Jonathan Welch takes a look at the CPT’s 2024 manifesto for buses and coaches
Ahead of the general election, the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) launched its 2024 manifesto for the coach and bus sector at its annual conference in London on 18 January. As we reported in last week’s issue, the trade body’s clarion call is that the ‘next Government must prioritise bus and coach.’
Its two separate documents focus individually on coach and on bus. The latter is the subject or ‘Driving Britain Forward’ which sets out a six-point plan for the next Government to maximise the benefits of buses, whilst coaches are covered in ‘Access All Areas,’ in which the CPT details its vision of how the power of the coach network can be unlocked.
The manifesto details what the CPT believes will be the best way forwards and what the industry needs from the Government to achieve that, including viewing coaches as part of a solution to pollution, clear guidance to councils to include coach services in their local transport plans, a five year funding settlement for the bus sector, help to keep fares low, and a clearer path to zero emissions for both coach and bus.
CPT CEO Graham Vidler introduced the manifesto by saying that although the coach industry is proud to be self-sufficient, engagement from the Government has the ability to take the power of coaches to a new level. With the right support, he said, coaches can boost local economies and cut carbon emissions. CPT Director of Policy and External Relations Alison Edwards backed up Graham’s point, adding that with a general election in the near future, and numerous mayoral elections in May, it is vital to keep the pressure on current and future politicians to help the industry deliver more bus services that can play their part in revitalising local economies, and reduce the impact of travel on the environment.
So, what it the CPT calling for?
The CPT points out (and sometimes it’s easy to overlook, as the industry just goes about its daily business) that coaches connect hundreds, if not thousands of places which cannot be served by any other form of public transport and take six million people on 500 million journeys each year.
It cites economic, environmental and social benefits including value for money when it comes to inter-city travel for the over 20 million users of the country’s scheduled coach network in 2022, and that network’s and rapid growth since. Furthermore, around 600,000 children rely on coach travel to get to school every day, whilst coach holidays and tourism adds an estimated £14 billion to the UK’s tourist industry, not to mention the ability to step in at short notice when rail and other transport services are unavailable.
It’s estimated that the coach sector directly employs some 42,000 people, many in family or individually owned businesses which account for around 80% of coach companies. “It’s a sector which thrives on the flexibility of the people who run it and one which operates without a penny of operating subsidy from government. The future of the sector’s huge contribution to British life depends on maintaining easy and fair access to all the places passengers want to get to and a fair deal for the sector when it is called on to deliver wider policy aims,” says the CPT.
The key calls are for the Government to:
1 Work with industry on a net zero strategy for coaches giving operators the confidence to plan investment in future fleets;
2 Issue clear guidance to councils to include coach services in their local transport plans (LTPs) giving an economic and environmental boost to communities across the country;
3 Simplify the legislation on accessible travel giving disabled passengers a clear and consistent service and operators clarity over vehicle requirements;
4 View coaches as part of the solution to local air pollution making it easier for coaches to serve passengers in cities with clean air zones, and;
5 Support an industry-led workforce strategy training the drivers and engineers needed to grow the industry and transition to zero emission operation.
Carbon emissions of modern coaches are six times lower per passenger than private car travel, yet coaches are always the first mode of transport to be charged to operate in a clean air zone, and operators seeking support to upgrade their engines to modern standards face a postcode lottery of local funding schemes, says the CPT. It calls on the Government to seek a better approach, which recognises the air pollution benefits that coach travel can bring and maximises the role of coaches.
The trade body believes that next government should create a new class of clean air zone which enables councils to charge vehicles with a heavier pollution footprint while exempting coaches. It should also establish a national fund to support operators with upgrading their engines, the Confederation says, adding that the estimated cost of £75m to update 5,000 coaches will be reduced still further if councils are enabled to exempt coaches from charges.
Another key objective is to get coach travel in local transport plans, or LTPs. Too many LTPs, says the CPT, fail to recognise the importance of coaches and their potential role in alleviating congestion, improving air quality, and supporting economic activity. At best, it believes, many only consider access for long-distance scheduled services to bus and coach stations, and forget that coaches provide a sustainable means of access and mobility in exactly the same way that other forms of mass transport do.
The CPT reminds the government (you’d hope that at least the civil servants know already, though) that coaches can deliver high-spend visitors in a way which minimises congestion and minimises emissions, and provide a good value alternative to trains, cars and air, reduces social exclusion and opens up opportunities for leisure and tourism across the income spectrum.
“The next Government should impose a statutory duty on local transport authorities to collect data on the current and potential coach market and require authorities to consider in their LTPs appropriate drop-off, pick-up and parking facilities for the scale and range of coach operations, scheduled and non-scheduled, serving their area,” the trade body says, noting sensibly that local authorities should be guided to ensure that bus priority measures are available to coaches unless there is a specific reason to exclude them, and to provide clear information about coach facilities.
There is a need for a national strategy for moving coach travel to net zero, and the CPT want the Government to understand that although the industry would like to go further, and has started down the road to a zero-emission fleet, it needs more support at a strategic level to enable educated decisions to be made now; as the work of CPT’s zero emission coach taskforce has shown there are barriers which need to be addressed before substantial change can be achieved. The trade body is calling on the next government to publish a net zero strategy for coaches, including key dates and measures, which strategy includes a nationwide programme of investment in zero-emission refuelling and recharging infrastructure suitable for coaches across the Strategic Road Network and Government investment in research and development of vehicles with longer ranges, including as part of the UK’s hydrogen and industrial strategies. An interim fuel duty incentive for low carbon fuels is also called for, so that coach operators can run the cleanest fleet possible while waiting for zero emission operation to become viable.
The CPT is seeking what it calls a straightforward approach to accessibility, which may be a lot easier to achieve in theory than practice, but the industry and the lawmakers have to start somewhere. Although coach services, according to the CPT, lead the way in accessibility, offering what it says is the only realistic longer-distance travel option for many older and disabled people (something some users may disagree with), it believes the PSVAR legislation is too complex.
The organisation cites as an example disabled schoolchildren’s entitlement to travel with a wheelchair, which is ‘dependent on the happenstance of whether or not the school or council procuring the service charges any parents for travel.’
“We need a clearer definition of PSVAR,” says the CPT, “which gives disabled people confidence in travelling inclusively whatever their journey, and gives operators absolute clarity over the need to invest in suitably-adapted vehicles. The next government should simplify the PSVAR legislation to ensure that all ‘open door’ coach services (those where passengers are not known in advance) are operated by fully accessible vehicles and that operators provide a fully-accessible vehicle for any ‘closed door’ service where a passenger requires it, which seems a sensible and more workable solution but one which some might feel doesn’t go far enough in addressing the actual ability to deploy access solutions in many locations.
The final string to the coach manifesto is a call for a workforce strategy led by the industry but supported by the Government. Despite record levels of recruitment and record investment in training and apprenticeships, the CPT warns that staff shortages remain persistent, with a reported figure of almost 14% of driver roles currently vacant, acting as a brake on growth and holding the industry back.
While the industry focuses on recruiting and retaining a skilled, diverse workforce fit for the opportunities of growth and the transition to zero emission operation, the CPT believes that the Government can help in a variety of ways, including by removing red tape, endorsing and amplifying its campaigns, working with it to reform apprenticeships, and ensuring Jobcentres work with local operators.
The CPT is asking the next government to put its full support behind an industry-led strategy to develop the workforce the sector needs to grow and to prepare for the zero emission future. “The coach industry is proud to stand on its own feet and will continue to do so,” it emphasised. “A little engagement and investment from the next government though would go a long way to help the industry fulfil its full potential and connect more people to more destinations, boosting economies and minimising the environmental impact of travel.”
So what about for buses? Again, the CPT isn’t asking for the Earth, and many of the points centre around the same issues: the drive for reduced emissions, and staffing shortages, plus bus-specific topics relating to ongoing funding. As the bus manifesto – ‘Driving Britain Forward’ – reminds us (and the incoming Government, of whatever colour), Britain’s buses carry over 10 million people a day, and their passengers spend over £40 billion each year on leisure and retail activities, while bus commuters are said to add over £64 billion to the economy. Figures cited by the CPT suggest that some 40% of low income families have no access to a car and use the bus three times more often than wealthier households.
“We all gain whenever someone takes the bus. That’s why the next government needs a national strategy to encourage more people to do so more often,” the CPT says hopefully. It is asking for a five year funding settlement, targeted measures to keep fares low when the national fares cap ends, national and local targets to increase bus speeds, a new statutory, funded definition of essential bus services, a long-term government-industry partnership to drive the transition to zero emission bus travel, and a workforce strategy led by the industry and supported by government.
The CPT says its bus strategy is one which builds on the existing successful partnership between central government, local government and the private sector, and importantly, is one which can be delivered – and needs to be delivered – whatever form of regulatory framework bus services operate under, whilst maximising value for money of public funding by leveraging private sector investment and creating a sustainable, virtuous cycle of growth.
The CPT is calling on the incoming government to put in place a five year funding settlement. Current spend is around £400m per year on directly supporting bus services, through payments to operators and councils, but the trade body says that a lack of clarity over the existence and size of future funding streams undermines confidence and prevents operators and councils from investing in longer-term service development.
A clear future stream of income will build confidence, it says, and will enable, among other things, operators and councils to develop new routes over a period of two or three years, giving them time to grow and become sustainable in a way which wouldn’t be possible within a single year, allowing better results for the same level of investment. “The government should maximise the value for money of its investment by announcing a five-year spending plan, as happens in rail,” says the CPT. “This should include an updated reimbursement mechanism for free travel by older and disabled people which is clear, fair and which reflects post-pandemic travel patterns.”
Another key tenet of its policy proposals is to continue the £2 fare cap. Acknowledging that operators have reacted to changing travel patterns with new ticketing options as well as working with the Government on the national £2 fare cap, the CPT says that new research it has undertaken shows though that there are a wide range of trade-offs to consider as government reviews its £350m-plus annual investment into the cap. In considering the balance between different policy goals such as net zero, economic growth and managing the cost of living, it is seen as likely that there will be better value-for-money ways of helping passengers. The CPT is calling on the next government to continue to support passengers from January 2025, when the cap is scheduled to end, with a package of new targeted measures that support sustainable modal shift.
The CPT is keen to see the incoming government introduce new national and local targets to increase bus speeds. “Slow buses cost us all,” it says. “They increase operating costs for operators, soaking up money which could be invested in more services; waste bus passengers’ time; and deter others from taking the bus at all” – something the industry knows only too well thanks to the spread of 20mph speed limits in some areas.
Figures show a declining trend in average bus speeds, reducing by an average of 1% per year, with the average bus now travelling at just 10.7 miles per hour according to figures cited by the CPT, and more slowly still in congested urban areas.
Reversing the trend is possible, the Confederation believes, and would be transformational, with a 10% increase in bus speeds – to just under 12 miles per hour on average – having the potential to increase passenger numbers by 2.5% and reduce operating costs by 8% – or up to £250m – per year.
The CPT therefore calls on the next government to set and monitor a target for all local transport authorities to increase bus speeds by 10% over the lifetime of the next parliament.
The next ask is for a new statutory definition of essential bus services, addressing concerns that too many people in rural areas and small towns lack access to transport services, and to ensure that bus services which cannot be run on a commercial basis can be supported by councils, despite declining budgets and competition with statutory priorities such as education and adult social care. The CPT says 56% of lifeline services, covering 180 million miles a year, have been lost since 2009/10, which it says is a national problem that needs a national solution.
It asks the next government to work with it and with councils to adopt a simple definition of essential services into legislation and, over time, fund councils to invest in missing services.
Up next, a government-industry partnership to drive the transition to a zero-emission bus network and address what the CPT says has been a stop-start approach to funding which has held back manufacturers’ production plans and operators’ purchasing decisions. The transition to a zero-emission fleet is seen as an opportunity for Britain to become a leader in manufacturing, operating and engineering a zero-emission bus network, while Government investment leverages private sector investment. The CPT notes that the Government’s ZEBRA funding scheme attracted around £1.20 of private investment for every £1 of central government investment.
“The next government should announce a five year £1 billion investment programme to leverage more private sector investment in new vehicles and put us on track to a zero emission fleet by the middle of the next decade,” the trade body says.
Finally, as for coaches, the CPT believes that a workforce strategy led by industry and supported by government is vital to help the sector grow, as despite record levels of recruitment and investment in training and apprenticeships, staff shortages remain persistent across the industry, with the potential to hold back the industry from delivering its full potential. It believes the Government can help in a variety of ways, such as by removing red tape, endorsing and amplifying recruitment campaigns, working with the industry to reform apprenticeships, and ensuring close co-operation between Jobcentres and local bus operators.
“Our priorities give the next government the opportunity to build a better bus network with us: more buses going to more places more often, carrying more passengers, to revitalise local economies, connect communities and minimise the impact of travel on the environment,” says the CPT summarising its message for the new incumbents of Number 10.
The industry doesn’t need telling. We’ve heard all the rhetoric from all sides. We know the arguments for and against. What we need now is to see the Government recognising, through the Budget Statement, the important role of buses and coaches. Until we know who will take over the reins after the election, it’s hard to predict what will change, how and when, with any degree of certainty.
Operators can only hope that bus and coach remain at the forefront of the agenda, both at day to day operational level, and as part of the bigger picture. One thing I’d add is a commitment to push to get the basics right at a broad-brush and macro level, through better co-operation and understanding between all parties. Only the other day, I passed some roadworks where a local council was installing a raised kerb in the centre of a bus layby. A complete waste of valuable and ever more scarce funding. Manifestos and policies are great, but if the implementation of the basics where it matters is wrong, it’s still all in vain no matter what colour flag is flying at Downing Street…