Sanity after all

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‘The need to ensure bus priority is effectively delivered is underlined and it is stipulated that these provisions, maintenance and enforcement cannot be unilaterally revoked by the LTA.’ MERLIN

Having delved into recently published Bus Services Act guidance documents, our bus industry insider has come away pleasantly surprised and has the overall impression that they’ve been well thought

Iheard on the news as I sat down to write this that some study had concluded that Britain was the tenth most congested country in Europe (that good, then?!) and that it is costing everybody the equivalent of an average of £1,200 per annum more in commuting as a result (that little?). The explosion in the number of white delivery vans on the roads was most alarming and a major contributory factor. Don’t we just know it in the bus industry!

The Government is seemingly pinning its hopes, in as far as politicians have any meaningful interest or knowledge in buses, on the 2017 Bus Services Act helping to rejuvenate bus patronage, reduce congestion and emissions and boost the fortunes of local economies. It came as a surprise to me that I and a lot of other people seem to have failed to notice that there are now four of the guidance documents available on the appropriate website to support the Act. Given that the devil is always in the detail, these documents are the very ones which ensure that policy aspirations are practical and workable or contentious.

I was particularly impressed by Ralph Roberts’ (MD of McGills) hard hitting comments in his briefing note to Scottish MSPs before another sterile political debate about ownership and regulation, (CBW NEWS BUSES, February 6, 2018). “I have yet to meet a politician, who is willing to stand beside me and get abreast of the real facts of the matter and put together a real credible solution to the problems the bus passenger faces,” he said. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] How right he is and how often if they accept an invitation do they fail to turn up at the last minute, have to rush off early before difficult questions can be asked, or send a substitute who is not directly involved or has limited power? There is also the video link cop out which Andrew Jones used to practise in his early days. How often do you hear Chris Grayling talk about buses? – Just roads and trains and occasionally Brexit.

It was of course not long into the Scottish debate before one MSP was wrongly attributing the quality of Lothian Buses to public ownership rather than the fact that it has had meaningful bus lanes and priorities since the mid-1970s. With relatively constrained amounts of central area parking at good high prices, the city has remained prime bus territory and been professionally as opposed to politically well-managed on a day-to day-basis. But the city is still strangling itself in congestion as can be seen from the bus journey time analysis on the following key corridors, meaning that the product is in reality much less attractive to customers:

Lothian Service 16 Leith to Morningside
September 1973: 30 minutes February 2018: 41 minutes (up 36%)

Lothian Service 3 Haymarket to Gilmerton
November 1981: 38 minutes
February 2018: 48 minutes (up 26%)

Lothian Service 20 (now 43) St Andrew Sq to Barnton
Early 1970s: 23 minutes
February 2018: 37 minutes (up 61%)

Note: The Eastern Scottish running time on Services 41-45 and 55-58 from St Andrew Square to Barnton was just 15 minutes in the mid 1970s yielding a journey time increase of a staggering 247% today.

It is against that background that I set about reading the guidance documents with some trepidation, only to come away pleasantly surprised with the overall impression that they had been well thought and, by and large, operator interests, issues and concerns are fairly well protected as indeed are those of the LTAs (Local Transport Authorities).

Project delivery is important. One that hasn’t delivered what it could have done was the Gloucestershire A40 bus priority scheme that would have benefited Stagecoach West Gold service 94 (Cheltenham-Gloucester). ANDY IZATT

The introductory Bus Services Act 2017 guidance document appeared as long ago as November 27 last year and is the explanatory sales pitch of the options on offer.

Appearing at that time as well were documents on bus franchising creation and Enhanced Partnership (EP) creation and the latest one on Advanced Quality Partnership Schemes (AQPS) creation appeared on January 17 this year. They comprise a mixture of formal and statutory guidance.

It was particularly pleasing to read that a high proportion of the text in the franchising document is underlined, indicating very clearly to LTAs the massive workload involved in planning and costing with risk analysis to devise a business plan to the auditable standard required and with all the ensuing large scale consultation that has to be engaged in. There are clear reminders being transmitted throughout that partnership models are likely to be a better and cheaper way of achieving much greater success for much less cost.

In order to retain reader interest, I will confine myself here to a more detailed synopsis of the newest AQPS document, as it contains some interesting observations and requirements with safeguards which could make it a successful way forward with good will and pragmatism from all sides.

All pre-existing Quality Partnership Schemes (QPS) as at June 27, 2017 assumed AQPS status.

DfT (Department for Transport) considers an AQPS to be a more flexible approach to partnership which can be route, corridor or network specific allowing LTAs to additionally specify vehicles and ticketing requirements, but absolves them from the need to provide ‘facilities’ (such as a new terminal). Rather it encourages them to include a set of ‘measures’ like bus lanes and traffic enforcement and car parking charge regimes.

The AQPS model is intended to be used as a true partnership between consenting parties best used to support and underpin voluntary arrangements between authorities and operators with agreed objectives on both sides with a minimum duration of five years and adequate reviews.

Despite being a scheme made by LTAs, it retains safeguards to ensure that unrealistic conditions are not imposed on operators including on new permissible agreements on vehicles and ticketing. Their legitimate right to make a fair rate of return on their investment is not undermined. Operators will reasonably be expected to justify their grounds for objection.

The procedures for scheme publication and consultation are detailed. Importantly, it goes on to say that: “Once the scheme is made, the LTA is under a statutory duty to provide any facilities and to take any measures identified in the scheme from the dates specified and to maintain those facilities and continue to take those measures for as long as the scheme is in operation.”

In key paragraph 4.1, the need to ensure bus priority is effectively delivered is underlined and it is stipulated that these provisions, maintenance and enforcement cannot be unilaterally revoked by the LTA and they therefore must survive subsequent changes in LTA policies and priorities.

This is real progress as is the stipulation that LTAs cannot expect requirements from operators from Day 1 with the Council only seeking to implement their new facilities over a five year period!

The only real disappointment is that whilst operator compliance is reasonably to be undertaken by the Traffic Commissioners with resultant penalties for unjustifiable failure to comply, the guidance only effectively provides for defaulting LTAs to be taken to court by the operators with all the dubiously recoverable financial cost and delays that would entail.

Key paragraph 4.5 notes: “An AQPS is best delivered in partnership with all potentially affected to ensure that the standards are set at an appropriate and achievable level that will deliver the proposed benefits – including value for money (for passengers and in terms of policy and commercial objectives), growth in patronage, or improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.”

This is a clear steer not to over specify. I defer to Ralph Roberts again (whom by the way I do not personally know) when he says: “The fantasy state with high pay, low fares and a very young zero emission fleet is not possible, though if local authority and…Government policy was more pro-bus and less pro-car, it would be a lot more possible than it currently is.”

It seems in this guidance document that consensus between the representatives of the affected parties working on it and pragmatism have prevailed. If only politicians could grasp it all so objectively!

The remainder of the document is given over to the fine detail of possible registration restrictions for potentially destabilising services which do not meet the service specifications, admissible operator objections to LTA proposed standards of service, ticketing and emissions and the procedures for those.

Edinburgh has had bus priorities in place that date back decades like this one in Princes Street being used by Edinburgh Corporation’s experimental Alexander Y-type bodied Leyland Leopard I 1976. MERLIN

Pre-formal consultation is recommended to help in devising the scheme in the first place and the publication, consultation, implementation and review requirements are specified as are the arrangements which would be necessary to vary, withdraw from or revoke the AQPS.

As the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is a statutory consultee, it is a necessary additional hurdle for any AQPS to pass their tests, with or without qualifying agreements if these are necessary between operators to meet the LTA service specifications on frequency and fares. A board with an independent chairperson is wisely recommended for formal governance.

I genuinely believe that any good self-respecting bus operator should be actively on the ground now encouraging an LTA to enter into an AQPS where they believe pragmatic standards can be agreed to gain the ‘measures’ necessary from the council to deliver bus service improvements on key services or corridors. This now represents the best chance possible to get formal accountable partnership responsibility from an LTA in a bus-based project.

Not only would successful AQPSs reduce the voice of the franchising devotees by their high likelihood of success in the medium term for a more acceptable outlay and without the likely sabre rattling in the courts about confiscation of business, but they would also enable all parties to get on and do what they do best.

There remains one sting in the tail, namely the unitary authorities with elected mayors where we are unfortunately at the mercy of the ability or willingness of these omnipotent individuals to understand facts and arguments with an appropriate level of interest and commitment without being tainted along the way by any party political ideology or prejudices.

This is already potentially a problem in Greater Manchester where I understand that there is operator concern about recent comments by Andy Burnham that “we will re-regulate buses in Manchester” which do not come across as consistent with his duty to be impartial in considering all of the options under the Bus Services Act.

Apparently, the Greater Manchester Bus Operators’ Association wrote to him at the end of last year about this and have also raised concerns about the approach of TfGM to partnership discussions where the authority is using them as a fishing expedition to bolster its franchising plans with the partnership plan being considered as ‘the operator proposals.’

Separately I have heard others opine that Mr Burnham might be open to reasoning if he did not always insist on being flanked by two TfGM officials wherever he goes whose career aspirations are solely focused on and dedicated to wresting back control of the buses.

I still think that my previously expressed idea that politicians should have to undergo a selection process before they can stand for office to test their capabilities for understanding key issues like transport, health and education is a sound one…