B&CB on BBC: Editor talks West Midlands bus funding

Bus and Coach Buyer’s Group Editor, Mark Williams, has been asked about the funding recently allotted to West Midlands’ bus network on BBC radio.

On the Kath Stanczyszyn show on BBC Radio West Midlands this morning (23 October 2023), Mark was asked what impact the West Midlands buses’ £16m share of £50m funding diverted from the cancelled section of HS2 will be. “It’s helpful,” said Mark. “It’s very welcome and I’m sure the West Midlands will benefit from it. To get it in perspective, the government announced it was going to raise the fare cap from £2 to £2.50, so if you split the £16m into 50p pieces, its 32m journeys in the West Midlands that will be further subsidised. It rather depends on how that money will be spent. The reality there are 2.8bn bus journeys in the UK each year, so 32m journeys in 2.8bn is probably not a huge influence on that.

“My worry is how the money is spent” – Mark Williams, B&CB Group Editor

“My worry is how the money is spent. If the money is spent on the pull factor of lower bus fares, it may not achieve the modal shift of car drivers moving over to bus that we really require.”

Mark said this recently announced funding is only a part of some of the money promised by the government. He said: “That money, I believe and a lot of bus operators believe as well, would be best spent on infrastructure improvements that prioritise buses through city streets. These are more permanent changes. If you put in a bus lane that speeds buses in the city centre, it improves reliability of those bus services.

“Unfortunately, bus lanes disadvantage car drivers, but longer term those car drivers that can transfer to bus take pressure off the roads. So bus infrastructure improvements, in particular bus priority measures, will have a much longer lasting effect.

“My concern is the money will be spent on a relatively temporary fix.”

Referring to the fare cap scheme, Mark said: “When the government eventually withdraws that, as it may do, we may end up with fares running from £2 rushing up to £3.50, let’s say. They may rise suddenly and that will have the affect of pushing people away from buses rather than drawing them in. It’s about permanent fixes and the permanent fixes needed are to make buses more reliable.”

He continued: “There’s a hardcore of car drivers who will hardly ever be convinced to go on a bus and never catch a bus, even though maybe a five-minute walk from their home there will be a bus stop that will allow them to make the same journey as they make via car. It is a question of pushing those people as opposed to pulling them with fares, and we need more bus services and more networks. Because we have a privatised bus system, that can only come from additional income on buses, which is people catching buses more. When people catch buses more, the amount of income that bus operators get is significantly more. Once you have gone beyond break-even, every fare is extra profit and those profits can be invested in new routes.”

When asked how the West Midlands will benefit, Mark said: “I think you’ve got a very good settlement out of the total pot available. Whether it’s a good substitute to HS2 extensions, who knows?”

“Anything that gets people onto public transport is good, whether that’s trains or buses” 

Kath asked if this is a better use of the money than HS2, to which Mark replied: “HS2 will still reach you [in the West Midlands], so in that respect you’re probably better off with the bus service money. Public transport stands together as a solution, a route to net-zero to the government. No amount of electric cars will achieve net-zero; a change of people’s travel habits will achieve much more in terms of net-zero. Anything that gets people on to public transport is good, whether that’s trains or buses.”

On the additional funding for community bus services announced at the same time as the £50m support for buses, Mark said: “The additional money from community bus services will be very welcome by the people who run them. Community bus services can be run quite cheaply because they rely on volunteer input, so that’s a good thing for vulnerable communities that really depend on those bus services.”

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