BUSES: ALL CHANGE

Dundee

Britain’s rural bus network is sliding into crisis. With the squeeze on government spending showing no sign of easing and passenger numbers down, a slow death of a thousand cuts seems almost inevitable. Already, in many parts of the country, services to isolated communities have been cut to the bone, even to extinction, and the social cost is potentially beyond measure.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  It is worth remembering that in the not-too-distant past the nation’s trains were where the bus network is now: under planned; overstretched and underused. It was Dr Beeching who turned things around with a strategic review of rail provision that was tough minded and clear eyed, if not always popular. Beeching was prepared to ask fundamental questions: what was rail really good for? Where could it be replaced with a more efficient alternative? And the result – although it is not always safe to say so in the company of rail enthusiasts – was a boom in the use of rail. Passenger numbers have almost doubled since 1970, compared to a decline in bus use of almost two thirds. 

A strategic review of the bus network could do for the buses what the Beeching report did for the trains, although not, of course, in quite the same way. Inefficient train routes in the ‘60s could be replaced with buses as part of a rationalisation plan, but bus planners don’t have a similar option. What they do have, though, is a plethora of local bus transport services that are invisible to the average traveller because they are excluded from using them. Education authorities, social services and, increasingly, public health services all manage their own transport provision, each separate from the other, running alongside but rarely in coordination. What if these services could be fully co-ordinated into the service of every bus user in a local area? What if, as pilot projects by SYSTRA in Northern Ireland and elsewhere seem to show, a huge increase in bus provision could be found with no increase in cost, simply by getting more clever at using what we already have (without always knowing it)?

If that sounds like a free meal - the kind the economists are always warning us about - it is because we are locked into an old-fashioned way of thinking where traditional buses run to timetable along a series of pre-designated stops, collecting and dropping off, not always reliable, but more or less predictable. But the technological revolution of the 21st century will not let us continue unchallenged down that road. Consumer expectations have changed, adapted to disruptive innovations such as the Uber taxi hailing app that brings the cab to you. To survive in the 21st century, the bus service is going to need to become similarly user responsive. Instead of standing at a stop with their arm out, future travellers may be pre-booking for a bus to add them to its route, arriving at a specific location to pick them up in a smaller sized vehicle than they are used to, one that doubles at other times in the day as a social service transport or school bus.

A rural bus network that operated on such principles would have the ability to respond to specific local circumstances and needs and have the potential to attract back passengers driven away by the thinness and inflexibility of current provision. It could reach isolated communities because it would be highly efficient, responding only when there was demand, and it would, crucially require little or no extra revenue. It may even deliver a saving.

Unless such radical steps are taken it is hard to feel optimistic about the prospects for buses - and let’s not forget that with all the talk about falling demand, bus travel still accounts for 5.6 billion passenger journeys, more than three times the number made by rail, a lifeline for tens of thousands of people and an essential economic support for the country. But although the network is in trouble, it may well be more resilient than we think if we can look at it clearly as a whole, ask the right questions and make some tough decisions, if we can find the imagination - and determination - to become modern-day Beechings.