Memorandum by UNISON (Bus 44)
THE BUS INDUSTRY
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.
THE UK BUS
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
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
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.