The London Bus Summit

A UK Bus Summit took place in London on February 12 with the Secretary of State for Transport giving the introductory speech. It is hard to believe the last such conference was held back in 1999.

By Doug Jack
By Doug Jack

The summit is not just for the United Kingdom. A number of other European countries participated where the lobbies for aviation and rail are much more powerful than those for buses.

One reason may well be that politicians and legislators use trains and planes regularly, but ignore buses, even though they carry many times more passengers per year.

Much has happened since the previous summit. At that time very few transit buses were accessible, but legislation has been introduced to make them mandatory, allowing up to 15 years to replace non-accessible vehicles. As a result, a very high percentage of buses in the United Kingdom are now low entry or low floor.

The structure of the bus industry is unusual, in that there are only around a dozen public sector companies that own and run their own buses — approximately 7 percent of those in circulation. The main examples are Translink of Northern Ireland, Lothian, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Nottingham, Reading and a few other English towns. Many of the services are in the hands of five major groups, i.e. Stagecoach, FirstGroup, National Express, Go Ahead and Arriva. The latter is now a wholly owned subsidiary of DB, the German state railways.

There are around 50,000 transit buses in circulation. The two most popular types are midibuses, like the Alexander Dennis model now being marketed by New Flyer as its MiDi, and double-decker buses. There are small numbers of articulated buses, but none remain in London. Diesel is by far the most popular fuel, with only a handful of gas buses. There are more hybrid buses running in the UK than in any other European country.

A New Routemaster passing the Houses of Parliament in London.
A New Routemaster passing the Houses of Parliament in London.

Bus services are regulated in London and Northern Ireland, and deregulated in all other parts of the country. More than 8,200 buses serve London and its suburbs. It is reckoned that the fleet needs a further 500 vehicles.

Investment in heavy underground rail systems is extremely expensive and takes quite a number of years. A few years ago, when a previous mayor introduced congestion charging for cars in central London, Transport for London put an additional 1,000 buses into circulation, even though they benefitted from lower levels of traffic congestion. On many key routes in London, buses are so frequent that a timetable is unnecessary. If you miss one, you can see the next one coming.

For historical and political reasons, buses are regulated in Northern Ireland. There is a city network in Belfast and other routes throughout the country, often in quite deeply rural areas.

Outside London and Northern Ireland, services are deregulated. Many of them operate commercially, earning sufficient revenue through fares to cover costs, but a relatively small number of services have to be subsidised for social and economic reasons )often in remote parts of the country).

There is no mandatory level of collaboration between local government and bus companies. In some areas, there is little cooperation, or for that matter, interference. In other parts of the country, there is good voluntary collaboration, with local authorities providing measures like bus priority lanes to make services more efficient and attractive to passengers. Some of these have evolved into quality partnerships on a voluntary basis. More recently, at least one major regional authority wants to enforce quality contracts, where they will take over management of the network, setting fares and schedules, with operators providing buses on a London-style contract basis at a fixed revenue per mile.

A Mercedes-Benz Citaro on an interurban service in the west of Scotland.
A Mercedes-Benz Citaro on an interurban service in the west of Scotland.

The summit opened with Patrick McLoughlin, secretary of state for transport, saying that buses were key to helping people get on and get around, but the country needed buses that are modern, clean, reliable, easy to use and that meet the needs of passengers.

That seemed an odd statement because there has been regular investment in new vehicles. Because they are right-hand drive, they tend to stay in service for up to 20 years, but the oldest vehicles run low mileages on contract services and are not really part of the mainstream transport system. In London, because of the tendering system, many buses serve for only seven or eight years before being resold for further service in other parts of the country.

McLoughlin referred to a number of projects which had some financial support from central government, including the concessionary fare scheme whereby people of pensionable age can travel on buses (but not intercity coaches) free of charge. Bus companies reclaim their fares from local authorities, but that has been a very contentious issue. With pressure on local government spending, they have tried to cut payments to the bus companies.

“Cities must play their part,” he said. “Buses are the most local form of transport, so it is right that decisions are taken locally. Bus operators were innovative because they are commercial businesses competing against other forms of transport. Future success will depend on how well local authorities and local operators adapt to local conditions.”

He also stressed the importance of technology. Outside London, the industry had been slow to adopt smart ticketing. Politicians want one ticket that will work not only on the buses of all operators in a city, but also trains and, where they exist, trams. The bus companies have to take care that they do not infringe competition regulations with any form of collusion, but the major groups are working on a national scheme which will replace a number of local schemes already in place.

Leon Daniels, managing director of Surface Transport, Transport for London, said that the capital’s highly successful Oyster smart card was being replaced by a new system. He warned the audience about the very rapid growth of Uber, saying that it was not a taxi company but an app.

“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?” Daniels asked.

It was only one more step away and, if it were to catch on, as it might, it would completely redefine taxis, private hire and numerous different forms of transport that all tended to use small buses. There could be a revolution, with major impact for the bus industry.

In some parts of the country, local authorities make decisions which are not in the interests of bus companies and their passengers. They are over-influenced by car-owning voters.

David Martin, chief executive of Arriva, said that bus companies and local authorities had to work as partnerships, with each playing to its strengths and contributing where they are strongest. In Liverpool, a new mayor had removed almost all the bus priority lanes. As a result, Arriva had to run additional buses just to maintain timetables.

Several delegates gave examples of quality partnerships that are working well in major cities. In Birmingham, National Express, the major bus provider, and Centro, the regional transport authority, had worked closely to provide facilities that improved services for passengers. They were even planning to share the same offices.

Manchester had ambitions to become a world class city and had been promised powers by the government to elect its own mayor with responsibilities including a transport budget and, subject to consultation, franchised bus services. It would therefore move more toward a London-style operation. Another large city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the northeast of England, wanted to impose quality contracts where it would take control of routes, fares and frequencies.

David Brown, chief executive of the Go Ahead Group, one of the three main bus companies running services in that area, said that Newcastle had not recovered economically, with central government funding largely making up the difference between the cost of providing services and the revenue taken from them. The very real risk of quality contracts is higher fares for customers, or greater levels of subsidy from central government that simply cannot be afforded.

As one would expect, there were calls for clean vehicles, hybrids and all-electric. Mark Nodder, chairman and chief executive of the Wrights Group, said that his company and other manufacturers had been taking weight out of buses because that was a key driver of fuel reduction.

“Where is all this electricity going to come from?” Nodder asked. “If all the 8,000 plus 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 3,200MW of electricity. That was more than twice the capability of the entire generating capacity of London’s five power stations! If only 1,000 buses were recharged at one time, it would take more power than London’s second largest power station could generate.”

Everyone agreed that the conference had been a great success and many important topics were fully discussed. The next Bus Summit is planned to be held in London on February 11, 2016.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.