Bus safety shouldn’t be an afterthought

The National Bus Strategy for England has an opinion about everything; from bus shelters to bus numbers – it knows best. However, there’s one topic where it is curiously quiet. And that’s bus safety. Or perhaps I should say dangerously quiet, given the yawning gulf that now exists between the approach taken in London and Northern Ireland on bus safety and the approach taken elsewhere in the UK. Or indeed, more widely, the approach taken to rail, maritime and aviation safety in the UK compared with bus in Great Britain outside London. In these places, and for these modes, there is a clear across the board structure for safety leadership and a transparent data driven approach to analysis, action and targets for reducing risk and accidents.

For some time we’ve made the case to the Department for Transport for reform to bring the safety regime for buses up to scratch – and that the starting point should be a review of current arrangements to benchmark them against best practice. We got nowhere on this so we’ve sought to fill a gap (that it shouldn’t be up to us to fill) by commissioning such a review ourselves – from Loughborough University’s Transport Safety Research Centre.

The report makes for concerning reading but it boils down to the fact at a national level, we don’t have the data and analysis to drive safety policy on bus, and even if we did there’s no single body to act on the analysis in a coherent and proactive way at the national level. As one of those interviewed for the report said: “It just doesn’t feel joined up.” All of this adds up to a safety regime which is fragmented and reactive rather than coherent and proactive. That’s not to say there isn’t good practice and sharing on bus safety in England, but the under-resourced sum is less than the parts. In my professional lifetime, the DfT has done not much more than tinker with the bus safety regime leaving it to do the best it can with minimal resources.

In effect Transport for London has been left to fill the vacuum on leadership and standard setting on bus safety with its Vision Zero target of no one to be killed or seriously injured on or by a London bus by 2030 and its comprehensive and transparent approach to analysis of risks followed up by programmes to tackle them, from its ground breaking bus vehicle safety standards to its data-led approach to reducing passenger injuries due to slips, trips and falls. And from advanced emergency braking to its in-depth work on the sounds that electric buses can make, it’s TfL that has become both the defacto national research and development centre and leader on bus safety.

Meanwhile, it seems that if there is to be any significant change in the safety regime for buses in GB outside London then it will be a by-product of other forces at play. The government’s enthusiasm for creating a framework by which autonomous vehicles can operate (alongside the stalling in road casualty reductions more widely) has led to a consultation on establishing a road collision accident investigation body to bring roads more into line with the body that exists for rail.

This is welcome. But for the investigation branch to work we also need something similar to the other safety bodies that rail has – so while the Rail Accident Investigation Branch investigates crashes, the Office of Rail and Road is the health and safety regulator and enforcement authority for the railway. Meanwhile the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) enables and informs safety leadership. Part of its job is to gather data to understand better how the industry is performing and enable it to identify emerging issues as early as possible, so action can be taken. The work of the RSSB allows the rail industry to work together as a single system to reduce risk as much as possible, and enables better safety decisions to be made, and means that safety investment can be targeted to where it is needed most. It’s the proactive, looking ahead function that RSSB provides for the rail industry that is missing for bus in particular.

If there were to be an overarching safety body covering bus then there are pros and cons around whether this could be wrapped up within a national transport safety body, or whether there could be a roads or bus specific body. But the Loughborough report found support for such a body in principle. If such a body had the capacity to receive a much wider range of accident, risk and incident data than the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency currently does – and was able to analyse it and act on it – the safety regime for bus would start to look more like good practice.

The National Bus Strategy has dragged many elements of poor practice, and areas of bus provision which need to improve, into the spotlight but left the bus safety regime to stagnate in the margins. But shouldn’t any responsible strategy for any industry have improving safety as a core objective rather than barely an afterthought?

Buses are coming home

Wales (population 3.2 million) wants all its buses franchised. Greater Manchester (2.8 million) and Liverpool City Region (1.5 million) are well down the road. West Yorkshire (2.3 million) and South Yorkshire (1.4 million) have triggered the process. London (8.9 million) and Northern Ireland’s (1.9 million) buses are already under public control. That’s nearly 22 million people in areas of the UK where bus services are under public control or somewhere on the road to it. Meanwhile, Stagecoach has thrown in the towel on trying to block bus franchising in Greater Manchester and the secretary of state for transport, Grant Shapps, has said how delighted he is that franchising in Greater Manchester is going ahead and that it’s the way forward.

After facing years of disdain for vigorously making the case that this key public service should be run in the public interest I look forward to the next stage with everyone saying they were never really against it in the first place. Though reading the Stagecoach (of ‘we would rather drink poison’ fame) press release on their failed legal challenge it looks like this phase has started already. As they say – everything comes to he who waits.

I’m an Edinburgh fan myself

Having spent a few days in Edinburgh I’m an even bigger fan of Lothian buses than I was before. Every single bus feels like it’s brand new. I’ve never ever been on a grubby one. I love the municipal dignity of the fleet – both the interiors and the exteriors. Maroon for urban, green for rural. And now you can tap and go that’s the last remaining layer of hassle removed. It’s the only city I can think of, other than London, where the bus feels like a mass transit system (especially with those tri-axle double decker giants) used by all sections of society. Get the basics consistently right and you have an urban bus network that people will respond to.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

This piece originally appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine

Transport: Designing for different points of view 

I recently read Anita Sethi’s ‘I Belong Here’, a wonderful book about race and belonging in modern Britain, exploring the urban and rural landscapes of Northern England and what it means to be a woman of colour in these spaces. And many of the feelings and experiences she described resonate with me as a woman of colour, currently living in Northern England, although I would say I have had those feelings and experiences throughout Britain.  

But what does this have to do with urban transport? Well, the journey at the heart of ‘I Belong Here’ was catalysed by Anita’s own experience of being a victim of racist abuse on a train journey. She talks extensively in the book about her experiences of racism being denied by those around her, but it was positive to read how transport workers believed and supported her after she became a victim of a race hate crime. And it is by hearing these stories that we will recognise how we can address inequalities and support everyone to travel safely. 

Coincidently, I have been involved in a new report co-authored by the Urban Transport Group and Arup called Equitable Future Mobility – Ensuring a just transition to net zero. The report talks about how new technologies have the potential to help decarbonise transport but that they must be applied in a way that does not marginalise some groups or reinforce existing inequalities. Both ‘I Belong Here’ and the report have made me reflect on who we design transport for, how safe people feel, how transport can support wellbeing by helping people to access opportunities (including access to nature), and how all of that relates to delivering on our goals to decarbonise transport.  

Late last year I blogged about my belief that we need to explore and grapple with issues of personal safety on transport in order to enable people to travel in more sustainable ways. I was therefore really encouraged to see that last week, Transport Champions Laura Shoaf (our Chair) and Anne Shaw from Transport for West Midlands, published a series of recommendations for addressing violence against women and girls within the transport sector. These are listed below.

  1. Better national transport planning guidance on ways to make infrastructure safer with a clear, monitored reporting service for infrastructure damage or issues 

2. Improvements in the collection of gender disaggregated data 

3. Undertake a national communications initiative into tackling VAWGs, which is promoted nationally across our transport networks 

4. Deliver better, effective training across the transport industry to help manage incidents involving VAWGs  

5. Review current safeguarding practices and standardise Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks for all front facing staff across the transport industry  

6. Encourage increased uptake of women working in the transport industry 

7. Embrace more use of technology to combat VAWGs 

8. Introduce Gender Responsive Budgets to support the delivery of gender equality infrastructure and policies 

9. Create a national, intelligence database which captures incident reporting from all transport modes and areas 

10. Develop a national education initiative in schools which educates young people on ways they can play a role in preventing VAWGs 

11. Target available resources and funding, including staffing and deployment of police forces in locations which will have the greatest impact on our transport networks 

12. Establish more Safer Travel Partnerships between operators and the police across our major cities 

13. Continue to raise awareness and make a positive impact through the tackling VAWG strategy 

A number of these recommendations are reflected in the findings of our own report with Arup and are common themes that come up time and again when we talk about equity. They are the need for better representation of the diversity of communities that we serve, both in our workforce and in the data we collect about who travels, where, how and why. With proper representation, we have a better chance to ensure our transport networks are available, accessible, affordable and acceptable to all – the Four A’s which guide our work on transport and social inclusion. 

What this all adds up to is the need to recognise the intersectional dimensions of people’s experiences. The stories that Anita tells in her book are those of a woman of colour. And it is important to understand the experiences of people with a range of protected characteristics and how those characteristics might interact and how they play out in transport settings.  

As transport professionals, we need to learn from these experiences – whether a racist incident, an issue of personal safety, a mobility challenge for a disabled transport user, and so on.  

Overall, I am heartened to see the attention that safety and social inclusion are gaining in the transport sector. We are at a moment of transition, as we seek to decarbonise our transport system in the coming decades. We need to ensure that this transition to net zero delivers on our wider goals of inclusion and fairness, and we need to make sure that the technologies we adopt in the transport sector also help us to meet these goals. 

If you’re interested in exploring these topics further, we are holding a free online conversation on 29 March, 12-1pm, which will look at how new mobility can be part of the just transition to net zero transport. You can register here

Clare Linton is Policy and Research Advisor at the Urban Transport Group 

Rail devolution and rail reform: options for the future

Before the pandemic struck, one in three rail journeys in Britain were being made on services for which responsibility was devolved in full or in part to city regions, regions and administrations in Wales, Scotland, London, the north of England, Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands.

This devolution of responsibilities for rail has been one of the big success stories on rail in recent years. One only has to look at networks such as London Overground and Merseyrail – neglected when run from the centre or as part of larger franchises, but transformed under local control and now regularly shortlisted or winners of National Rail Awards.

In fact, the Williams-Shapps reforms have paid them the ultimate compliment of seeking to emulate these contracts in the future.

Devolution has (by and large) led to more investment, higher levels of passenger satisfaction, and more reliable services. It has also helped to embed heavy rail services within wider public transport networks and within broader plans for housing, economic development and decarbonisation.

Rail is critical to so much of what city regions and devolved administrations are trying to achieve – from meeting ambitious air quality and decarbonisation targets to giving the public the public transport they want and need (one network, one ticket, one identity). All this has been well set out in reports from the Urban Transport Group – Rail Devolution Works and Rail Cities UK.

However, too often in the past, local rail services have sat outside the wider local public transport – remote and unresponsive to local need. Devolved authorities and administrations have often struggled with the complexities and high costs that have been associated with the format of the rail industry since privatisation.

For example, on station development, it can be argued that the current industry structures have inhibited any major investment and upgrades (car parking aside). And on fares and ticketing, everyone recognises the success of the London system and the inclusion of rail services in it, but it has proved difficult to emulate this elsewhere.

The reforms being ushered in by the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail offer the opportunity to change all this – simplifying the structure of the industry and having Great British Railways with strong regional structures should help.

However, there is a risk that debates about the future shape of the railways will be inward looking, and will forget or ignore the benefits of involving devolved authorities and administrations in rail services and infrastructure.

Therefore, it is vital that devolved authorities have a seat at the table when big decisions are being taken about how Williams-Shapps will be implemented in practice.

How might devolution work in practice? Different areas will have different ambitions for the role they wish to play, depending on local aspirations and capabilities. The reforms and supporting legislation should support and facilitate a wide range of options for extending and deepening local control and accountability for both rail services and rail assets and investment.

On services, the options are:

Full control of local rail services: In this option, the contract or concession for running local rail services would be let by the local/devolved transport authority, rather than by Great British Railways.

The service levels, timetable, station staffing, and service quality standards and incentives regime would be set as part of this concession, subject to agreement on track capacity with the system operator.

The services and stations would be branded as part of the region’s integrated transport system, and fares integrated within wider local public transport fares structures. Revenue risk would be borne by the authority and operator as agreed within the concession contract.

This is essentially the system by which London Overground and Merseyrail services are provided.

Full control and direct provision of local rail services: This is like the first option, but an operating subsidiary of the transport authority would run train services (rather than operation being contracted out to a private sector provider).

This is the system now operating in Wales, and it will be applied in Scotland this year. Light rail systems such as the Tyne and Wear Metro and the West Midlands Metro are also operated (and owned) by the city region transport authority.

Joint control of local rail services: In this scenario, the concession for local rail services will be let jointly by GBR and the transport authority.

The transport authority and GBR will jointly decide service levels, branding, and oversee quality standards. Revenue risk will be shared. There could be separate point-to-point rail fares as well as zonal multi-modal fares, with revenue apportionment arrangements.

Joint management responsibility for local rail services between GBR and the transport authority: This scenario is similar to the previous option, with joint management responsibility by GBR and the transport authority, but revenue risk will stay with GBR.

This is essentially the arrangement that governs West Midlands Trains, with the West Midlands Rail Executive involved in management of the franchise, as well as for the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, which are overseen by a DfT and Transport for the North joint board.

Buying additional services: In this scenario, GBR will let the concession for local rail services, but the transport authority will be able to buy additional services on top of the baseline that GBR has determined.

This is essentially the system that existed before privatisation between Passenger Transport Executives and British Rail.

Consultation and partnerships on local rail services: In this scenario, GBR will let concessions or agree contracts to run the local rail services, and transport authorities would be consulted on the service levels, station staffing and facilities, service quality standards, arrangements for integration with other modes, and the fares to be included in these concessions. This could also include the ability to trigger performance reviews if quality standards fall below agreed levels.

In addition, in all cases, transport authorities will want to be involved in the concession agreements for longer-distance services in their areas and on timetabling proposals generally.

On rail assets, the options for devolution are:

Devolving control and ownership of rail infrastructure: In this scenario, the transport authority would take over ownership of rail infrastructure (stations, tracks and signalling) from what is now Network Rail and will be GBR.

This scenario is being pursued by the Liverpool City Region in relation to the Merseyrail network, and has taken place in Wales where the Core Valley lines network has transferred to Transport for Wales.

It has also occurred in the past where former heavy rail routes have been converted to light rail (such as in Greater Manchester). This scenario would also allow a transport authority to let a concession for both the infrastructure and operations.

The ownership of rail infrastructure stays with GBR but management is transferred to the transport authority: Whereas the previous option entails the transport authority taking over the freehold of rail infrastructure, this scenario would be a leasehold for the infrastructure.

For example, this would allow transport authorities to take over the leasehold of local stations from private operators so that they can invest in their future, while longer[1]term asset management and protection responsibilities remain with GBR.

Rail infrastructure stays with GBR, but the transport authority invests in upgrading it: Transport authorities would use their own resources (or source other public and private funding) to pay for upgrading of rail infrastructure, the contracts for which would be let and managed by GBR.

An example is the Cornwall main line upgrade of track and signalling, with European and other funding brought in by Cornwall Council. There would be an agreement between the transport authority and GBR specifying outputs and delivery dates, with penalty clauses if these were not met.

Most rail infrastructure stays with GBR, but stations transfer to the transport authority: This scenario was proposed by Transport for Greater Manchester, which argued that it could make better use of stations and the surrounding estate than would be the case if they stayed with Network Rail. Development rights would transfer to the LTA, although some gainsharing arrangements with GBR could be agreed.

Bespoke station investment/ upgrade deals: In this scenario, investment packages for individual stations would be agreed under bespoke arrangements.

In some cases, the LTA might take ownership of the station to more easily facilitate additional funding. In other cases, GBR might retain ownership but would have a joint investment agreement with the LTA which would bring in funding to upgrade it.

Agreed long-term investment strategies for local rail: In this option, transport authorities would agree with GBR a long-term investment programme for lines and networks in their area.

This could be used to shape rail programmes for transport authority-controlled funding streams, as well as the decarbonisation targets to be set in Local Transport Plans. Such strategies should also form part of the 30-year Whole Industry Strategic Plan.

Where transport authorities are taking on responsibilities for rail provision formerly undertaken by national government, that funding would also need to be devolved.

More widely for all of these options, there will need to be financial transparency by GBR, so that transport authorities have a clear view of the costs allocated to their local rail services. This will also provide transport authorities with a robust basis for sourcing any additional local public or private funding to support enhancements and improvements.

City region authorities and devolved administrations are keen to play their part in making rail reform a success and in supporting the rail industry. The options set out here are intended to help discussion on how they can be involved.

Stephen Joseph is a transport policy consultant and adviser to the Rail Devolution Network. This article is adapted from Making rail reform work for people and places in the city regions, a statement from the Urban Transport Group

This article originally appeared in Rail Magazine.

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