Better together: UK Bus Summit

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Much of this year’s UK Bus Summit centred around what the bus industry can achieve through partnership working. James Day reports

The QEII Centre opposite Westminster Abbey once again played host to the annual UK Bus Summit on 6 February. Now in its fifth year, the event continues to attract the biggest names in the coach and bus industry, along with a large number of councillors and local authority officers.

As usual, the first half of the event was chaired by Professor David Begg of Transport Times. The third session of the day was chaired by Anthony Smith, CEO of Transport Focus, while Claire Haigh, Greener Journeys CEO, compered the last session.

There is often a clear theme running through the event, and this year it was action and partnership. Many speakers highlighted the successes of established partnerships, or called for joint working to help the bus industry overcome some of the challenges it faces.

Keynote address

Nusrat Ghani MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport [wlm_nonmember][…]

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Buses Minister Nusrat Ghani announced the winners of the latest round of low emission bus funding at the Summit, the full details of which can be read here.

Alongside this came a second announcement: a major collaboration between the Government and Greener Journeys to explore how buses can be used to further address the issue of loneliness. The collaboration is supported by a pledge from four operators: Go-Ahead Group, Stagecoach, National Express and FirstGroup, to examine the vital role of buses in addressing loneliness.

“Working across Whitehall, everyone has recognised the power of buses for tackling loneliness,” Nusrat said.  The minister identified some of the ‘imaginative thinking’ going on to examine if there’s more the industry can do, such as Go-Ahead’s Chatty Buses campaign and Stagecoach’s redesign of one of its Seasider Buses in Skegness as a community bus.

“We accept this is just a first step,” she continued. “There is huge potential to make a difference and I look forward to working with all of you over the next year.”

On the future of the bus industry in the UK, Nusrat commented: “The quickest and most effective way of improving bus services is through partnership. Local authorities and operators must work together more closely to identify problem spots and do something about them.

“I would encourage all of you to continue to forge strong relationships.”

Session one: Learning lessons from across the UK

Laura Murdoch, Director for Bus, Accessibility and Active Travel, Transport Scotland

With Laura only taking up her role at Transport Scotland in September, much of her presentation was centred on her initial observations, along with a run-through of key policies and legislation in Scotland impacting on buses.

“A review of Scotland’s National Transport Strategy is underway,” Laura said. “We’re taking a collaborative approach and working with those who will ultimately be our partners. Transport doesn’t exist in isolation but supports wider societal outcomes. While the transport strategy will not be mode-specific, it is clear to me that the bus will be at the heart of its delivery.

“We are bringing forward legislation to make public transport a more attractive option, in the form of the Transport Scotland Bill.”
Laura said the Scottish Government has set ambitious clean air targets, with low emissions zones on the way in the country’s four biggest cities.

“The initial focus on buses in Glasgow, where the LEZ (Low Emission Zone) is live already, is coupled with an impressive focus on increasing patronage,” Laura said. “The Scottish Government is providing funding to operators to support them in renewing, upgrading or retrofitting their fleet.”

Discussing her early reflections of the industry, Laura noted that it was clear many factors are impacting the bus industry, and Transport Scotland would offer stability where it could.

“A key strength I see coming is a collaborative relationship between CPT, bus operators and Transport Scotland. While we don’t always agree, at least there is an open forum to discuss the issues.”

David Brown, CEO of Go-Ahead Group

David said that while the Summit’s attendees recognised the social value of buses, the value is not fully embraced by everyone.

He began: “Since 2010, local authorities have signed off bus service reductions of 46% of the supported network. The recent Transport for New Homes Report showed new residential development is often approved with no bus provision. Communities are being cut off from the bus network. This is perpetuating car dependancy.”

David also had words of caution about future developments: “Too often, the future is steered towards dystopia. Autonomous vehicles might be a very sexy thing in the headlines, but it would require about 130,000 six-person pods to replace London’s 9,000 buses. What would that do for congestion? The Government’s task force reported that cheaper car parking was part of the solution to the woes of the high street, ignoring its impact on congestion and the fact congestion deters people from going into town centres in the first place. We can’t blame the task force – they only reported back from the people they spoke to. As an industry, we need to talk to new people about how buses can address the problems of society.”

David mentioned the PickMeUp service in Oxford. “We have ended up with 68,000 journeys,” he said. “It has been a really exciting project and we have learned an awful lot and we will be sharing that knowledge. We’ve also learned that it is a long way from being commercially viable at the moment.”

The problems faced by the High Street were described by David as ‘one of the problems of our time.’ He added: “Communities will suffer if there is no heart to their centre. If we are left with donut cities – affluent suburbs and decaying centres – it is not a good society to live in.
“If we had talked to the right people in the Government’s task force, they would not have concluded that cheaper parking is the answer. We should be doing more at local level to influence such regeneration and we need to articulate a national vision of how buses contribute to vibrant centres.”

David looked to cycling as a source of inspiration: “Following decades of slow decline, cycling mileage has now increased by a billion miles annually since 1993. Public sector spending on cycling has increased threefold. Nationally there are new incentives for bike ownership, expanded cycle lanes and lots of bike racks at railway stations. This is all underpinned by a national cycling strategy. What changed?

“Town planners, health organisations, politicians and journalists all had their own individual reasons to promote cycling. It was only through a meeting of the minds that change actually happened. I can guarantee it was not done by the cycling industry.

“I believe we’ll only make progress with a similar meeting of the minds. We don’t have all the answers, but they will emerge when we have those conversations.”

Ciarán de Búrca – Director for Transport Projects & Business Services Division, Department for Infrastructure, Northern Ireland

Much of Ciarán de Búrca’s presentation centred on Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT). The BRT was constructed as it was found to be much more affordable than a £600m light rail service, at an estimated price of £155m.

“We’ve actually delivered the BRT for just over £90m,” Ciarán enthused. “There are very few projects you see being delivered for 60% of their original budget.

“A huge part of that was the challenge we met in relation to modal shift. The original plan was to have the system built on an old railway line, but we felt we had to have it on a street to force cars off the street.

“We came under a huge amount of criticism for taking away roadspace and giving it to public transport, but I think it has been worthwhile.”
Ciarán said a lot of time was spent choosing the vehicle: “The Van Hools carry over 130 people with about 40 seated. They feature CCTV, audio-visual, offboard ticketing and three entrances. Single-door access wasnt going to work with the volumes of people we wanted to carry.

“We also took out a huge number of stops to benefit journey time, reliability and efficiency. The stops now average 400 metres apart, where before many were less than 200 metres.”

Belfast today has seen a 60% increase in public transport use on BRT corridors compared to the same areas in 2013.

“Anecdotal evidence is that estate agents are using the Glider as a selling point along the route,” Ciarán mused. “We’re looking to extend the service to offer it between north and south Belfast, as well as east and west.”

Session two: Why buses are central to ‘The Future of Mobility’

Claire Haigh – CEO of Greener Journeys


Initiating the second session of the day, Claire Haigh of Greener Journeys said bus networks are suffering from a ‘perfect storm’ caused by the effects of structural changes in the economy and labour market, disruptive changes including online shopping, congestion and an increase in private hire vehicles, amongst other factors. She also highlighted the challenging political environment.

“Here in the UK politicians are likely to be preoccupied with Brexit for some time, and the Yellow Vest protests in France have shown it is as difficult as ever to appear anti-motorist,” Claire said. “Since the UK’s own fuel duty protests in 2000, successive governments have been afraid to increase fuel duty. The net result has been a policy focus which penalises bus passengers.

“The freeze in fuel duty since 2011 has caused there to be 4% more traffic and up to 200 million fewer bus journeys. The Treasury estimates that this freeze has cost the UK Government £46bn so far.”

Claire said buses must be at the heart of plans to tackle congestion and pollution: “A modern diesel bus produces fewer emissions than a modern diesel car, despite having 15-20 times the capacity. The bus market has the highest penetration of low carbon vehicles across all modes of transport. Modal switch from car to coach and bus will be crucial if we are to reach our carbon reduction targets.

“UK bus manufacturing is a major success story. More than 80% of urban buses sold in the UK are manufactured in the UK. More investment in local bus networks not only supports clean growth, but will further support UK manufacturing and create more jobs.

“How Government treats its bus sector is a good indication of the value it places on creating a fairer, inclusive society and the value it places on future generations. The role buses could and should be playing is coming into ever-sharper focus and history will not thank Governments who allow us to continue down an unsustainable path.”

Gareth Powell – Managing Director of Surface Transport at TfL

“When we talk about future of bus in London, we’re starting in a good place,” Gareth began. “The bus is already extremely affordable in London. The headline fare is £1.50, with which you can travel right across the city.”

“From 2000 onwards, the plan has been to shift people out of cars and onto public transport. From congestion charging in 2003 onwards, London has focussed on expanding the bus network and making it easier to travel on it. In central London, we’re seeing the culmination of a long-term strategy to improve public transport.”

Gareth noted that there has been a recent decline in London bus use which TfL needs to address: “Our bus system has involved over many years. Because the hopper fare didn’t previously exist, the service overlaps considerably. Up until last year we had over 100 buses per hour on Kingsway, but there are not the volumes of people required to fill them. If all you see is empty buses, you dont have in your mind a vision of a very successful service. We need to distribute resources where they are needed.”

Gareth noted that London is a growing city which will require more bus services to support its population and claimed the decline would reverse in time.

“A big challenge for us is to make sure the bus service remains relevant,” Gareth added. “The key thing is to make sure people emotionally want to use the bus. It’s difficult to grow up in London without using the bus, but we want to ensure that when life events occur, it is not a trigger for individuals to become a car users.

“We’re trying concepts like on-demand and express services between townships in outer London.”

Cllr Roger Lawrence, Transport Portfolio Holder, West Midlands Combined Authority

Cllr Roger Lawrence gave a brief talk as part of a ‘farewell tour,’ with him due to leave his post in the near future.

“The challenge for us is we don’t know what is going to happen in a year or two years’ time,” he said. “The amount of uncertainty is alarming.

“Our challenge in the West Midlands is making sure economic growth, housing growth and transport are all aligned and joined up. There is no point in building a load of houses and creating a load of jobs if people can’t get from one to the other.”

Roger said he believes the future role of city centres will be social, rather than retail. He said the bus is integral to the authority’s plans.

David Bradford – Managing Director of National Express Bus

David Bradford argued operators must earn the right to run buses in the way they think is best. Displaying a picture of Pan Am, an airline which famously collapsed in 1991, he said: “These guys were once the future of mobility. Now, they are nothing. We must not be the next Pan Am.”

David said he believed National Express West Midlands (NXWM) is earning that right, together with the rest of the West Midlands Bus Alliance: “We are growing patronage, which is a big story. We used to subscribe to the ‘old religion’ but we changed the plan.

“This year, three quarters of our passengers are paying the same or less than they did last year. We would like fares to be even cheaper.
“We’re also speeding up buses. The average bus in 2018 is 0.9% faster – the first time in 15 years that bus speeds have improved. All of this is part of the bus alliance.”

NXWM is ‘driver focussed, not driverless,’ David said. “I’m not dreaming of a driverless bus network in the future. I would much rather put my kids on a bus driven by one of our 3,600 drivers than a taxi.

“We are paying our staff well. If bus companies are not paying the real living wage, why not? I’m getting excited by the fact we are assisting our drivers to be better. Since we introduced Lytx Drivecam, we have seen 20% fewer accidents and injuries. It has also saved a load of money we can reinvest in making travel cheaper or serving more places.

“We provide a health bus and treat our drivers well, making sure they are not fatigued and treating them like the public servants they are.”

While punctuality is good, it is still not good enough, David said. However, he did highlight the success of a bus priority scheme in Solihull – a partnership between operators, the local council, West Midlands Combined Authority and Jaguar Land Rover: “The bus lane has taken seven minutes off journey times. Since we built that, 7,000 extra passengers per day travel into Solihull. In our business case we had planned to take out some PVR because the buses would be faster, but we actually had to put the PVR back in. It’s a nice problem to have.

“Making buses fast is what is key. With a nicer bus we may see 4% growth. With a faster bus, we saw 11% growth.”

Session three: Getting passengers onboard buses: how to remove the barriers

Cllr Liam Robinson – Chair of Merseytravel

Liam Robinson noted that with high levels of social deprivation and low car ownership, the bus is particularly important in Merseyside, though the area has still seen patronage decline.

“We put together the Liverpool City Region Bus Alliance,” Liam said. “It’s a voluntary partnership agreement between Arriva, Stagecoach and ourselves which covers about 95% of the bus network.

“The alliance has led to a significant improvement in the quality of the fleet – a £50m investment has been made by the operators. Everyone in our city region is now within 400m of a bus service and we’ve improved access to important sites like John Lennon Airport, while implementing some 24/7 services.

“We’ve also extended the child fare up to the 19th birthday. I believe anyone in compulsory education should be paying a child fare.”
The outcome of the partnership is passenger growth of 16.5%. This has been driven primarily by young people, where growth is as high as 142%.

“Genuinely, young people are the future of our industry,” Liam added. “We need to cherish them to make sure we can drive long-term passenger growth.

“We’re pleased with what we have achieved, but we are never satisfied. We want to be global exemplars for the bus industry in terms of what we are doing in our city region. We’re currently doing detailed work to choose the Bus Services Act powers we would like to use in the future, though we want to make sure the passenger is at the heart of what we do.”

Pete Ferguson – CEO of Prospective

Data firm Prospective’s CEO, Pete Ferguson, spoke about how data and prediction can be used to increase ridership. He argued that context to the provision of performance information is ‘absolutely vital.’

“Understanding what is leading to the performance you are observing is ultimately what the value of data is about,” he said. “The fact we can get to much more performance information in real time does not mean we can do much to improve that service, unless we can understand the reasons why.

“The first thing we ever do is think about what contextual data sits around the core information we have about the performance of a service.

“The point is to use this data to make predictions about any policy or service intervention we might want to make. I think there is a lot of power in using objective information derived from these data sources to inform what we should be doing in commercial circumstances where a compromise needs to be reached. If we can have common agreement about what the impact of a change will be, we can more easily move ahead with something which requires compromise.”

Iain Jago – Managing Director (interim) of Arriva UK Bus

Iain Jago recounted some of his previous experiences in the aviation industry at British Airways and how it relates to the bus market in the UK.

“Short haul travel was completely changed 20 years ago with the introduction of low cost carriers,” he said. “Legacy carriers were slow to recognise this, and it was reflected on their business model and performance.

“British Airways was able to turn this around, and in the last five years has had a phenomenal performance. The core of this turnaround was a focus on the customer – not thinking the customer was there to fulfil the need of the product produced by the business. There was also a focus on reducing waste – we found waste everywhere within the business.”

Iain identified some of the issues the bus industry was facing. Alongside a number of parallels with the aviation industry, he mentioned the reduced frequency in rural areas and product and information offerings below expectation.

The first solution he offered was deeper understanding of customer value: “In the airline industry 10 years ago, all airlines knew about customers from the point of booking to the point of flying was a six-figure code. That has radically changed.”

Other solutions he identified were reducing waste through focus on operations delivery, working in partnership with authorities and using innovation to drive simplicity in terms of journey planning, ticketing and journey aggregation. Iain concluded with a reference to the ArrivaClick trial in Sittingbourne: “We found 50% of journeys were taken by passengers switching mode onto bus. I find that incredibly exciting.

“The size of the prize is massive and largely hidden. Increasing passenger numbers is not just a pipe dream, but will require a lot of collaboration and reflection from operators.”

Giles Fearnley – Managing Director of First UK Bus

Getting straight to the point, Giles Fearnley said: “I think this year’s summit should be a call for action. Action is what we need, and we all have a part to play.

“The headline figures of bus decline are far from the whole truth. For example, bus patronage has grown by 54% in Bristol since 2013, and the wider Bath & North East Somerset area has seen growth of 40%.

“This growth reflects the relative economic success in the region, but also shows a payoff on shared investment, vision and aspiration over many years, with work done by authorities to fix congestion hotspots between 2008 and 2012. Now we are beginning to see benefits of the new Metrobus high speed networks.

“This is complemented by investment from ourselves in new ticketing channels, with 56% of passengers now paying through contactless or mobile ticketing, along with a major investment to both replace and expand the bus fleet.

“The same is possible in other bus markets. In First, we’re beginning to deliver on ambitions in places like Glasgow and Leeds. A really great example in a more rural area is Cornwall. There the tide has truly turned.

“All of us know what needs to be done, we just need to do it with consistency and determination, and not in isolation. Together we are much stronger and can deliver on our ambitions.”

Giles called congestion a shared enemy: “We know it will kill the bus sector. In Bristol, we currently run 40-50 more buses simply to maintain the timetable we want to offer to our customers. Over Christmas the problem was so severe we brought in another 20, which were used almost every day. It’s a tremendous waste – we should be redeploying those to run new routes, higher frequencies and grow the business faster.”

Giles said the DfT was to be commended for making £1.2bn available for 12 cities. He added: “Local governments, operators and other partners need to seize the opportunity.”

Pete Bond – Director of Integrated Network Services, Transport for West Midlands

Pete Bond began by sharing a study carried out by Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) to discover the barriers to bus use in the region. As part of this, a consultancy was commissioned to carry out interviews and get non-users to travel on buses.

“Around half of participants felt the journey was better than they expected,” Pete said. A number of examples were given of where people found the bus better than expected, such as wait times, but it was discovered that many found ticket purchase more difficult than expected.

“This is great feedback,” Pete said. “People take their retail experiences from elsewhere and apply it to the bus, which was insightful. We rely too often on people who board buses daily to tell us their experiences.”

Session four: Putting buses at the heart of air quality

Mark Threapleton – Managing Director of Stagecoach UK Bus 

Mark Threapleton said the industry needs to play a pivotal role as part of the solution to poor air quality.

“In the short term, utilising the latest Euro VI tech will bridge the gap until the challenges surrounding zero emission technologies can be overcome,” he said. “Before setting out these technological and logistical challenges, it’s important to put a stake in the ground.

“In many areas, the value of the bus is not recognised or fully leveraged. There is now a more important need than ever before for meaningful partnerships between local authorities (LAs) and operators. We need a collaboration of equals to achieve local solutions without unintended consequences.

“We know one bus has the capacity to replace 75 car trips. We know diesel cars generate 41% of diesel emissions, compared to just 6% for bus. Petrol engine vehicles are also a major source of CO2 and seem to have slipped under the radar. Encouraging bus travel is a no-brainer.

“On its own, the bus industry will not solve the problem. Congestion is a huge issue and a contributor to poor air quality. Emissions increase up to four times in nose-to-nose traffic.

“A move to non-diesel powered vehicles is inevitable, but there are a number of significant barriers to overcome before EVs are widespread. The principal barrier is upfront cost, though total cost of ownership is much more attractive. It could be 10 years before there is up-front cost parity, and high upfront costs cause scalability problems.

“Improving technology on its own will not be enough to address twin problems of car congestion and air quality. There needs to be radical decisions on allocation of roadspace. LAs need to be brave and give buses assured priority access, and bus operators need to take risks in return.

“I am absolutely sure the only sustainable and affordable way to tackle air quality is a partnership of equals. It cannot be seen to be someone else’s problem. We all have a grave responsibilty to ensure changes are made.”

Peter Williams – Director of Certification & Compliance, Cummins Europe

Cummins is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Prior to Peter Williams from Cummins Europe providing his presentation, Sir Peter Hendy CBE briefly spoke about the company. He claimed to have seen first-hand the work Cummins is doing to lower emissions, having had his own Routemaster converted to Euro VI standards by the company. Peter said Cummins has introduced around 26,000 Euro VI vehicles into the European market.

“We’ve already had three phases of Euro VI, with a fourth phase coming in September this year,” said Peter. “Over each of those stages there has been an increase in stringency, particularly for phase D and what is proposed for phase E. The effect of that is to generally reduce the NOx emissions of products. If you looked at a product produced in 2013 to 2014 meeting A requirements, compared to a product designed to meet phase E requirements, there would be a positive difference in emissions.

“Euro VI has not stood still. It has continued to transition as regulators have spotted improvements that can be made. We are a technology provider, and welcome that change.”

Cllr Waseem Zaffar – Cabinet Member for Transport and Environment at Birmingham City Council

The last of four speakers from the West Midlands, Cllr Waseem Zaffar began: “Birmingham is going through an exciting period, with HS2 and the Commonwealth Games representing two once in a lifetime opportunities and catalysts for improvements.

“We’re a young and diverse city, and young people today are more reluctant to go through the process of acquiring a driving licence. There is a real opportunity to have a public transport system which caters to the needs of our young people in the future.”

About air quality, Waseem said: “Outside London we have the highest number of premature deaths due to air polution – up to 900 per year. It’s a staggering and scary number. Ultimately we have to do something to reverse health inequality. We were one of the first five cities to receive a ministerial direction to get our act together.

“We cannot take the Donald Trump approach to air polution. We need to take it seriously.”

When considering the type of CAZ desired for Birmingham, a category C was found to not go far enough.

“Even with a category D – targeting all non-compliant vehicles – the CAZ would not go far enough,” Waseem noted. “We asked if there was anything beyond a category D, but there was not.

“We went with what we’ve called a D+, with extra interventions. One of these is to remove some of the 6,300 parking spaces within the CAZ area. We’re also bringing in some early interventions in terms of bus priority. Too often we prioritise private cars over buses.”

Robert Drewery – Commercial Director at Optare

Rather than stating whether the air quality agenda was an opportunity or a threat, Optare’s Robert Drewery described it as an inevitability. “Without embracing it, the bus will find it increasingly difficult to share city streets,” he stated.

His talk was centred around the current state of electric buses, which Optare has been putting into service since 2009.

“Charging remains the biggest challenge from an operational perspective,” he said. “We’re still at the stage where efficiency is key. Every kWh is valuable and operators cannot waste it.”

Robert commented on the arrival of Tesla, which he said ‘changed the game.’ “The world’s automotive industry woke up and realised electric is doable,” he noted.

“We in the bus industry – a very small part of automotive industry overall – have seen massive change. Electric bus up-front costs are still high and something we want to address, but there is no doubt the costs are coming down.

“We have got buses which can operate for 15 hours today. It won’t be long until 18-hour operation is possible.”

Robert also claimed that electric buses can compete on lifespan: “The oldest electric buses we have in service launched nine years ago.

“Every time you charge a battery, it ages. The faster it is charged, the more it ages. Avoid fast charging and you will get longer life. We’re also trying to move away from opportunity charging.

As for battery costs, Robert commented: “This is a debate as to whether the $100 per kWh target is attainable, but cost is nonetheless coming down. If we do achieve that, we’ll see the EV premium reduce to around 35-40% above diesel. There is still a lot to do but we will see benefits.”

Cllr Anna Richardson – City Convener for Sustainability & Carbon Reduction at Glasgow City Council

Cllr Anna Richardson shared some details about Glasgow’s LEZ – the first to be launched in Scotland.

“Glasgow has relatively low car ownership at just under 50%,” she began. “Monitoring shows that air quality is improving, so the measures we have taken are having an effect, but we’re still breaching air quality standards for NOx.”

The council’s initial modelling work found that the quickest, most effective way of reducing the number of air quality breaches Glasgow was facing was to upgrade all buses operating in the city centre to Euro VI standards. From there, incremental improvements are to be made over the next four years.

“As of 31 December, 20% of bus journeys through Glasgow have had to be with Euro VI vehicles,” Anna continued. “This has a beneficial knock-on effect to outlying areas. By December 2022, all buses will have to comply, which will coincide with all vehicles in the city centre being included in the LEZ.

“This has never been intended as a bus-only LEZ. We announced the intention to include all vehicles from the very beginning.”

Anna said the council has sought permission to implement bus standards through the Traffic Commissioner and is implementing bus priority measures. “We acknowledge increasing average speeds is one of the key ways to unlock further investment in services. The Glasgow Bus Partnership was established last year to formalise this partnership working.