COMMONS

Give priority to improvement of bus services

13 September 2012

Give priority to improvement of bus services, says Commons Transport Committee.

Bus services remain the Cinderella of public transport, warn MPs. The Government and bus industry need to show more leadership to raise the standard of bus services. In a report published today, the Transport Committee says that bus passengers are treated less favourably than rail passengers despite the fact that more than three times as many people travel by bus than go by rail.

Chair's comments

Launching the report of an inquiry into Competition in the local bus market, Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the Transport Committee, said

"More than five billion journeys are made by bus in Great Britain each year, to workplaces, schools, shops and hospitals. While some bus services are good, too often passengers are dissatisfied with the reliability of the service, the level of fares and the need to buy another ticket if the trip involves two bus companies.
More competition among bus operators may improve services in some areas but many routes simply cannot sustain more than one operator. It is worrying that the Traffic Commissioners* who are responsible for bus safety and punctuality monitoring appear to have insufficient resources to carry out these crucial roles as effectively as they would wish.
Outside London, the quality of bus services depends on partnerships between local authorities and the bus operators.** Some partnerships, such as we saw in Oxford, are working well but effective partnership working needs to be developed more widely."

Conclusions

The Committee also concluded that:

  • The Local Transport Act 2008 gives local authorities a range of tools to work with bus operators to improve local bus services. The Committee concluded that the legislation did not need updating.
  • In a minority of areas, such as where local authorities take on responsibility for local rail services, bus franchising may be an appropriate option. These would require additional subsidy and sustained political commitment.
  • Local authorities should be free to choose between the partnership and franchise options and the Government should take an even-handed approach. In particular the Government’s Better Bus Areas fund should be available to local authorities pursuing the franchise approach.
  • The bus industry is dominated by five large companies. These companies should show greater leadership and address the long-term interests of bus passengers. They should lead the way with the introduction of multi-operator smartcards, service stability and passenger information.
  • Whereas the rail regulator (the Office of Rail Regulation) has a staff of 280, the Traffic Commissioners are supported by only 138 staff, many of whom work on goods vehicle licensing.
  • The Government, local authorities and the bus industry should publish more information on bus punctuality and other key performance criteria.
  • Widespread on-road competition between bus operators (as advocated by the Competition Commission)*** is probably unrealistic and may even be undesirable as this can lead to service instability.

Notes

* There are seven Traffic Commissioners in Great Britain. They are responsible for safety and punctuality monitoring of the bus industry. They also have responsibility for safety regulation of heavy goods vehicles.

 ** In the UK, with the exceptions of Northern Ireland and London, bus services were "deregulated" under the Transport Act 1985. Subject to certain safety and quality standards, bus operators decide which services to run, the fares to charge and other such matters, without recourse to the local authority. Local authorities have powers to supplement these services – filling gaps in the commercial network – by inviting tenders for supported services.

 *** Competition Commission, Local bus services market investigation, Final Report, December 2011
In August 2011, the Transport Committee published Bus Services after the Spending Review (Eighth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 750) in which it expressed concerns that bus services would be disproportionately affected by the combination of central and local government spending cuts.

Further Information

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