Building for the future

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Our bus industry insider muses on why having the right infrastructure is so important

One underutilised platform of Sheffield Interchange in the evening peak. Still better too much capacity than too little, which is the norm in most town centre redevelopment sites. MERLIN

I have been pondering the subject of bus infrastructure for some while and there is nothing like a new or unplanned voyage of discovery across the nation to encourage one to put pen to paper.

Whilst I have been a critic of central and therefore local government plans to spend the vast majority of their transport budgets on road construction and maintenance for most of my career, I fear we have now reached the point where even significant parts of the trunk road network have reached an advanced state of decay through austerity, with major holes sufficient to do damage to wheels and axles of our bus and coach fleets, noting that even dual carriageways have not been exempt from the deterioration. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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I have previously mentioned failure to cut hedges, verges and grass as factors compromising road safety on the approaches to roundabouts and junctions to say nothing of signage, which is becoming ever more sullied and invisible as a result.

We cannot therefore currently argue that some money has to be put into these activities.

How much bus infrastructure is properly maintained too? Clear white lines for bus lanes, yellow lines and plates for bus stop clearways are all suffering the same neglect and increased risk of violation as a result.

Such precious dedicated infrastructure as Britain’s bus operators still, however, enjoy is always under further threat from political ignorance or failure to understand, or both.

Go-Ahead, as new owners of East Yorkshire, must already be bowled over with concern at Hull City Council’s potential lack of future commitment to public transport after comments that it is time to review the effectiveness of its bus lanes. With the Liberal Democrat spokesperson declaring that it was time to accept that the council’s long-held aspiration to increase bus use was failing and his Conservative counterpart wanting to pull the plug on some bus lanes, you can see a new virtual spiral of decline beginning to whip up of its own accord.

In Switzerland the authorities do not mess around. This sign clearly indicates that no other road users will cross the Griesalp Post Bus in a certain section of its route at certain specified times and that at all other times motorists will listen out for the sound of the Post horn indicating priority has to be given. MERLIN

Do these town hall worthies ever consider that there are a whole range of other factors conspiring to make bus patronage figures challenging just now and might they have blood on their hands for failing to deal with some of them through their own policies? Do they not realise that councils have to work as hard as the operators to get positive results or is it that there are no committed and knowledgeable specialist officers left working there?

I do hope that the operators will comprehensively be telling the council the error of the ways of Liverpool’s Mayor Anderson and similar politicians elsewhere. As soon as I know the identity of the firm of consultants that they will undoubtedly employ for their report in the absence of in-house staff, I will be able to predict the outcome, good or bad.

It is when I hear about politicians and research studies and infrastructure that I become my most cynical.

As just one source of this frustration, I found two topics and discussion of the blindingly obvious reported in just one issue of CBW on one page (CBW1308, 12 September, 2017, p9).

The first was about the potential for charging utilities companies for lane rental whilst road works were carried out. I thought of it first, way before Kent County Council and Transport for London and even suggested it to the Highways Agency, whose representatives in the room outnumbered mine four to one, but of course no surprises that nothing ever happened and I was told several times that, nobody could ever be compensated, for works on their roads. There was a suggestion in the article that, following consultation, changes could be implemented ‘as soon as 2019.’ This is now quite close and the benefits are obvious but I bet we do not see it elsewhere in 2019.

The second was a report called “Cyclists in Shared Bus Lanes: could there be unrecognised impacts on bus journey times?” Need I say more?

If cars get held up by cyclists on single carriageway roads with all the clearly visible resultant road rage from the impatience of their drivers, is it not self-evident that they delay buses in bus lanes too without the need to produce academic reports that suggest it might be the case. Cyclists have after all been demonstrated to slow bus speeds in London to their current unacceptable levels even if bus drivers are more professional in their driving standards than most car drivers.

Despite the fact that cyclists’ behaviour is a major source of stress for bus drivers, let alone the delays to service when precious bus lanes cannot be used to maximum advantage, politicians dare not upset the lycra-wearing fraternity as they are considered voters, whereas bus passengers are presumed not to be or a dying breed.

The Local Government Association (LGA) is the latest in the line of prophets of doom, suggesting recently that 50% of the nation’s bus services are at risk. The usually weak response from CPT (Confederation of Passenger Transport) did point out that 86.6% of services in England outside London are in fact provided commercially, and pointed to the oversimplification of the LGA’s analysis – which as usual did not include congestion as the number one enemy – but I bet the LGA won its share of the column inches.

After all, if defeatism is ripe for Hull City Council, the LGA and Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary (whose failure to deal with state run Network Rail’s persistent shortcomings and failure to accept his own responsibilities in the new summer timetable debacle stand before him, is on record as saying that the government has not got any more money to invest in buses and suggesting pretty well that decline is the future for buses), then what incentive exists for the operators to try even harder to develop their businesses and benefit the community in so many ways?

The answer to my last question of course lies in the passion and determination of the individuals who work in the operating sector, but I see it beginning to wear thinner and thinner everywhere I go.

I have not heard of a single burgeoning Enhanced Quality Bus Partnership on my travels to date (and have heard that even the Department for Transport is disappointed about this too) but such partnerships are so obviously the answer for the bus industry to show what it is capable of. It does take two to tango.

More white space than information in this bus stand display in Sheffield Interchange – unnecessarily so. MERLIN

A recent visit to Ireland showed me infrastructure both good and bad.

At Cork Airport, I needed to get into the city centre there and my research had already indicated an only hourly bus service on Sundays.

As I passed the airport bus stop, I noticed that the real-time display indicated a bus some four minutes later implying a half hourly service which I was not expecting.

I decided to wait. With no expectations, I was not surprised, but four tourists clearly were, as what must have been a scheduled time display unit rather than a real-time one, dropped the entry once the clock flicked over to the next minute.

Whether Bus Éireann or the National Transport Authority are responsible for the incorrect programming bears no further need for comment, except to note that whichever was responsible, they are both state run organisations…

Bus Lanes in Dublin were quite a different story. On my last visit to the city some 18 years previously, bus journeys from suburbs and the airport to the centre were so slow and frustrating that one almost lost the will to live, but the extensive priority measures now in place – including on motorways – I felt were making a real difference, even if there was still too much car traffic around.

The LUAS light rail network was also carrying good loads and whilst journeys on it do not feel ultra-fast as the system seems to be awarded relatively little priority, it does seem to have captured the public’s hearts and minds.

What was quite remarkable were the Sunday and evening carryings on some Dublin Bus operated corridors with fully seated loads and some with standing upstairs and down, indicating clearly to me that the routes were not operating at sufficiently high frequencies. In my view Dublin Bus’ passenger growth would be even better if it solved what is such a nice problem to have, but of course state organised, centrally planned timetables, even if claimed to be done in conjunction with the operators, are never the most rapid and responsive means of looking after customers.

In Nottingham, which I also visited last month, a recent CILT (Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport) report suggests that the NET (Nottingham Express Transit) metro system there shows no evidence of attractiveness to drive improvements in accessibility to jobs and key services or in increasing the attractiveness of land around its stops, stations or route corridor.

It is argued that had it achieved this, it might have led to migration there of residents of higher socio-economic groups, in turn leading to revitalisation and regeneration through inward investment. The car is therefore felt to still be a major competitor to NET.

In Dublin, my sources told me that was not necessarily felt to be the case. Commuting into the city by public transport is now over 50% and for sustainable modes including walking and cycling the figure stands at 70%. Car penetration of the central area has dropped from 37.1% to 29.2% between 2006 and 2017. Note from the table how the bus percentage has held up well despite the growth of the LUAS network.

The CILT also points out that LRT (Light Rail Transit) is often regarded in planning and policy and empirical literature as one of the most effective measures to improve the performance and quality of public transport within urban areas. Given the visual intrusion of the catenary, the greater vibration from the sheer physical size and weight of the trams, the vastly increased land take compared to bus based transport and its negative conclusions in respect of Nottingham, this study should again give the bus industry heart and added ammunition to show how, with much simpler and less unsightly infrastructure, it can deliver improved services for a fraction of the cost.

Dublin Bus Volvo B9TL/Alexander Dennis Enviro400 EV56, one of 100 similar vehicles in the fleet, crosses the River Liffey on the Rosie Hackett bridge, built to accommodate southbound LUAS cross-city trams on the new extension of the Green Line from Broombridge to St Stephen’s Green, which would open in December 2017. There are bus lanes either side of the tramway, for buses heading to College Green via Hawkins Street and west along the quays. PAUL SAVAGE

I have to say that the NET was not running well on the day of my visit either, with a number of up to 28 minute gaps on 10 minute frequencies as of course trams cannot circumvent accidents or other disruption. Information to the customer was only expressed as the possibility of experiencing longer waiting times. There was also a bizarre mismatch with 24-hour clock timetable and journey information but fares messages about the availability of group tickets expressed in the 12-hour clock. Why cannot the confusing 12-hour clock be expunged in transport for ever? A good morning greeting to passengers was still scrolling at 1454hrs and obsolete brochures about events accessible by tram in the city some two months prior were prominently on display in the fleet’s leaflet dispensers!

In infrastructure, big is not always beautiful as one imagines South Yorkshire PTE must have found to its cost, after having to downsize its enormous Sheffield Bus Interchange over the years, it being nowhere near most of the city centre desire lines of passengers (even if adjacent to the railway station as loved by planners). A pity that its otherwise pleasant passenger environment now has only minimal information facilities or printed timetables which were a victim of its cutbacks. Its stand displays merely list chronological departure with no journey time information or complete timetables from which to gain information about them or return journeys with which their huge resultant white spaces are begging to be filled!

I will conclude by dealing with a couple of issues concerning infrastructure in its broader sense. I totally disagree with those who seek to further reduce formalisation of staff uniforms.

It really is a poor show that bus drivers are allowed to wear baseball caps, shorts and cheap polo shirts, whatever surveys some companies think that simplistic staff consultation has shown. My own research has indicated that staff wish to be looked up to more by the public and their bosses, as any employee would, such that they can feel respected for their skills. Customers likewise do not want to feel potentially intimidated by an encounter on boarding with a person they may feel looks like someone they would not like to meet in a dark road at night.

We therefore owe it to our staff to help them look more dignified by equipping them with clothing of a quality to enhance their self-respect, especially given that their jobs are getting harder and more stressful than ever. Baseball caps, 1960s style shirts with button down collars over which a tie can never be smartly worn and the like just do not hit the mark.

Secondly, I think everybody now realises, or should have, that replacing a basic specification lightweight single-deck low-floor bus with an updated one 12 years newer is no longer generating passenger growth in itself. We have to keep pushing the ‘wow factor.’

Politicians forcing in electric buses in pursuance of LEZs (Low Emission Zone) in advance of their capability to cover 300 miles a day without being charged up – and with at best a few national and local government capital funding contests to make token reductions in their increased cost –are, however, likely to be doing their part in driving bus and public transport provision downwards, by making it less affordable to provide and therefore consume.

I am also hearing some alarming stories about maintenance issues and costs on at least some Euro VI buses when they get to 18 months to two years old which I need to understand more about.

Oh, for the political courage to ban all pre Euro 6 diesel cars from city centres – I would vote for that person!
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