- The long-term decline in bus use appears to have been halted. The Department has put in place a range of policies and initiatives that could begin to reverse this decline, for which it must be congratulated. Whilst the current policies make us cautiously optimistic that the Government's target for a 10 per cent growth in bus journeys can be met by 2010, a more ambitious programme of improvements can and must be pursued if the bus is to play a full role in reducing congestion and tackling social exclusion. The 10 per cent increase in bus use may be achieved by growth in bus use in London alone, concealing stagnating or falling bus use in the rest of the country.
- Improvements in bus services are essential to reduce congestion in our cities. Buses must be given the road space they require to offer quick and attractive journey times to the centre of our major cities. Reliability and punctuality are essential to providing a service that the public can trust. The alternative is a worse bus service, more cars on the road and even greater congestion. This is in no one's interest. Where bus companies and passenger transport executives and local authorities have worked together significant increases in bus use have been achieved. More bus priority and further improvements to the bus fleet such as modern ticketing systems are required. However, many of the "quick win" improvements to bus routes have already been made. The Department must ensure that local authorities push forward with ambitious plans to speed up bus journeys and that it continues to make it easier and faster for them to do so.
- If handing over more road space to buses and introducing other car restraint measures, such as congestion charging, is to be acceptable to motorists, very significant improvements must be made to bus services. The Department has to ensure that the bus network achieves its goal of being an integrated, coordinated, attractive and easy to use alternative to the car for some journeys. The rules under which bus companies and local authorities are currently working means that common sense co-ordination cannot occur.
- The over-zealous application of the Competition Act by the Office of Fair Trading is making it impossible to achieve co-ordinated services with evenly spaced frequencies and easy to understand fares. It is wrong that local authorities and bus companies should fear cooperation when this is essential to achieving an integrated public transport network. The application of the Act must be reviewed by the Department and the Office of Fair Trading to ensure that service frequencies, spacings, fares and connections can be agreed by local authorities. If this cannot be achieved, the Act must be modified at the earliest opportunity.
- In the long run, the main competitor to the bus industry is the car. If co-ordinated services cannot be provided, more people will leave the bus for the car and concerns about collusion between bus companies and profiteering will become even more academic than they appear today.
- The current policy of improving the bus network through quality partnerships between local authorities and bus companies is in danger of creating a two-tier network of bus services. Quality partnerships are only suitable for a minority of routes, albeit the busiest. These routes have seen increased passenger numbers and profits, allowing for faster renewal of the bus fleet. Whilst some major cities and larger towns may benefit significantly, a large number of small to medium sized towns, rural areas and parts of cities will receive little or no improvement. Bus quality contracts, where the local authority specifies minimum service requirements and bus companies compete at the tendering stage to run services, are currently only considered to be a fall back position by the Department. We identified a number of circumstances where such contracts might offer significant benefits to passengers and better value for money. The bus industry's approach to the use of quality contracts is entirely negative and unhelpful. However, the Department must continue to ensure that its bus policy is driven by the interests of the tax payer and the ticket holders and not just the shareholders. These interests overlap but are not the same.
- The Government has made significant improvements to public transport in rural areas through new funding initiatives. The future of public transport in rural areas seems to be to the provision of small, dial-a-ride, vehicles for people in more remote areas to use to connect to a network of regular inter-town commercial bus services. It is inevitable that these services will require on going revenue support and the Department must provide this funding to ensure that successful schemes can continue beyond the end of their trial periods.
- Improvements to bus services offer a quick and cost-effective way of tackling congestion and a range of social exclusion problems. The UK currently provides the lowest subsidy for bus use in the whole of the European Union. The Government must build on its success to date and invest more heavily in the provision of quality bus services. In doing so, it has to ensure that its investment is matched by the required improvements to the quality of bus routes and the frequency, coverage and co-ordination of services. We have set out in this report how we believe this can best be done. A failure to invest more in the bus network will be a lost opportunity to reduce congestion and improve the quality of life in urban and rural areas. A failure to invest will also have significant impacts on expenditure by other Government departments such as Health, Education and Skills and Work and Pensions as a result of poor access, poor reliability and narrow horizons for those dependent on public transport.