Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the National Federation of Bus Users (Bus 08)



  1.  The Transport Act of 1985 replaced blanket bus network subsidies with a more transparent system to target subsidies on routes and specific journeys.

  2.  This means that unlike the railways where the Strategic Rail Authority dispenses subsidies centrally for groups of services, bus services which are not commercial but meet essential transport needs are funded by local authorities from non-specific non-ring-fenced allocations from individual local authority budgets. As a result, in spite of the good practice now encouraged by the requirement to develop bus strategies, the level and quality of supported services can vary considerably from one area to another depending on the policies for supported services adopted by each PTE, shire county and unitary authority. In our view the only way to ensure that bus users get the level and quality of service they have a right to expect, regardless of who controls their local council and where they live, is to impose some form of statutory minimum standards. But this must be backed up by the provision of adequate and targeted funding.

  3.  In general terms there is clearly a need for more revenue to be supplied for funding of services. As major operators focus their attention and resources more and more on busy urban areas where they can most easily attract higher usage by laying on high quality networks, other services particularly in rural areas have become more vulnerable to withdrawal. Many local authorities are struggling now to keep their existing supported networks. For shire authorities, this is not helped by the requirement for most of the Rural Bus Grant to be spent on providing new or enhanced services. This restriction should be further eased so that additional funding can be provided to keep existing services going rather than to buy in new services for which demand is inevitably less.

  4.  Turning to challenge schemes, the NFBU has concerns about these. Again we suggest that some of the funds could be better applied to help existing actual passengers rather than notional potential passengers.

  5.  There seems to be little consistency in what is expected from challenge-funded projects in terms of outcomes, nor has much work been done to quantify the actual passenger benefits. Submissions are time-consuming for local authority staff: time and energy spent on such bids, whether successful or not, divert officers from the more mundane but very important tasks of their day-to-day work. It appears to us that funds seem to be awarded on the basis of how much new technology is involved, or promised, rather than proven benefits to the passenger.

  6.  Even where a scheme is delivering a level of practical benefit there are doubts as to how this can be sustained once the initial challenge funding has dried up. For example, the Wiltshire Wiggly Bus scheme has now been running for nearly three years but still requires heavy subsidy. How are such schemes to continue once challenge funds stop? Demand responsive schemes linked into existing services eg the Lincolnshire Connect scheme, do seem to be more sustainable.

  7.  Fuel duty rebate is a significant source of subsidy within the bus industry. There has been some discussion about its abolition on the grounds that it does not always directly benefit the passenger. Any change to this funding mechanism must see this money kept within the bus industry to deliver better services for passengers, possibly by rewarding operators meeting agreed targets on passenger growth or reliability. However, the NFBU eagerly awaits the implementation of last year's promised extension of FDR to long distance coaches as a quid pro quo for the introduction of concession fares on those services.

  8.  The Transport Act 2000 has now set concessionary fares, and hence reimbursement for those fares, on a statutory footing. This is good news and the NFBU welcomes this change.


  1.   Bus Quality Partnerships. Even though buses are run by commercial bus companies, local authorities have an important part to play in the provision of quality bus networks. This is because of their responsibility both for the operating environment for bus operation and support for uncommercial but socially necessary services. The development of BQPs in recent years constitutes a recognition of the importance of partnerships between bus operators and local authorities which we very much welcome. The problem however, is that so many local authorities set off with excellent declarations of intent which get delayed and watered down in delivery. This is because councillors have to face an electorate, which is dominated by car users who can be very vociferous and determined in their opposition to attempts to give buses real priority over other traffic and have very little interest in improving bus infrastructure. The attempt to provide a statutory framework for BQPs in the Transport Act 2000 should ensure that these partnerships are not just declarations of intent. Our concern is that both operators and local authorities seem to be wary of taking on partnerships which are legally binding.

  2.   Bus Quality Contracts. We do not see any great advantage in Quality Contracts in urban areas where bus operators have made substantial investment in the provision of high frequency services operated with low floor buses. Anxieties about operators focussing on busy routes to the detriment of others could perhaps be addressed by BQPs including a requirement for operators to run some less profitable services where substantial improvements have been made to the operating environment. We do not believe that in general local councils have the resources and expertise to do a better job in the planning and design of what are primarily commercial networks. On the other hand, in rural areas where bus use is thin and many services are already operated under contract to the local authority, often by small independent companies, Quality Contracts may well prove a more efficient way of providing better service networks, especially if local authorities actually work in partnership with each other where services cross over LA boundaries.


  1.  There is no doubt that the upheaval of deregulation undermined passenger confidence in local bus services during the 1980s. But during the last decade the system has largely settled down with bus networks in urban areas undergoing dramatic improvements, in spite of current difficulties with driver shortages and occasional outbreaks of destructive head to head competition. There are problems however, with the existing limited regulation of the bus industry.

  2.  Competition Rules and the Office of Fair Trading. We are worried about the restrictions, real and perceived, resulting from the OFT's enforcement of competition legislation eg the prevention of route sharing, joint timetabling and extensive coordination of all types of ticketing by different operators. All this is stifling integration of bus services so necessary to the development of a coordinated network, which is what all passengers want and which is essential to increase bus usage in line with government long term aims. NFBU would like to point out that voluntary coordination would not prevent—indeed it could encourage—further operators from entering the industry and that an integrated network of individual enterprises could still compete in the quality areas of customer care, vehicle standards and punctuality—thus fulfilling government aspirations to preserve competition—but only where it makes sense and is complementary to other official policies. NFBU believes that OFT strangulation of voluntary operator cooperation inhibits coordinated bus service provision and is not in the public interest. NFBU further believes that bus services should be regarded by the competition authorities as competing within an overall transport mix, in which there is considerable competition from other modes, car in particular.

  3.  Passenger Representation Complaints—Bus Appeals Body. Statutory consumer representation has been in place in the railway industry for half a century. In the case of the bus industry, even though two thirds of journeys on public transport are made by bus, nothing has been provided for the bus passengers outside London. The statutory arrangements for London may not be appropriate to the more complex system, which exists in the rest of the country, but we feel more needs to be done to encourage bus user representation.

  4.  Monitoring of registered bus timetable performance outside London and vehicle mechanical fitness have long been the responsibility of the Traffic Commissioners and Vehicle Inspectorate but they do not have any specific remit for dealing with passengers' concerns. We at the NFBU worked with the Confederation of Passenger Transport to set up the Bus Appeals Body (BAB), an independent review body, in 1998 to deal with complaints about bus operation where the passenger has failed to obtain what they regard as satisfactory reply from the operator. Bus operators have almost always accepted the decisions of the BAB even though they are not legally enforceable and we do need to work more closely with the Traffic Commissioners.

  5.  The BAB however has no remit to consider consumer complaints about operators' commercial decisions about routes and timetables. These need to be addressed to the local authority whose responsibility it is to decide what uncommercial services need to be operated with a subsidy to meet essential local transport needs. We help bus users make representations to local councils about these complaints but would like to see more consumer involvement in decisions taken both about subsidised services and infrastructure for which local councils are also responsible. Currently more and more councils have set up transport forums to provide an input from the community but we have always been sceptical about the extent to which these really engage bus users at the bus stop.

  6.  Bus Users' Surgeries. That is why in recent years we have developed a scheme whereby we have enlisted the support both of local government officers and local bus operator managers in the holding of bus users' surgeries. The surgeries are held on a bus/buses parked in town centres to provide bus users with an opportunity to talk individually and face to face with those responsible for local bus services. We do a follow up to ensure that the points raised have been addressed and invite all those who attended the surgery to a special meeting where they can continue their discussions with service providers. This now includes the playing of a special video we have made to help bus users understand how the bus system works. We are currently working on a special project to adapt the scheme for rural areas.

  7.  The DTLR has supported this work and we are currently preparing guidance for local authorities and bus operators on bus passenger representation. We would like to see surgeries form part of the arrangements for both BQPs and QBCs to ensure that consumer complaints and suggestions are addressed, but even better we would like to see our scheme accepted as an essential way of involving consumers in efforts to develop attractive and better used bus networks whether commercial or supported, especially where important decisions are being taken about routes and services. We could do a great deal more if the support we receive from the bus industry was balanced by more substantial support from the Government.


  1.  The bus industry has invested heavily in new accessible vehicles over the last five years; the age profile of the bus fleet has been transformed from unacceptable into one which is now very favourable. The attendant benefits are lower emissions and improved accessibility for less able-bodied passengers. These effects can only be maximised by effecting a modal switch away from car, which can be achieved by making the bus an economic and convenient alternative. Good bus priorities, properly enforced, are essential to give the bus the advantage it needs over the car in terms of journey times in urban centres. These need to be adequately enforced; bus priorities installed at a cost of some thousands of pounds and giving potential cost benefits of many times that investment are frequently rendered useless by a single illegally parked vehicle in a bus lane.

  2.  Passenger concerns about the effects of congestion and abuse of bus priorities and facilities inspired us to launch the Congestion Busters campaign in October 2001. We visited Newcastle, Bradford, York, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Southampton and Brighton as a representative selection of urban centres, and in nearly every case we found that bus priorities were too little to have a meaningful effect on bus journey times and that abuse of bus priorities and of bus stops, by other vehicles negated the effects of providing the facilities in the first place. Of the towns visited, only Brighton, where a pro-active bus company and a local authority faced with more difficult traffic problems than most, had achieved a great deal in getting in good priorities. Decriminalised parking there has reduced the related problem of cars parked in bus stops. Similar powers applied to moving vehicle offences could deliver a similar improvement in enforcement of bus priorities.

  3.  In addition to our concerns about enforcement, we are concerned about the scarcity of priorities in centres like York and Southampton—we subsequently found the same in Salisbury, which urgently needs a modal shift to public transport—and all too often priorities are confined to locations where there is plenty of road space and do not give the bus a useful means of getting through pinch points. Lanes are sometimes too narrow too to accommodate the width of a bus on corners—Bristol for one has a number of such instances in its bus lanes. The whole-route approach to bus priorities and other infrastructure improvements brings definite benefits, but there still needs to be more boldness in ensuring that bus priorities continue through pinch points, where they are really needed. These invariably are on routes with a major throughput of passengers, though further creation of bus lanes on routes which carry fewer passengers could lead to a beneficial modal shift on routes with unrealistic growth potential.

  4.  Bus priorities are of greatest benefit when they are not applied piecemeal and much stronger enforcement is necessary to ensure their effectiveness in securing bus journey times which are more akin to car journey times in urban centres. They are also essential if bus operators are to meet the more stringent reliability requirements now being applied by the Traffic Commissioners.


  1.  It is apparent that there is a conflict at present between government bus related objectives and this also applies in the area of social exclusion. The Ten Year Transport Plan envisages a (modest) growth in bus usage of 10 per cent in the period 2000 to 2010 but success in doing this on commercial routes may be achieved at the expense of provision on services which meet essential community needs but where usage will always be limited.

  2.  Metro networks. Many of the larger bus operators (and others, eg Blackpool Transport) have introduced, or are in the process of introducing, simplified Metro style networks. These see more frequent and standardised operation on groups of corridors and have been shown in most cases to grow use by more than the government target. The other side of this coin however, is that this has meant that some areas in those towns and cities, away from these main corridors, have lost a bus service.

  3.  Government seems unsure as to whether to welcome the growth in use, or to attack the operators for these initiatives as failing to meet the tests on their social exclusion agenda.

  4.  Shepperton Case Study. While many areas outside the Southeast demonstrate this dilemma it is worth noting that similar, although different, problems can be found nearer to London. For example, Shepperton is a small town in the Borough of Spelthorne, Surrey, close to the London boundary. It has a population of 11,150, which, though largely prosperous, includes three substantial estates of former local-authority housing, plus other pockets thereof. One, next to the Studios, had opportunity for shared ownership and was also used to rehouse people from a problem area of London overspill housing at Stanwell.

  5.  Being outside the London area, and in a largely prosperous area, it has neither London-type fares nor a comprehensive bus service, other than a route to Heathrow, which has been substantially and successfully augmented through the Freeflow Heathrow initiative, with funding also from Surrey County Council. This provides a comprehensive service and a link to the local hospital, Ashford, though serves only one of the three areas of former local authority housing. Inside London, fares on such a service would be flat fare of 70p single. The return fare to Ashford Hospital is punitive, £4.30, with half fare for Surrey County Council concessionary pass holders. It also provides a service to the other local hospital, St Peters at Chertsey, though there is no service there after about 19.00hrs.

  6.  The other trunk service links Shepperton with Kingston (though this is better served by rail half hourly or better for 17 hours a day) and provides the only public transport to Staines, the regional centre for Spelthorne, some five miles distant. This is a commercial service, which has been progressively reduced and is now basically hourly. However it is on its fourth operator in less than two years, two of which failed and services were interrupted each time. Each change of operator has brought a new timetable, and at one time there was no service from Staines after 17.00, denying any opportunity for people to take retail employment in Staines. Although Surrey County Council provided some additional evening services, which have now been withdrawn, the frequent timetable changes have also made it difficult for people to rely on the service for work. The lack of service in the evening also makes it impossible for young people to get to Staines for entertainment or employment after normal shopping hours.

  7.  Both the general comments about Metro type networks and the Shepperton case history illustrate the, not surprising, limitation of commercial objectives in delivering social inclusion solutions. It is a fact that parts of most bus networks are not and will not be "commercial". If government wishes operators to provide social networks, whether spatially or temporally defined, then under the current arrangements these will have to be paid for with subsidy. The only argument is how that should be applied (links to question 1).

Dr Caroline Cahm, MBE MCIT


12 April 2002

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