UK Bus Summit
Vision, stimulation, technology and delivery – are we smart?
It was in 1999 when John Prescott’s ‘carthorse to thoroughbred’ vision was motivating the industry that the last UK Bus Summit was held. Clearly another was due and Transport Times under its Chief Executive, Professor David Begg, organised it last week at Kings Place, round the corner from Kings Cross Station. It brought together a stellar line-up of speakers able to articulate the divergent strands of current public transport debate with particular regard to buses. A large and truly diverse audience of 310 was in attendance of which 13% were operators, 16% were from Local Authorities, 9% were from Government, 16% were from LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnerships), 6% were from manufacturers and 6% were from ITAs or PTEs.
A packed programme was split into four main business sessions with the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, beginning the day by delivering the keynote speech. Later, Minister of State for Transport, Baroness Kramer, was to deliver the closing remarks. David Begg set the scene initially and throughout the day pressed speakers on pertinent points before inviting questions from the floor.
The Vision for Buses
Patrick McLoughlin talked about the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s belief in transport mentioning a number of rail projects, before saying, ‘I hardly need to tell this audience that within transport, buses matter’, before adding, ‘but yes, there are some challenges.’ He believed, ‘the big argument is this. We all agree that buses are key to helping people get on and get around… But we need buses that are modern, clean, reliable, and easy to use, and that meet the needs of passengers – so how do we get there?’
He said the answer came in four parts. The Government needed to do its bit and he argued that it was through £300m allocated to bus projects including Better Bus Areas and the Bristol BRT scheme. Bus schemes had benefited from the £600m Local Sustainable Transport Fund. This was on top of BSOG and nearly £1 billion on concessionary fares. Next month there would be a £30m scheme to boost more zero emission buses.
The Government had a big role to play in new ways to get buses to rural areas. The day before had been the deadline for bids to run Total Transport pilot schemes and it would be interesting to see how they turned out. He had also backed community bus services with £25m. They could play a very important role in isolated rural areas.
His second point was that the private sector needed to play its role too. ‘I back a strong commercial market. I admire the work that is being done, not just by big firms but also operators. We rely on a private sector to translate public investment into effective services. Bus operators innovate because they are commercial businesses competing against other forms of transport and other operators.
He believed, ‘Cities must play their part. Buses are the most local form of transport, so it’s right that decisions are taken locally. The momentum for devolution is growing. Before Christmas the Chancellor outlined plans to create an elected mayor in Greater Manchester which will help establish a more integrated and coordinated transport strategy in the north. I appreciate that the providers of bus services may be concerned about the speed and scale of devolution, but I want to stress that buses are a major part of Manchester’s vision for transport. They see bus services playing an increasingly prominent role. If Greater Manchester votes in favour of change, this is an opportunity for the bus industry to work with the Mayor and take advantage of major investments in transport and to help create and bolster the northern powerhouse. Remember, no model of local power will be the same. The future success and profitability in each city will depend on how well local authorities and local operators adapt to local conditions. Local Enterprise Partnerships are also playing an increasingly pivotal role.’
‘The bottom line is this, if you want the buses to thrive, you’ll need to ensure that the LEPs are getting the message.’
His fourth point was that technology matters. Clean vehicles, electric vehicles, hybrids, but also smart cards integrated across all modes of transport on buses, trains and trams. This will be transformational, not just for the passengers, but also for transport too. Despite the significant investment progress on smart ticketing, it has been slow, but we are now starting to overcome some of the obstacles that have been in the way… I recognise the efforts of operators and urge other operators to join the smart ticketing revolution. It is essential.’
The Transport Secretary also asked why, with the school leaving age basically changed to 18 years, why the industry had not responded to that change? ‘It matters that buses and coaches remain affordable to them. There’s a lot being done but there’s more that can be done.’ Neither did he think multi modal transport got the priority it should.
He concluded, ‘By putting the passenger at the heart of everything you do, working together in harmony, grasping the opportunities provided by devolution, innovating and harnessing technology and by meeting local challenges with the right local solutions, then I have no doubt that those great targets will be realised.’
Derek Mackay MSP, Scottish Transport Minister, said that, ‘the current market based approach in Scotland was working fairly well. It’s not fundamentally broken but there are issues.’ He noted that the threat of major regulatory change would involve upheaval. On the whole bus services were good and the challenge was getting more people to use them.
The Community Empowerment Bill would give people more rights regarding the services they used. It would contribute to a sense of total place. He was disappointed that there were not more quality partnerships in Scotland and he wanted to progress that. The Scottish Traffic Commissioner was to be given the power to refuse registrations that might destabilise QPs.
Though happy to maintain the current system providing it delivered, there was the clear threat that other measures were there in reserve if there were not improvements. He said franchised quality contracts ‘may well be necessary, they may well be popular if the current approach doesn’t work. We look forward to further work on the merits before we would use them’, he said.
He felt the introduction of smart ticketing was too slow, too piecemeal and not joined up.
In conclusion he said that it was all about partnerships. He was more than happy to work with everyone to get the best for Scotland.
Danny Kennedy MLA, Northern Ireland Transport Minister said that the bus was the biggest player in the Northern Irish transport market where there was increasing demand across the transport networks. Translink now had a modern and accessible bus and rail fleet. Rail had grown dramatically to 14m passengers annually and the expectation was that it would go to 20m in the medium term. The challenge was to get bus from 80m to 100m journeys. There was a need to think creatively and introduce innovative new ideas. Free wi-fi was important.
In meeting the challenge the solution had to be: customer led and their needs must shape delivery; it had to be locally driven; the organisation must seek to be proactive and; there still needed to be further cultural change.
The Goldline network was becoming overstretched and there would be new developments with a focus on park and ride with an additional 2,000 parking spaces for park and ride and park and share. There would be new evening and Sunday services and new all mode smart ticketing. New BRT schemes with high quality hubs and off bus ticketing would support sustainable growth. Cycle routes would be integrated with other modes.
He concluded, ‘transport funding is a win/win.’
Leon Daniels, MD Surface Transport, TfL was pleased to report that the threatened Unite strike over pay rates they had agreed to within the previous 12 months was off. He said the reason that London was thriving, carrying the most passengers since 1958, was because it had enjoyed a good set of circumstances for the past 15 years. There had been a virtuous circle of increased usage and increased densification. Buses were the ideal tool because digging tunnels took a long time and a lot of capital. The rigorous attention to detail maintained every day was now paying dividends.
In London, subsidy was the difference between the actual fares charged and the cost of the combination of the depreciation of the vehicles and concessionary fares. He said that in most places fares were driven by the price of delivering what people wanted. In London, the Mayor personally reserved the right to set fare levels. To have that you needed to have strong and accepted political leadership. Without that it couldn’t survive.
TfL benchmarked its operations worldwide. It was always looking at innovations and the potential disruption to the market they would bring. Oyster was in the process of being retired and a replacement was being developed. The new Routemaster design had proved very popular and 200 more would take the total to 800.
There had to be far more thought about where the market went in the future, at what our cities might look like and how the traditional bus is going to take part in that. Leon finished with a scenario indicating just how difficult transport planning might be in the future, pointing out that Uber wasn’t a taxi company, it was an App. He asked, ‘what if everyone in this country who was about to make a journey was being monitored by a global computer that was matching all the journeys that people wanted to make with other journeys that people wanted to make. It was only one more step away and if it were to catch on, as it might, it completely redefines taxi, private hire, dial-a-ride, non-emergency patient transport, special needs transport to school, rural bus, smaller buses in some areas, and so on. That’s a revolution for which the technology already exists. If we don’t put our minds to it, it will overtake us and leave us in a dreadful situation.’
Why buses matter: stimulating the local economy
For the second session there were six speakers and Clair Haigh, Chief Executive of Greener Journeys led off by pointing out the role buses played in the economy, society and in supporting the environment and the work her organisation had done to quantify this. This was being taken up widely by stakeholders in the bus and together they were making a difference.
In the future there more challenges and the need to speak together, with one voice, in favour of the bus would be even more important. Town and cities could be the drivers of economic prosperity and Local Enterprise Partnerships were now responsible for where and how to invest.
Stressing the importance of bus priority measures, she pointed out the paradox that devolving capital funding to local decision makers made it difficult to deliver bus priorities. Funding was scarce and would remain so and traffic priority measures would need to compete with training and housing. There was currently no national plan or strategic framework for bus in the way there was for rail and roads and she made an impassioned plea for Central Government to play a more positive role. ‘We need to see a national statement on local bus infrastructure, that would show local decision makers why they should invest in local bus infrastructure as part of their plans for local growth,’ she said, as well as showing bus companies what was expected of them.
Alex Pratt is Chair of the LEP Network as a whole as well as heading up the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley LEP, one of 39 LEPs nationally with 39 strategic economic plans. An entrepreneur since the age of 16, he believed LEPs offered a potential opportunity for the bus lobby and were an underutilised economic asset. He, and none of his staff on three sites, used buses and he was not a passionate advocate of them, but he agreed that a national position on buses ‘made perfect sense’ and would help guide local decision making.
He said, ‘gross profit at the level of the firm was the growth spring of everything that we hold dear in public service.’ LEPs had been created to have a resolute focus on private sector growth. They tried to make sure the right things happened at the right time, when they were needed.
Each LEP was made up of 50% elected local authority representatives and 50% private sector individuals. They knew transport and energy had always fuelled growth and buses were a great enabler of social cohesions, so they started from knowing that transport was important and within that buses were important. LEPs had been created with an end in mind and their focus was around creating a great society which includes an inclusive environment. LEPs focus was on creating the means to that end, which was about private sector growth.
‘We are trying to do all kinds of tactics around modal shift like timed commuter travel, free buses with rail passes, all those sorts of things. Within our particular economic plan there’s a new coachway, we’re seeking to create an inter-regional coach system, we’re looking at the introduction of all new technologies in information and real time and all of those sorts of things. It plays a role in our SEP,’ he said.
LEPs are your friends, but don’t underestimate how many new friends LEPs have, or the numbers lobbying them. Cases had to be made on economic grounds and on the relative importance of economic grounds. He advised, ‘tailor your arguments to how buses and investment in buses can better create better medium to long term circumstances for prosperous areas.’
David Martin, Chief Executive of Arriva, was sure everyone in the room believed that buses had a role to play in the stimulation of GDP in local markets. For him achieving a flourishing local transport network that is at the heart of the local economy was based on one single, overused word: ‘partnership’, with each party involved playing to its strengths and contributing where they are strongest.
On smart ticketing he asked, are we smart enough or quick enough, saying his group had smart ticketing in Poland, Serbia and the Czech Republic. We had to embrace the digital age we were living in. He was also in favour of electromobility saying, ‘I’m tempted to not buy another diesel bus. I ought to wait now and pressurise manufacturers to look to bring electric buses into the heart of our rural environments.’
Partnerships do work but there was a need for fundamental rules with stakeholders sticking to what they said at the start of an agreement on issues such as bus lanes and their maintenance. In Liverpool the Mayor’s decision to remove bus lanes had meant putting additional buses in to maintain timetables.
He was not an advocate of any regulated-only approach, but, based on experience, was passionate about is working with what we have in place, if it is not broken. ‘What we have today is not broken, but we can certainly deliver and build on that, and modify it to make it better for customers, partners and stakeholders.’ London was not easy to replicate elsewhere and would cost money. ‘It would be a tragic mistake to assume that a single London tendering approach is the only answer for other great cities and regions.’
Speaking as an operator he said, ‘It would be a mistake to think we are dug into trenches because we are not… there is a huge willingness to work in partnership,’ pointing out the achievements through partnerships in places such as Darlington. ‘Let’s focus on improving what we have for the better,’ and ‘explore new partnership approaches that bring together the needs of the local economy, under the umbrella framework of the LEPs, and our passengers to creating flourishing networks that we can all be proud of.’
Robert Hough, Chair, Liverpool City Region LEP, said he was very pro-bus and that without buses vitality in Liverpool city centre could not be delivered. His LEP looked to identify projects rather than strategies because they delivered and made a difference. With new schemes like the Liverpool 2 deep sea dock being developed, transport was critically important for Liverpool’s growth. Local transport was central to plans for rebalancing, creating jobs and growth. Transport connectivity, by buses in particular, was not just a means of getting from A to B, it was a job enabler.
Considering how operators appeal to the business sector which has a lack of awareness of how bus networks and ticketing work, he saw Apps, real-time information and wi-fi as useful tools. He welcomed the greener journeys plan and said that he would support it.
John Henkel, Acting Director of Transport, West Yorkshire Combined Authority said transport was one of four pillars in a Strategic Economic Plan jointly endorsed by the WYCA and the local LEP. ‘Buses do matter, they’re really very important to us,’ he said.
City economies were the future and we couldn’t fill them with cars. Local research showed that if they didn’t invest in transport and overcoming congestion they would suffer by over 20,000 jobs not being realised. As even the USA had found, it was better to invest in public transport than to invest in roads. Employers thought about the transport of their workforces when selecting locations. Smart ticketing was useful – £1m worth of smart travel had been sold the previous week.
Having a network available was important as were early morning and evening services. Affordability and certainty were important as was the need to start bus services to development areas before the traffic was there to make the service commercially viable.
Mike Blackburn, Chair Manchester LEP talked about the local context of Manchester saying that any relationship with an LEP had to be on the basis of that local context. The foundation of the city’s growth was that it should be shared equally by all of its residents. The area’s 2.7m population would grow to 3.0million by 2030. It contributed £56bn to the UK economy and that was growing. When they looked to competition, they looked overseas.
One thing that set Manchester apart was its governance arrangements. These were designed to facilitate growth and prosperity to be shared by all residents, so the strategic objective was growth and reform. It was home to the UK’s first Combined City Authority ‘a new robust form of government.’ The city’s ability to deliver underpinned the ‘groundbreaking’ devolution deal signed before Christmas that would give Manchester a directly elected mayor responsible for a devolved and consolidated transport budget with a multi year settlement and, subject to consultation, franchised bus services. It would also have more powers over housing, business support and employment and skills.
For the plans to work, employers needed to be able to draw on a wider pool of talent and employees needed to be able to access jobs. Over the last decade buses had played a vital part in creating the right conditions for success and for growth. Buses currently accounted for about 80% of public transport journeys. The flexibility of buses makes them particularly suited to providing transport to new job opportunities.
He wanted more from buses noting that better buses outside the daytime core can stimulate the night economy and secondly, that buses should be part of the identity of a place. ‘The quality of the network, frequencies, operating hours, the quality of the ride, safety, security and of customer care, the integration of buses with the wider public transport network and the clarity of the ticket offer all have, for better or worse, consequences.’ The image they experienced was important because Manchester was the UK’s third biggest attractor of foreign tourists, after London and Edinburgh, many of them affluent, educated and influential, who had an impact on creating and safeguarding jobs and attracting other tourists.
He concluded, ‘I’m not a bus man. My job is communications. I can present the challenge of achieving world class buses but I want you in the room to give me the answers about how we get there.’
How can technology create efficiency in the bus market?
Mark Nodder, Chairman & Chief Executive of Wrights Group said that with buses, ‘size matters’. They and other manufacturers had been taking weight out of buses because weight reduction was a key driver of fuel reduction, every tonne removed saving around 6%. Wrights had introduced micro-hybrid technology on its single and now double deckers which recuperated braking energy and used it to power ancillaries
Using slides showing details of the CO2 reduction they delivered, initial cost and payback periods, he detailed the various technological options pointing out some of their strengths and weaknesses. He qualified his observations by saying, ‘When we look forward at the manufacturer and technology roadmap and the likely additional cost of employing both fuel saving and environmentally efficient technologies (because there’s a political consideration) we have more questions today than we have answers. But we’ve got options.’
Talking of the interest in electric, he posed the question, ‘Where is all of this electricity going to come from?’ He said that if all 8,000 buses in London were pure electric battery buses, and they all took the same five-minute rapid charge at the same time, they would require 3,200Megawatts of electricity. That is more than twice the capability of the entire generating capacity of London’s five power stations… If only 1,000 were to recharge at one time it would take 400MW, which is more than Enfield Power station, London’s second biggest, can generate.’ He was sure Leon Daniels had got it all figured out.
If we were going down the electric road a common interface for charging was needed along with a lot more debate about other issues before any decisions were made.
He concluded, wistfully, that if we had only ever had electricity with all of its range limitations, costs, and need for replacement batteries and other problems, wouldn’t we be impressed if somebody discovered Euro6 diesel?
Robert Montgomery, MD –UK Bus for Stagecoach asked what was meant by creating Oyster style ticketing, he’d heard 23 different definitions. He believed it was giving customers simple seamless access to the entire transport network in a city.
London wasn’t first to have smartcards. Stagecoach had accepted contactless credit card payment in Liverpool from 2007 to 2011. He said 100% of the Stagecoach fleet was already smart equipped, customers could buy on line and collect on the bus, and if they went over to the Extra system they could pay every month by direct debit and never have to buy a ticket again.
The vision, based on existing card systems, was that the major operators had committed to deliver multi operator (not mode) smart ticketing in all nine big city regions with competitive prices, at no cost to local authorities, including all operators by December 2015. Trams, trains and ferries could be added later and capping was under development.
Oyster was a dinosaur, it was the right product at the right time but there were now a lot of ways to deliver smart ticketing. All of the major operators had the back office, as did Visa and Mastercard and could put bus products on to cards. Visa and Mastercard were every bit as important now. He insisted people would use their phones in future and that the really important thing wasn’t the medium it was the product on the card that gave you what you wanted from the public transport system.
Rob Denton, Head of Client Innovation and Customer Experience, Worldline by Atos, said he was a customer champion addressing operational efficiency, finding out what efficiencies were important to customers, bringing that information back and incorporating it in their interests. Customers sought value not only in monetary terms, but in economy of effort. He believed there were some things that the industry was not addressing and wondered whether offering phone recharging on board would attract custom.
Andy Eastlake, MD, Low CVP believed the bus industry had been a key success in the low carbon vehicle environment. It had taken the holistic well to wheel view, ‘which is critical if we are to take the right decisions,’ and it had embraced the new technologies. Work with buses enabled his organisation to set the scene for other players in the transport arena. The requirements for buses were now three or four years ahead of the passenger car market.
Looking forward 20 years he foresaw no one technology meeting every requirement. There would be a variety of technologies. ‘We know electric doesn’t work in heavy truck or coach.’ It was a challenge, ‘but don’t rule out diesel; it’s going to be around a very long time. There will also be hydrogen along with very high levels of hybridisation.’
How should buses be delivered: quality partnerships, quality contracts or franchising?
Billed as the most contentious session of the day, it didn’t disappoint, other than in the lack of an answer to the question of compensation to operators for the right to operate the local networks that the Government sold to them.
First to speak was Jon Lamonte, Chief Executive, Transport for Greater Manchester, and now also Chair of PTEG, who saw the debate in terms of economic growth and how to grow Manchester to a bigger size, not as a choice between regulation and deregulation. With 220m bus journeys annually it was the biggest public transport mode, but it was dwarfed by 1.6bn journeys a year on the roads.
He said the answer was integration. What did integration mean for bus, ‘A bus network that provides those connections during the day every week during the mornings, evening, Sundays. It’s fully integrated with the tram, it’s integrated with rail, it’s easy to understand, it’s stable, it’s consistent. We’ve got high standards of vehicles, customer care, punctuality, all those things. We’ve got good real time information, we’ve got simple integrated ticketing – a bit like Oyster but we’re more complicated – we’ve got a different scenario here. We’ve had multi modal paper ticketing since 1975 so it’s not that, it’s got to be more than that, we don’t want competing ticketing ranges that take someone from MENSA to understand, we don’t want users to be told “well you could use that ticket in the morning but you can’t in the afternoon because it’s a different operator” and we don’t want our international visitors to have their first experience at the airport, or if they’re coming into Manchester Piccadilly off the future HS2, to encounter ticketing that’s not really world class; we need something different.’
He continued, ‘Partnership has been great. We’ve done a lot with partnership and we’ve done well out of it, and I don’t decry the efforts of the operators there. Actually we’ve done some fantastic things, but to really get to that level of integration we need something more, so we’ve had a look at all the options and we’ve come up with franchising as a way ahead. We do have to consult on that and it’s not an answer for everywhere. In order to do it you have to have the capacity to deliver… You have to have the political will to deliver and we’ve got that across the ten authorities, cross party support, not just locally but nationally as well, so that’s good to have… It’s got to be an appropriate arrangement for the local circumstances, not everywhere is the same, not everywhere needs this but it is the way we are going to try and go in Manchester, subject to consultation. We need everyone’s support to make it happen.’
Giles Fearnley, MD – UK Bus for FirstGroup said that, ‘ where the focus of the debate really is passengers, then our agendas, transport authorities and operators, can be and very often are aligned. If I had any doubt about that before this morning’s session started I have none now, because everyone is talking about realising the full potential of the bus and ultimately that is what we all want to do so that our local economies can thrive.’ To do this operators had to invest.
He admitted that in the past First’s strategy had not been properly aligned but that business model had been shredded. He listed a very long list of achievements through partnership working in West Yorkshire (where it had saved the TA £5m annually), York (where 10% year on year growth showed the value of local consultation), Sheffield (where passengers were up 8%, there were 30% less complaints and there was more that could be done), Rotherham (where there had been a 6% increase in fare paying passengers) and lastly in Bristol, where confidence in the local mayor gave the group the confidence to accelerate plans for the city. Action on a vast public consultation that asked passengers what they wanted to pay had seen 20% growth result.
He concluded, ‘I vote for partnership because I think it works, it works for passengers, it works for local authorities and it delivers rapidly.’
Anthony Vigor, Director of Policy & External Affairs at National Express Group, spoke about the ‘Transforming Bus Travel Partnership’ in the West Midlands which was now in its third agreement. He was proud of the way Nat Ex worked together with Centro and believed it showed how working together benefited passengers and provided a framework that jointly improved services and, he believed, addressed many of the concerns that people express in the debate.
They now combined spending to deliver better outcomes. It hadn’t always been that way, the partnership grew out of a determination to improve a previously antagonistic relationship. Both sides recognised that the passenger suffered and determined to work together.
He focused on three areas that showed how the partnership worked. Network reviews were difficult for all concerned. For operators there was the danger that they would be seen as only interested in cutting services and conducting them jointly made it easier to engage significant trip generators such as hospitals. It also meant that tendered services could be considered alongside commercial services. As a result, Centro’s spend per head on tendered services was the least per head of any PTE. After each review since 2010 there had been strong passenger growth.
His second point was in responding to areas of new economic growth, where, as with a recent package agreed to meet Jaguar Land Rover’s needs, the partnership had provided a platform and framework that enabled them, with other stakeholders, to react quickly to changing circumstances.
The third benefit came through promoting integration with multi operator ticketing migrating onto smart cards through Swift. This would include tram within the next few months. The two teams would soon be sharing an office. They had seen the biggest rise in passenger satisfaction in the country and the company was running more buses and he believed that partnership was the reason.
David Begg was almost incredulous that the partnership is such that the two parties will shortly start sharing an office. As I looked around the stage, I didn’t imagine David Brown & Tobyn Hughes or Giles Fearnley and Jon Lamonte would be doing so any time soon.
Jonathan Bray, Director, PTEG said that the franchise or partnership premise was a false one because in future it would not be one or the other but a mixed mosaic economy with no one size fitting all. It was very hard to see a future government compelling all local authorities to introduce franchising but at the same time it was difficult to see a future government making it more difficult to introduce franchising. After the decision in Manchester it was difficult to see a Conservative Government changing the legislation after the election to make it harder to introduce franchising and ‘with Ed Miliband leading from the front on bus regulation we know where Labour stands.’
‘We know there is a lot of interest from serious players in the public transport operating sector in the opportunities that franchising provides. They may not be saying it in public, they may not be ranting and raving about it, but everybody knows that they are out there,’ he said.
‘Concerns expressed about franchising were usually around local government’s capacity, capability and motivation in moving to franchising, and also that the policy is a distraction from other measures that would benefit bus services,’ he observed, adding, ‘we know that combined authorities and PTEs have the capacity and track record to deliver complex transport schemes and tendering exercises.’ Franchising gave local authorities a greater stake in local services and more of an incentive to tackle all of the issues.
He concluded, ‘People who believe in a dynamic future for public transport should welcome this, in particular, the chance to see what fully integrated rail, bus and light rail networks outside London can look like again and what this can achieve. This is not a future that can be shouted down or wished away in favour of living in the past… The world is changing… Uber is not going away, devolution is not going away, and the aspiration that cities have for integrated public transport networks – one network, one brand, one ticketing system – that is not going to go away either. It is a future in which there are exciting opportunities for both public and private sector alike, where the bus has a bright future, going with the grain of where our cities want to be and what passengers of today and tomorrow want.’
David Brown, Chief Executive, Go Ahead Group said that the different options all had their place at the right time, in the right place, with the right conditions and for the right reasons: it had got to be about the passenger.
Looking at whether a London style system was right elsewhere, he pointed out that London was different, population growth in the suburbs drove bus growth and the economy drove the underground. It worked, but it hadn’t always been so. Franchising can also produce a rubbish network and in the 1990s London wasn’t great. He also stressed that the origins of franchising in London meant that the public sector did it to itself. There were no losers, there was no private investment at the beginning. It was public sector and a few private operators bidding against the public sector, and then along came privatisation, so when you bought companies you did so with the full knowledge of what your order book was, and you bid accordingly. There were no losers.
London is a growing economy and Newcastle isn’t, it’s tough there, the economy hasn’t recovered yet. London is a 24 hour economy where 40% of the growth has been driven by off-peak service provision, there’s traffic congestion on a scale unimaginable elsewhere and there’s congestion charging, expensive parking and red routes with heavy fines, bus lanes with camera enforcement and traffic lights with bus priority and it’s the only area of the UK with declining car ownership.
It costs. The revenue is about £1.5bn and the cost of the service is about £2.1bn with the £600m difference largely made up of central government funding. And because the costs are higher the fares are higher, it’s where the investment comes from. There’s a candidate for Mayor saying he’ll take fares down, it means he’ll take investment down. David said every penny that had been earned in the North East had been reinvested in vehicles and property and it could only be done if you made a profit, in London it could only be done through revenue and pricing.
Quoting Roger French he said running buses was like baking a cake, all the ingredients had to be there, and the key ingredient was partnership working, where the provider of the infrastructure actually gets it, where they promote bus lanes and access into town centres and the operators respond with good services because they can make them attractive.
Both models work, but at the moment, outside London, the answer has to be that it’s not about contract schemes which would undo 30 years of entrepreneurial commercial services that have kept towns and cities moving and, like London, have matured slowly. ‘Transferring risk to the public sector at the current time is counter intuitive’, he said, ‘but we do need regional transport authorities to be visionary, we need them not to get bogged down in the micro detail of running bus services, and they should be there to create the transport conditions that support social cohesion and economic growth. By working in partnership, operators and local authorities can, together, work in the public interest and provide public transport that meets the community’s needs.’
Tobyn Hughes, MD Transport, North East Combined Authority, said that he could say contract schemes were best for the North East, ‘because we’ve just been through several years of extremely detailed, lengthy and resource hungry work to find out what the different options would provide for us.’ Last October, unanimously, the politicians in the Combined North East Authority said they believed the Quality Contract scheme was the best option for them, though it is not necessarily the same for everywhere.
He said, ‘There has been no rush to judgement, we have explored at great length the options that a partnership could bring and had many discussions in smoke filled rooms and in public forums with the local bus companies and they have tried their best to come up with options which would best deliver the objectives, however, as of today, that is not the case.’
The Quality Contract Scheme board process had already begun in written form and some of the board members were in the room so Tobyn minded his Ps and Qs declined to go into detail about the facts of the case.
He did comment, ‘We are somewhat challenging the industry, whether it’s just bad boys or people who are somewhat unhinged I know not, but whether we are right or wrong we’re asking questions of you as an industry that perhaps you’ve not been asked for some time before. What we are proposing is highly controversial, make no mistake about that.’ Noting some of David Brown’s comments on the impact on the commercial bus industry if a quality contract scheme were to come into effect, he added, ‘we have to be mindful as we proceed of the intrusive nature of a quality contract scheme’.
He concluded, ‘My question to you is, what are you going to do, or what are we going to do as a bus industry, about these searching questions. If everything was brilliant and rosy in the garden we wouldn’t be here asking these searching questions, we would not be proposing a Quality Contract Scheme in the North East of England. So are we going to close ranks at this difficult time, are you going to write articles criticising us in the North East as left wing loonies, or town hall bureaucrats that just want more papers to shuffle around, or are you going to adopt a positive approach and I’ve heard many things today that suggest that it is an opportunity, or are you going to use partnerships to improve ticketing for customers, are you going to accept that the current industry ticketing approach isn’t adequate, are you going to work more closely with local authorities or as local authorities with operators to make improvements so that these questions never arise again? Only you have the answer. I see green shoots today and long may that continue. Watch this space… maybe I’ll be back next year to explain what happened and why.’
Asked in subsequent questions whether the assumption had been made that the profits made by bus companies would be available to them he replied, ‘some of it.’
In her closing comments, Baroness Susan Kramer, Minister of State for Transport, reminded delegates of the importance in London of the congestion charge, saying that the board made the call that they could only introduce it if they put 1,000 extra buses on the road. She went to a lot of events on the topic where nobody mentioned the Congestion Charge and she wanted to throw it back in the mix.
She said, ‘I think there is one thing that we can all agree on, and that is that our aim has to be to get the best deal for our passengers. If passengers are satisfied with bus services, that gets reflected in patronage and ticket revenues, in the business and job opportunities that are developed… There is a great deal that has been achieved in this industry, but can it be done better?
She saw potential in Manchester, whichever way it went, to give passengers an even better deal than they got now and called again for a single smart ticketing system. If Manchester showed anything, it was that ‘smart ticketing matters.’
She concluded, ‘2015 is the year when I hope we see the bus sector lead the way’
In his final words, David Begg commented, ‘Unless we increase the funding, it will be very difficult to achieve anything.’
As well as the conference itself, there were a number of trade stands with those represented including: Alexander Dennis Ltd, Wrightbus, Optare, Worldline/atos, HJS Emission Technology, RSL Region Services Ltd, Systra, and Zeta Automotive.
This was an excellent conference, with well prepared and informed speakers. I’d like to have brought you even more of what was said but hope you’ve found what was possible within space and time constraints useful.
It has already been announced that there will be another UK Bus Summit next year to be held on 11 February at London’s QE2 Conference Centre. If the quality is anywhere near as high as this year’s event it will be very well worth attending and hopefully the Welsh will also be represented having chosen not to be on this occasion.