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

Bus cuts close doors onto the world

‘It’s like a forgotten world. It makes you feel depressed…we’ve got bus passes – that’s brilliant – I feel like framing mine…But no bus services to use them on. We’re on an estate surrounded by main roads. The whole of life is out there but we can’t access it.’

COVID may have changed the context for bus services but bus cuts still aren’t victimless or without consequences. It’s just that (as with past waves of bus cuts) those who are most affected by them don’t have much clout or visibility. They were marginalised already and bus cuts marginalise them even further. A few years back we worked with CBT and the Ecorys consultancy to look at the affects on two sample places (the Burbank Estate in Hartlepool and Marchwood in Hampshire) of losing their bus services. Re-reading the reports now the overall sense you get is the way that bus cuts close down both specific opportunities and how, more widely, they wall people into living more lonely, restricted and stigmatised lives. There’s a dimming of the lights. A closing of doors onto the world. Which all comes at a cost – in poorer physical and mental health. In missed life chances.

‘Needed the bus to travel into town and often caught connecting bus to daughters and vice versa so don’t see as much of each other now. Feel totally isolated – I have problems walking, get short of breath and use a stick.’

“I want to be independent and it’s not allowing me to be independent. If you put yourself in my shoes, I’m not able to drive and I have health reasons as well…it’s not a very nice situation to be in when you know your children want to go and do something and you have to say ‘no I’m sorry I can’t get you there because there isn’t a bus service.’

These are the voices that remind us that buses are a key public service relied upon by those with the least. They remind us that whilst buses should be in the aspirational business of getting modal shift from the car for ‘people like us’, they are also there so that millions of people on low incomes, who don’t have access to a car in the first place, can get out of the house. And without a new funding deal for bus there will be many more people whose lives will be narrowed by the loss of their bus service.

Our latest report on bus funding (produced for us by Steer, and using our Metropolitan Bus Model) found that the number of bus passengers in city regions outside London could be up to 30% lower than before the pandemic. A hit of “similar magnitude” to the direct impact which COVID-19 itself has had on demand. The report also found that over a quarter of city region bus services could be lost. The report concluded: ‘Around half of all bus users are dependent on bus for their travel. The young and the elderly have the highest propensity to use bus, as do people in the lowest income quintile. A reduced bus service means that some of these people will have no viable travel alternative. A smaller public transport network means that remaining bus users will have reduced access to jobs, education, health and leisure activities, which will have knock-on negative impacts to the economy. Higher fares will make them worse off financially at a time when people are also facing higher gas and electricity bills and food price inflation.’

The report was picked up in The Times – part of the wider and welcome traction that bus cuts now has in the national and mainstream media. A level of interest that is probably greater than buses have had for many years. However, there’s a danger that we are now getting locked into a narrative which in effect about pushing back the point (measured in months) at which additional COVID funding will end and we get back to ‘normal’ on funding. The problem with that is we need to get real about the order of magnitude increase in subsidy that will be needed if COVID’s legacy isn’t going to be more than a particularly savage episode of the normal pattern of bus network and patronage contraction. Because if we go back to what level of revenue support we had for bus pre-COVID then that pretty much guarantees more decline of bus networks (given that’s what it bought us before).

To even return to pre-COVID levels of patronage will require a substantial uplift in pre-COVID levels of subsidy – and to get to Bus Back Better nirvana you are looking at a further substantial uplift again. You want high quality bus services everywhere then take a look at the subsidy levels that those European countries that have them are providing. It’s based on something entirely different to the low subsidy and high fare model we have in the UK.

You want to find the money to do this – then there are some magic money trees available. For example DfT could ask National Highways to give back the one they gave them for the zombie national road programme. But a long term higher subsidy model for bus doesn’t suit incumbent monopolies – as it would lead to more expectations of public influence. And it doesn’t suit the Treasury – because they don’t like revenue subsidies (especially much bigger ones). So instead an emerging narrative is that if we are going to career over the end of COVID funding cliff edge at some stage anyway then we might as well be grown up about it, face up to reality (in a sorrowful but professional way) and get on with the cuts now.

And for those who are squeamish about the thought of another round of bus network cuts, or uncomfortable with the dissonance with Bus Back Better, then don’t worry. Once the ship has steadied after COVID buses will get a shot in the arm from spending that flows from Bus Service Improvement Plans and City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements which will drive up patronage. So look on the bright side – these cuts might only be temporary. They might. But somehow I doubt it. After all it’s much more difficult to build back services and patronange after its’s been trashed than if it had been sheltered from the storm in the first place.

A more rational and credible approach would be to maintain networks for a longer period whilst firstly it becomes clearer what the fall out from COVID is for travel patterns (at present we are still at the guessing rather than knowing stage). And secondly to give time to move to a reformed and long term funding settlement for bus. This would also allow more time for the benefits of upcoming capital investment in bus to take effect.

But whatever happens next it should be based on a recognition that cuts have consequences for those with the least. That the people who use bus services matter.

‘It does make you think that you are reliant [on buses] and you could get quite down about it… I feel frustrated and a bit sort of left out. People like me in my situation or the elderly…don’t really matter… I know that one person doesn’t matter to them but really that one person does matter, everyone matters.’

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Passenger Transport magazine

An unhappy new year for public transport?

It’s been a shaky start to the new year for public transport and it could get a lot rougher yet.

Let me count the ways…

  1. The ‘work from home where you can’ advice has hit public transport’s core commuting market hard. Meanwhile the pre-Christmas binge on shopping and socialising which kept public transport patronage afloat looks like it has been followed by a hard January comedown
  2. Pre-Omicron, driver shortages were a serious problem for bus services with operators taking different approaches to managing them (in terms of whether the service reductions are short term or long term and whether they are focused on frequent routes or less frequent routes). Operators were also taking different approaches to how much effort and resource they were putting into recruiting staff. 

    Also, and unlike for road haulage, where the DfT has a proactive strategy for addressing multiple aspects of the driver shortage affecting the industry, there was no equivalent strategy from DfT for the driver shortage crisis on the buses. This has now been exacerbated by Omicron and associated self-isolation. Industrial action is also on the rise.
  3. Additional COVID funding support for urban public transport for public transport outside London runs out by the end of March and it’s not clear whether that funding will be sufficient given Government won’t share with us the patronage projections on which it’s based (which may prove to be optimistic).
  4. HMT standard practice is to take any decisions on additional funding right to the wire, however local tansport authorities have to set budgets well before the end of March and plan any service changes that may be required.

All of which points to operators moving to rebase commercial networks at a significantly lower level than they were pre-pandemic (and some are now starting to break cover on this). The onus then passes to local transport authorities to step in and pay private operators to keep services running. But local transport authorities themselves have limited resources to do so and the prices that private bus companies are quoting for keeping those services running have soared (price increases of 50% are not uncommon). This reflects both rising costs and operators taking advantage of low levels of competition for tenders in order to name their price.

The funding challenge for transport authorities with large light rail systems is particularly acute given that most of the costs of light rail systems are fixed so significant cost reductions are difficult to achieve (short of closing them down). They also have legal and fiscal responsibilities for their light rail systems which they do not have for bus services. So, if light rail funding isn’t extended beyond March 2022, then transport authorities may be forced to make savings from spending on bus in order to keep their light rail systems operational.  

It wasn’t meant to be this way. The national bus strategy (‘Bus Back Better’) launched in March 2021 envisaged a new dawn for buses with more, cheaper and greener bus services everywhere. It was predicated on £3 billion of additional ‘transformational’ funding and on the tacit assumption that the pandemic would soon be over. However, the pandemic is still here and in the November 2021 Spending Review the Treasury didn’t countersign the £3bn cheque that Number Ten wrote. We still don’t know how the bus money that the Treasury did agree to will be divided up. If more of it isn’t purloined for additional COVID revenue support, then this additional investment will be a shot in the arm for bus services in the areas that benefit – including through more bus priority schemes.

But the danger is that this may be too little too late as the first half of 2022 sees another lurch downwards in the scale and extent of bus networks – following on from years of pre-COVID decline and the hammer blow of the pandemic itself. There’s still time (but not much) to avert this. It could be done through devolving adequate funding to transport authorities to support networks in a planned, integrated and cost efficient way (rather than allowing the DfT to continue to take the path of least resistance and route hundreds of millions of pounds of COVID funding to private operators so that they can manage the decline of bus services in a way that serves their own commercial and corporate interests). It would also require a national strategy for tackling driver shortages as well as pressing the fast forward button on allocating the funding promised in the spending review to improve bus services so transport authorities can crack on without further clawback and second guessing from Whitehall.

Time is running out though.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

Read more about the threat to public transport in our city regions in our briefing.