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

Memorandum by UNISON (Bus 44)


  UNISON is grateful for the opportunity to respond to the issues set out in Press Notice 50 of Session 2002-02. These are of direct concern and interest to UNISON which represents around 3,500 members in the bus sector, employed in bus companies and Passenger Transport Executives. Our Transport Policy Campaign Pack, published last year, covers most of the issues. A copy of this is enclosed with the hard copy of our submission.


  1.  Tackling the problem of rising bus fares is a key part of improving accessibility and bus image. A recent study by the Commission for Integrated Transport revealed that public transport in Britain is among the most expensive in Europe and that fares are subsidised less than in any other country. At present the cost of bus subsidies, mainly for concessionary fares, is about £1.2 billon a year. For some years fare increases have been above inflation and since bus deregulation in 1985 have risen more than motoring costs. The impact has been felt most by poor households and it has become a social exclusion issue. But higher fares have also confirmed the perception among motorists of buses as unreliable and relatively expensive. They have compounded the negative image of the bus.

  2.  In our view subsidies should be looked at within the wider context of funding for bus services. In Britain, in spite of the recent local transport settlement, public funding is below that in many other European countries. The funding available for local authorities to spend is actually quite small. Local Transport Plans give five-year capital funding for infrastructure improvements, but revenue funding for subsidising services has not increased proportionately. We believe that reform is needed in the way local authorities are funded for bus services and this should be part of the review of local government finance. We support the conclusions of Transport 2000's paper on buses (A Better Deal for Buses, March 2002) that this should involve five-year revenue funding arrangements for bus support, linked to bus strategies. As the paper argues, this would give greater certainty to local authorities and bus operators in planning services, and would supplement the five-year capital funding arrangements through Local Transport Plans.

  3.  The urban and rural bus challenge initiatives are welcome, but they need to be monitored carefully to ensure that they help to deliver social inclusion, as well as improving service quality and choice. As constituted they go beyond the perception of public transport as the provision of bus services, community transport and shared taxi schemes, to include integration between transport modes and cycling. We believe there is merit in continuing the current initiatives, as they encourage transport operators to initiate new ideas and to think more deeply and widely about transport provision.


  4.  Local Transport Plans are an integral part of the Government's 10 Year Transport Strategy, which suggests that improvements to bus services will be a gradual process when popular demand is for a quick fix to Britain's transport problems. The Local Transport Settlement Plan budget announced last December will produce spending of £8.4 billon over the next five years, of which £4.4 billon, over half, will be spent on improving local public transport, with an extra £1 billon on local road schemes. The overall effect should be improved road safety and traffic management and easier cycling and walking. Outside London, Quality Partnerships between local transport operators and bus companies are a key part of the process leading to better bus services.

  5.  Quality Partnerships are the preferred option of the Government and are generally welcomed by bus companies who see them as more flexible and less restrictive than Quality Contracts. There are, however, limits to the scope of Quality Partnerships. For example, they do not allow transport authorities control over timetables or fares, perhaps the key factors determining the level of bus patronage. It is tempting therefore to support Quality Contracts which do provide transport authorities with powers of intervention in key areas. In spite of this we have reservations about the usefulness of Quality Contracts in delivering high quality bus services and in providing bus employees with improved working conditions.

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  6.  On the one hand Quality Contracts would increase local authority bargaining power vis a" vis bus operators, particularly in urban areas where operators have failed to tackle reliability, fare levels and social bus services. Quality Contracts may help to deliver improvements in services across a wider network than Quality Partnerships. There are, however, limits to the extent to which Quality Contracts can actually deliver improvements. For example, Quality Contracts will not help on routes where bus operators are willing to run a service, but there is insufficient staffing. And in rural areas Quality Contracts may not provide the flexibility needed where smaller, taxi-style bus services may be what is required. Quality Contracts are perceived as a universal panacea, but in practice their impact will be uneven with significant improvements in some areas, while others will experience little or no change. We need to look at each case on its merits.


  7.  The non-enforcement of bus priority measures is a major obstacle to the provision of quality bus services. Enforcement is no longer a police duty and local authorities who have responsibility for such matters have yet to acknowledge that there is a problem. Empirical evidence suggests that the use of dedicated bus routes by other vehicles increases bus journey times and compounds the image of the bus as an unreliable mode of transport. Local authorities, however, prefer to work on the basis of statistical evidence, which due to public reluctance to report incidents of malpractice by drivers of non-bus vehicles tends to be unconvincing.

  8.  Buses need to be accessible, reliable, relatively inexpensive and safe. We need better-designed buses so that elderly and disabled people can use them with ease. We need reliable, punctual bus services to enable people to reach their destination on time. We need lower bus fares so that the unemployed or those on low incomes can use them more often. And we need safer buses, particularly at night, for women and elderly people. Unfortunately, in too many parts of Britain bus services are unreliable, expensive and unsafe. Reliability is the litmus test of a good bus service, but it needs to be recognised that reliability of service is often constrained by appalling traffic conditions. It is unreasonable therefore to criticise bus companies for operating an unreliable, unpunctual service when buses may not have priority over other road users and are the victim of road congestion. Buses must have priority over other non-emergency vehicles, with dedicated bus lanes that work effectively. In many areas this means they must be enforced. In the West Midlands a survey by Centro showed that bus lanes are often unenforced and ineffective because politicians will not risk upsetting motorists. But what is the point of a dedicated bus route if it is not enforced?

  9.  A range of measures are available to improve the reliability of the bus. These include designating all bus lanes as red routes, installing security cameras to prosecute motorists who use bus lanes and more high tech traffic signals which allow more buses to pass through road junctions. Some local authorities, like Brighton and Cardiff, are operating these measures as part of their better traffic management scheme, but others need to do the same. Buses account for seven out of ten public transport journeys, more than twice that of rail, and improving reliability will increase bus patronage further. By increasing usage and revenue, we will create a growing industry and a virtuous circle of further bus services and improvements to existing ones.


  10.  A wholly integrated and properly regulated transport system involving buses, railways, light rail and trams, is vital for the functioning of modern society. This should ensure that public transport conforms to high environmental and safety standards, quality service and sound employment practices. National, regional and local government support should favour accessibility, reliability and social need over competition and profit. The involvement of regional and local government would bring a measure of democratic control over a privately owned transport system. And although we prefer public over private ownership, greater regulation of bus services more accurately reflects people's aspirations.

  11.  To improve bus regulation outside London we need reform in three key areas. First, the Traffic Commissioners' powers are limited. They need to be strengthened to enable them to apply a wider range of penalties and sanctions on poor bus operators. Secondly, the Office of Fair Trading needs to interpret its remit more widely to look at competition between buses and other transport modes, rather than simply within the industry itself. In particular, it should look more favourably on ticketing arrangements so that bus tickets can be used across companies to facilitate flexible travel. Thirdly, we need a greater role for bus users in regulation. In England and Wales and Scotland, there are non-statutory appeals or complaints bodies, but they have little or no relation to regulation of bus services.

  12.  We see these as short-term reforms. In the longer term we would like to see a national, regulatory body for all road transport, including bus services. A Strategic Authority for Road Transport (START) could co-ordinate and regulate the different forms of road transport, but most notably buses. It could take over the powers of the Traffic Commissioners and the bus powers of the Office of Fair Trading. It would also have powers of inspection over local authorities in relation to their duties on public transport provision. START would assist the development of an integrated transport system at the point of demand. This would facilitate co-operation between the Strategic Rail Authority and START in the development of integrated transport networks throughout Great Britain.


  13.  Although the bus has an unpopular image, it is the most popular form of public transport accounting for seven out of every ten journeys. The reason for this paradox is that most journeys are undertaken over a relatively short distance which require a greater degree of flexibility than that offered by rail. It also explains why most relatively short journeys are made by the private car. And whereas seven out of ten households own at least one car, car ownership is much lower among poor households. Consequently the bus tends to be the only means of local transport for many of these families. Bus services therefore have a key role to play in reducing social exclusion. Poor households in particular need good access to a bus service, as do many elderly people, single parents, the unemployed and people in rural areas. They also need affordable bus fares and reliable bus services for visits to friends, shops and leisure facilities.

  14.  Accessibility to public transport is a crucial area which needs to be tackled urgently. Access for the disabled is improving slowly, but there are still many areas where it is non-existent. For example, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 covers the transport infrastructure, so train platforms are expected to be accessible, but vehicles are not. And low floor buses, although generally accessible, sometimes have difficulty meeting variable kerb heights and access to the dedicated area for wheelchairs can be difficult. Good information for disabled people is essential particularly where travel involves network changes, with special attention paid to the hearing and visually impaired. It is also important that transport staff, including bus drivers, are sensitive to, and qualified to deal with, the needs of disabled travellers.

  15.  Affordability is a critical issue for the elderly, disabled people and the unemployed, who have lower than average incomes. Over the past decade bus fares have increased by around 25 per cent in real terms, so we need a low fares policy not only to enable the poor to travel but also to encourage greater bus use in general. Bus fares vary widely outside London, but on average they tend to be higher than those in the capital. This is one factor among many which explains the decline in bus patronage particularly in the English regions. The National Minimum Concessionary Fares Scheme, providing a minimum half bus fare concession in the local authority area, needs to be reformed. Scotland and Wales provide a more generous scheme than authorities in England. English authorities should follow their example, particularly where there is free travel for pensioners, and there should be a uniform scheme across all areas of England, available to all eligible users.

April 2002

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