£3bn National Bus Strategy to end ‘fragmented, commercialised market’

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The strategy will end sales of new diesel buses, with a consultation on the end date now in progress. RICHARD SHARMAN

Government publishes major new bus strategy, outlining most ambitious reform to the sector in a generation

At 0001hrs on Monday 15 March, the government released details of how its National Bus Strategy (NBS) will make buses ‘more frequent, cheaper, greener, easier to use and will see councils and operators working in partnership for the benefit of passengers’ as it continues its levelling up agenda.

The government is heralding the announcement of the NBS as the ‘most ambitious shake-up of the bus sector in a generation,’ and it is being backed by a £3 billion investment.

It is hoped that levelling up services across England will encourage more people to use the bus rather than the car, as restrictions begin to be lifted following the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Buses are lifelines and liberators, connecting people to jobs they couldn’t otherwise take, driving pensioners and young people to see their friends, sustaining town centres and protecting the environment.

“As we build back from the pandemic, better buses will be one of our first acts of levelling-up.

“Just as they did in London, our reforms will make buses the transport of choice, reducing the number of car journeys and improving quality of life for millions.”

Objectives of the strategy
The headline objectives of the NBS are:

• Simpler bus fares with daily price caps, so people can use the bus as many times a day as they need without facing mounting costs;
• More services in the evenings and at weekends;
• Integrated services and ticketing across all transport modes, so people can easily move from bus to train;
• Local authorities and operators working together to deliver bus services that are so frequent that passengers can just ‘turn up and go’ – no longer needing to rely on a traditional timetable and having the confidence they won’t wait more than a few minutes; and
• All buses to accept contactless payments.

In addition, the government is proposing hundreds of miles of new bus lanes to make journeys quicker and more reliable, getting people out of their cars, reducing pollution and operating costs.

It also sets out ambitions to provide greater access to bus services for all, with plans revealed to require ‘next stop’ announcements onboard buses throughout Great Britain, allowing disabled passengers in particular to travel with confidence. The government will also launch a consultation on new regulations to improve access onboard buses for wheelchair users.

London-style services aren’t appropriate for all rural and suburban areas, which is why the Department for Transport has also announced the recipients of £20 million from the government’s ‘Rural mobility fund,’ which enables on-demand services – such as minibuses booked via an app – to be trialled in areas where a traditional bus service isn’t appropriate.

Ending the sale of diesel buses
The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, first published on 18 November 2020, forms part of the NBS and sets out how the government will accelerate the transition to greener and more sustainable transport.

It aims to deliver:
• 4,000 new British-built electric or hydrogen buses to provide clean, quiet, zero-emission travel;
• Transition cities and regions across England to emission-free buses, safeguarding the UK bus manufacturing industry; and
• End sales of new diesel buses, with a consultation on the end date now in progress.

Stagecoach responded by saying: “We have been pleased at the significantly increased government investment in buses in recent years. It is essential that the new bus strategy continues to be backed by sufficient public sector resources and the right funding model at national and regional level, complementing the continued investment of bus operators, to deliver the outcomes envisaged by government.”

Commercialised market to end
The government said that the ‘fragmented, fully commercialised’ market, which has operated outside London since 1986, will end. They want to see operators and local councils enter into a statutory ‘enhanced partnership’ or franchising agreements to receive the new funding and deliver the improvements outlined above.

It is expected that many councils will choose enhanced partnerships, where local authorities work closely with bus companies, drawing on their operating knowledge and marketing skills. Others may decide that franchising works better for them.

Because of the decline in use caused by the pandemic, bus operators have already received significant emergency support from the government. From this summer, only services under these arrangements will be eligible for continued support or any new sources of funding from the £3 billion transformational investment. The government will also consult later this year on reforming the Bus Service Operators Grant – the current main stream of government bus funding – to achieve the same objectives.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The strategy will completely overhaul services, ensuring we build back better from the pandemic. Key to it is the new deal it offers to councils – we will provide unprecedented funding, but we need councils to work closely with operators, and the government, to develop the services of the future.”

Bus operators’ responses have been generally positive to the government announcement of the NBS.

Paul O’Neil, Managing Director of Arriva UK Bus, commented: “We welcome the clear direction from the government today for the future of bus transport. We agree that more needs to be done to encourage people to leave their cars at home and turn to public transport, which will help to deliver a green recovery as regional economies build back from Covid. Customers want reliable, frequent, value-for-money bus services and one of the biggest barriers to this is congestion, which affects journey times.

“It’s crucial that operators are at the heart of shaping local strategies, agreeing shared commitments with authorities. Arriva brings experience of successful bus partnerships and looks forward to working closely with government and local authorities to help deliver these important ambitions, ensuring a thriving and sustainable bus sector throughout the country.”

David Brown, Chief Executive of Go-Ahead Group, said: “It’s the right time to have a national strategy for buses. Bus usage has been falling for seven years and if Britain is serious about becoming a carbon neutral nation, we urgently need to halt that decline and persuade people to leave their cars at home.

“In order to do that, buses need to be quick, reliable and convenient. That means giving more bus priority including precedence for buses at traffic lights and tackling rush hour gridlock.

“People with easy access to public transport have more chance of getting a job, and are much less likely to be socially isolated and lonely. By working in partnership with local authorities, private companies can respond to demand effectively, delivering better services for all.”

Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach Chief Executive, said: “We welcome the ambition in the government’s new bus strategy. For too long, the power of buses to transform local communities and local people’s lives has been overlooked.

“The new bus strategy provides an opportunity for all partners – operators, national government and local authorities – to work together to harness the huge potential of the bus to help tackle climate change, deliver better air quality in our towns and cities, secure improved mobility for local people and support a sustainable economic recovery for the country.

“Planning our towns and cities around green buses and active travel, rather than private cars, is central to delivering faster, better value services and getting more people back on board the bus. That is why it is critical that the new bus strategy is matched by the right level of funding, consistent policy across government and a flexible partnership approach which prioritises benefits for customers and local communities.”

CPT Chief Executive Graham Vidler said: “The strategy is a huge opportunity for a step-change in bus use, with a major switch away from cars driving a green economic recovery. The strategy must now be matched by local delivery and consistent policy across government to put buses at the heart of transport networks.

“It is great to see government sharing our ambitious plans to deliver more frequent and comprehensive bus networks, building on private sector investment and in collaboration with local authorities. Local targets for passenger growth and quicker journeys will ensure local accountability and a shared commitment to delivering better services for passengers. This should be the focus of everyone involved in delivering bus networks, rather than the distraction of debates over regulatory models which deliver nothing for passengers.”