Local bus networks have been problematic for decades. Since 1985, the bus industry has tried to achieve the impossible by trying to deliver a bus network at reasonable cost that is attractive to customers by being comfortable, reliable and fair value for money but also gives a good return to shareholders. Increasingly, this activity has proved to be unsustainable. You can either have a thriving widespread bus network or a small focused profit centre, but not both.
The railway industry has relied on public subsidy for over 70 years; experience has shown that public transport is a loss maker, both here and abroad. Dr Beeching received substantial opposition, even vilification, when he attempted to reduce and reshape the rail industry. He would have faced far fewer difficulties had he done the same with the bus industry.
The bus has a poor public persona. It is regarded as the poor person’s transport, for those who can’t afford a car. When the public think of a train, they think of the Flying Scotsman or a high-speed train. When they think of a plane, they think of the Spitfire and Concorde. Ask the public to think of a bus, and the picture they conjure up might be a Routemaster, but more likely it will be some broken down old Stagecoach Optare.
Yet, we need our buses now, more than ever.
Bus Back Better
In March 2021, central government published Bus Back Better. It spelled out, in graphic detail, the gulf between the vision and reality. Bus ridership has been falling for years, and not just during the pandemic. The public often complain about rail fares and commuting, but bus fares have risen far more. Meanwhile, the economics of car ownership have decreased, or remained steady, during this period. The bus companies talk about the economics of bus operation, but the public also understand those economics and are increasingly deserting the bus and switching to the car.
When Bus Back Better was published, the government allocated money to each county or unitary council to fund a Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) in its area. The BSIPs were to be completed by October 2021, and there was £3bn in the pot for those councils with successful plans. The £3bn shrank to less than £1bn, and not everyone received any money at all. Because of the limited time and in-house capacity, most BSIPs were written by a small group of consultants. Therefore, there is similarity in the BSIPs that were submitted to government. Kent County Council (KCC) was allocated £35.1m based on its plan. It was very lucky to be allocated any cash, because at the very time the BSIP grants were allocated, KCC decided to cut its (mainly) rural bus subsidy. So, what might we get for the money? Well, firstly, it’s not a plan, Jim, as we know it.
If a plan is a set of aspirations, with no robust estimates or schedules for delivery, then the Kent BSIP is a plan.
The KCC Bus Improvement plan
‘Think of a builder constructing a house. What sort of house would be produced if the builder wasn’t sure what the house would look like, had no clue as to where it would be located, or how much it would cost, but would be expected to fit it with lots of gadgets, and that it would be really cutting edge?’
That’s what the KCC bus improvement plan looks like. It could be anything or nothing.
When you read it, it is like a Groundhog Day experience. The same facts and aspirations are trotted out in every chapter. We are told multiple times that there are 39 bus companies operating in Kent. (There will probably be far fewer now, because smaller operators are dropping like flies. KCC has cut its subsidy on rural services, where many of these small operators survive.)
The Enhanced Partnership objectives are trotted out constantly to ward off evil bus service reductions, which are now a reality.
So, what are these objectives, and how will they be achieved?
The Enhanced Partnership objectives
- ‘Continue to support the development of Enhanced Partnership Agreements covering all public buses in Kent, setting ambitious targets with respect to punctuality, journey times, vehicle quality and accessibility.’
- ‘Put the customer at the heart of everything we do.’
- ‘Network developments: Seek to secure all available funding and prioritise its use to 1) support services, and 2) further develop and enhance Kent’s public transport through a range of initiatives.’
- ‘Undertake a countywide and then localised network analysis.’
- ‘Consider and embrace innovative transport solutions such as DRT [demand responsive transport] and MaaS [mobility as a service] models as possible alternatives to the private car and make use of BRT where appropriate.’
- ‘Fares and ticketing: Provide flexible and better value ticketing options.’
- ‘Public transport information: Improve the quality and accessibility of public transport information.’
- ‘Accessibility: Strive to improve the levels of physical and digital accessibility both on buses and through infrastructure to ensure a fully accessible network for disabled passengers.’
- ‘Environment and air quality: Promote the role of buses in solving air quality issues.’
- ‘Infrastructure, network management and bus priority: Put buses at the centre of decision-making in respect of new road schemes, planning and developments.’
- ‘Schools transport: Continue to promote the bus and the convenient, cost effective and sustainable means for travel to School and College.’
Will Kent’s local bus network improve?
All good stuff, but how likely is it that any of this will happen? At the very time that the government allocated £35.1m to fund projects described in the KCC improvement plan, KCC announced cuts to its rural bus support funding.
The built environment committee of the House of Lords has just published a report called Public Transport in Cities and Towns, which describes in detail the challenges faced by transport authorities like KCC.
KCC is the largest shire county, but it is a minnow in transport terms. It also suffers from silo management, acting if it were within a closed system. KCC actively ignored Transport for London, Surrey County Council, East Sussex County Council and even Medway Borough Council within its BSIP. This means it is unable and unwilling to coordinate its transport network, specifically its bus network, with others, to the detriment of all.