible bus took the road and someone boarded the bus with a buggy and parked it in the space. What will the future bring? More conflict I suspect, and even wheelchair passengers fighting between themselves for the space? Will bus design change with operators creating more seat free space for wheelchairs, Chelsea tractor sized pushchairs and Roger French’s wardrobe sized luggage? God forbid we end up with Continental style buses with no seats and at most a bum rest if you are lucky.

The disability issue vexing most operators is whether they will be ready in time for the impending deadlines governing the need for DDA compliant vehicles on stage services and school contracts operated as stage services. Are the rates obtainable from tendering authorities going to justify the purchase of vehicles for the work? As one county representative admitted, ‘The sums don’t add up.’

With the House of Commons Transport Select Committee already looking at the question of disabled and especially wheelchair access on public transport this is a debate that is going to grow. Having spoken recently to Louise Ellman MP the Chairman of the Select Committee I know where she is heading and the industry isn’t going to like it.

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