All change please – but not just yet!
When the Senior Traffic Commissioner introduced the Statutory Guidance documents in December 2011, what she was doing was not entirely new. One guidance document had already been in effect as a Practice Direction for some time, in fact since January 2005
That Practice Direction related to the standards expected of local bus services in relation to punctuality. Many operators found the Practice Direction not a model of clarity and on a number of occasions issues on the meaning of the document were appealed to the Transport Tribunal.
In December 2011 the Practice Direction was effectively adopted in large part as the Statutory Guidance on bus compliance. Last year the Senior Traffic Commissioner reviewed the whole area of punctuality of bus services and a new draft Statutory Guidance document was published in August 2013 with a consultation upon it that lasted until November 2013. About 80 interested parties responded to the consultation and as a consequence a new draft of the Statutory Guidance document has been published and a consultation remains open upon that until 19th May 2014. It makes for essential reading for any operator who operates registered bus services.
So what’s the current position?
At the moment, nothing has changed. In simple terms the position at present remains fundamentally as set out in the original Practice Direction drafted by the previous STC, Philip Brown, and published in January 2005. The overriding target set in the Practice Direction was that 95% of services should depart from timing points within a bracket of up to one minute early and up to five minutes late. 95% of timetabled services should depart from the starting point of the journey within the same parameters. There is also an expectation that 95% of services will arrive at the final destination no more than five minutes late.
Different rules apply to frequent services, which are defined as ‘routes within which the service interval is 10 minutes or less’. In that case the expectation at present is that 95% of the time departures at the start of the journey will be at a rate of six or more within a 60 minute period with intervals between departures not exceeding 15 minutes. Performance is measured differently at intermediate timing points using a calculation based upon the Transport for London concept of excess waiting time. To quote directly from the Direction ‘this is the difference between the average waiting time actually experienced by passengers and the waiting time which is expected from the schedule’. The excess waiting time should not exceed 1 minute 15 seconds.
The parameters were given teeth with the introduction of a sliding scale of penalties for non-compliance ranging from £50 to £550 per vehicle the operator is licensed to use. This has resulted in some heavy penalties.
A lot has changed since the Practice Direction was originally published in 2005. Satellite tracking of buses and real time information systems are now widespread and the tools available to operators to measure performance using available technology have improved vastly. At the same time the resources that are available to the enforcement agencies have somewhat reduced. In recent Public Inquiries involving bus punctuality issues there has been a noticeable shift from relying on data provided by VOSA (now DVSA) or local authority bus compliance monitors and a shift towards self policing and providing data on request to Traffic Commissioners. Public Inquiries have also been called on the basis of complaints by customers, even where the evidential basis for the complaints could be questionable depending on the complainants’ motives.
The 2013 proposal
The draft Statutory Guidance published in August caused a considerable stir on its publication and was considerably more detailed than the previous guidance. Much of what was set out was a common sense approach to the issues surrounding operators of bus services and there was also acknowledgement of the difficulties operators faced in running compliant services to the parameters set. However the proposed ‘window of tolerance’ for timetabled services was reduced yet further to eradicate early running entirely and to keep the margin for late arrival at five minutes. Be in no doubt Traffic Commissioners hate early running. The thought of customers arriving at a bus stop on time only to find that their bus has already left is anathema to the Traffic Commissioners. On the face of it there is no excuse for early running, although where in some areas there exist Traffic Regulation Conditions that ensure for environmental reasons that buses cannot stay at a stop any longer than is necessary to pick up and set down customers, the problem can be less easy to manage. The bar was further raised in that it was proposed that the standards would be measured based on an expectation that 100% of services would depart within those parameters not 95% as before.
Again, the proposals regarding frequent services were revised, with the bar being raised, there being an expectation that 100% of departures at the start of a journey would be within the rate of six or more within a period of 60 minutes. The measure of punctuality at timing points for frequent services remained the same as before albeit it again applied to 100% of services, up from 95%.
In terms of penalties they could now apply to operators with a compliance rate of anything short of 100%. (ie 96% and above).
The onus was placed much more squarely on operators to ensure that with the technology likely to be available to them that services were monitored sufficiently broadly in order for proactive management to take place. Bus punctuality partnerships have also been dangled as a carrot in front of the operator facing a Public Inquiry as a direct alternative to enforcement action.
The latest proposal
The 2013 proposals brought about responses from about 80 interested parties including the four largest operators in the UK. Of particular concern to many was that far from the window of a minute giving carte blanche to operators to run early, rather it was a sensible and small margin to cover those situations where there really was nothing the driver could do in the circumstances but to keep moving. Far from solving the problem of early running, technological advances have also shown the extent of the difficulties faced by operators in ensuring punctuality in a world where road conditions appear increasingly poor and traffic levels are often increasing.
The good news is that the Senior Traffic Commissioner has clearly listened carefully to the consultees and as a consequence the 95% targets have been reintroduced and also the parameters for timetabled services have been increased from five minutes late to seven minutes late, with the minute window for early running being reintroduced.
There is much to commend this current proposal. Indeed, on 25 April in this magazine Roger French gave it a resounding ‘three cheers’. Assuming this proposal progresses to becoming formal guidance in this or similar form, it would be both clearer and more flexible. The flip side of that, of course, is that operators who still get it wrong are likely to be given little tolerance. It is to be hoped, however, that the new document will assist responsible operators to improve services to passengers, and assist Traffic Commissioners in penalising those operators who pay little or no heed to their operating responsibilities.
There have been other amendments to the previous draft and although we have focussed here on issues regarding the measure of punctuality, the best advice remains to read it for yourself and respond to the consultation which can be found at www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/300688/local-bus-services-connsultation.pdf . Remember the latest proposals are still a draft so the previous Practice Direction applies for the time being.
Written by Andrew Banks and Peter Woodhouse of Stone King’s Transport Team
Efficiency, understanding and communication
This article is for guidance only
The law and practice referred to has been paraphrased or précised and should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice.