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Buses - how did we get into the situation we are in?

Since I wrote this article, I have been informed of some inaccuracies / errors (for which I apologise) and been made aware of a couple of places where clarification / extra depth to a simplification would be useful. Accordingly, I have cut in notes of the form {{1}} to indicate those areas, italicised the clarifiactions and struck through the errors. Details of items {{1}} through {{5}} may be found at the end.

I much appreciate the input as it helps to complete the picture - further inputs very welcome (And received overnight to 4th April - see {{6}})




Why do we have some apparently odd bus services on main corridors, with duplications, gaps, and an apparent lack of the passenger being put first?

In answer to a question on Facebook: "You mentioned about First Bus withdrawing services in Pewsham. They have done the same in Melksham. I think its shocking that they are now no services after 6.00 pm to Trowbridge or Chippenham. But First Bus are a big national company! I have lived in Sheffield and Plymouth where bus services are much better. So I find it difficult to understand the small minded attitude towards local bus services in a large rural county like Wiltshire."

I can explain; you can't blame First for maximising their income, just as you can't blame a lion for killing to eat. It's the necessary action of the beast to survive.

Bus Companies are commercial operations, requiring and required to optimise profit for their owners / shareholders. And they look to do so within the structure of the law, regulation and the conditions of the market in which they operate.

Starting point

Take services that were making modest profit 30 years ago before "deregulation" (which is the current system). Let's call a route the "231" and run it from Bath, via Box and Corsham to Chippenham and on to Calne, with alternate buses varied along the way and called "232". The best income was at school time, and at shopping time and to / from work time and that 'carried' the service in the evenings, weekends, and early afternoon (most people shop in the morning). The busiest parts of the route to some extent 'carried' the service on the quieter parts of the route. The alternate bus 232 was a bit slower, took a less lucrative diversion, but fulfilled a real need for the people on the diversion and was financially supported by through passengers who wanted to travel at that time.

Competition

Open up the monopoly on the route that the 231/232 operator has enjoyed, and allow anyone else (within legal and safety constraints) who wants to operate a bus on the same(ish) routes, and that makes the original operator come to heel, improve their service to stay in business, or to be replaced by something better, right? Well - it's the theory, and it may well work on flows / corridors / routes where passenger numbers are high enough to allow multiple operators to make significant profits while competing with each other. In practise, it hasn't worked out quite like that on the Bath to Calne corridor.

What happened?

{{2}} Seeing busy buses every Monday through Friday passing outside his home on the corridor, a local entrepreneur thinks he can make a good living out of running buses.{{New text}} A local entrepreneur/ operator of coaches and other bus services thinks he can now make a good living out of running competing bus services. And it turns out he's right. He buys a fleet of second hand vehicles - perfectly serviceable, {{5}} but too old for their quality / image that a big company like First would need. He runs those buses purely at the busiest / most profitable times, and because his income doesn't have to support services at the quieter times, he can help people save on their fares, undercutting the allday, everyday, established operator.

Where buses don't come along all that frequently, passengers will tend to get on the first bus to arrive, and our local entrepreneur's good business method to attract passengers on his service is to run it just a couple of minutes ahead of his established rival. {{6}} The established rival then does the same thing and you have both companies playing 'leapfrog. And people are attracted by a shorter journey, so he runs the service via the faster of the two routes, leaving out the alternate slower leg.

The two companies both sell return or multiple journey tickets, and don't accept each other's tickets. And that gives something of an advantange to the company running into the evening, as people have to travel both ways on their services. However, some things happen to interfere with that. Firstly, When ENCTS (English National Concessionary Travel System) is introduced - a.k.a. free bus passes for pensioners - "get the first bus to arrive" becomes all the more important. The majority of passengers can now travel on either bus, either way - and can return late in the day on the full-service company's vehicles even if they travelled out on the daytime-only service. Secondly (and as a consequence of these changes) the full-service company has to look at their bottom line, and it concludes it can't run those queiter evening services at a profit any more - so the local authority steps in with a subsidy to keep them running but not commercially; alas in the interest of fairness (I presume) the local authority specifies that the evening buses have to accept return tickets issued by either company, so that the full-service company loses more sales advantage during the day.

As an aside, ENCTS has another unwelcome side effect. Bus companies are paid (by the local authority) a percentage of the normal adult fare for a journey. So - with a predominance of ENCTS passengers - normal adult fares are increased in order to increase ENCTS income - if you carry 4 pensioners for every regular adult, and get paid 45% for the pensioners, it make busines sense if your buses have enough capacity. It also makes sense to introduce a basket of special deals for your regular passengers, such as offering the 11th journey free when you have made 10, or selling a zonal rover ticket for your buses only rather than regular returns.

With competition sucking out the daytime, main route income which was from the full-service operator no longer covers marginal end of the route, nor the diversions which are offputting to the through passengers to the extent that it's seen as driving them to the competition. So ... the {{4}} Calne extensions go (and that's where the 55 is now being run in competition by a 3rd operator anyway). The buses no longer serve Pewsham. And you're left with a single 'core' route with some evening (and all Sunday) services now supported from the public purse ( {{1}} added for clarity - there has been some subsidy for a very long time indeed), as well as daytime passengers mostly being paid for from the public purse, and it being very expensive to use the buses for those who pay for individual journeys at the time of travel.

Unless the original full-time service provider is quick to react and plays the 'game' in the same way as the local newcomer, they have a tough job to keep their service on the road. They have national size advantage, like bulk buying of vehicles, but the national size has disadvantages if they have to maintain a national brand in what may be different local conditions, and if the company's not given sufficient local autonomy to the local depots, is slow in making decisions, hasn't got the resources to manage all local services, or has a shareholder minimum profit target for each route.

End game?

Played out last August on the 234 / x34 ... Chippenham to Melksham, Trowbridge and Frome corridor. The full-service 234 was withdrawn, leaving just the daytime x34. Although the x34 was said to be "every half hour", that was only in the mornings and the final buses from Chippenham is now at 16:30, with one later service only as far as Trowbridge at 17:35. Later travel opportunities - commercial ones before 19:00 and supported ones in the evening - were withdrawn and not replaced. Late evening from Chippenham is now a 20 pound taxi ride to Melksham.

Playing out later this month on the 231 / x31 ... Bath to Corsham and Chippenham corridor. The full service 231 is being withdrawn. But although Wiltshire Council is currently consulting on withdrawing all support for evening and Sunday services as from next year, {{1}} they have come in to provide a subsidy where one isn't currently provided for evening services from Bath, {{3}} and (we suspect, but it's commercial) for diversion on the x31 to cover alternate routes. Sunday and evening subsidy Chippenham back to Bath also remain in place.

I haven't failed to notice where we are in a similar game with 271 / 272 / x72 on Bath - Melksham - Devizes - Urchfont.

Looking at where we are now and where we may go

Perversely, the support offered on evening 'X31' aids journeys and businesses in Bath - outside Wiltshire, whereas the 234 evening journeys which were not supported were between Wiltshire towns. And Perversely, the X31 support is between two towns which have an excellent alternative (train) service all evening, whereas the train service on the 234 corridor ran out a number of hours before the last bus.

Whether the 231 / x31 decision to support is a political and / or short term one, time will tell. It could be (and I hope) the realisation that you have to look at the services as a whole, and that the system as described earlier in this article places passenger journeys (and the area's business economy as a whole) distinctly lower than the shareholder / profit objectives of private companies.

In spite of the perversities, I welcome the decision to support a Bath - Corsham - Chippenham evening and Sunday service for the next year; it provides us with a holding situation in which the future shape of bus services as a whole can be considered, for the balanced good of the passengers, the operating companies, and the public purse - coming up with a system which looks forward and alleviates the issues I have highlighted above. Such a system needs to take full consideration of the existing operator investments and livelihoods, passenger requirements and desires, and the public purse - both in subsidy costs and wider economy.

I'm seeing a growing understanding in government circles (note the new bus bill), with our MP, with Wiltshire Council, with campaigners, with the travelling public, and with some of the bus operators that there's an alternative system available, and all sides are taking a careful look. What would be better than to be able to sort out these issues for a stable, medium to long term future through an attractive, easy to use (and so well used) public transport network. But we need to be careful to ensure that we don't replace one set of concerns with another set of problems and effects, and that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater - i.e. that we retain the people, expertise and resources that we have already, and are of high quality.

I commend to you the ideas at Option 247. Over the next 48 hours, please offer support for that via the consultation. If you're reading this later and have missed the consultation, please let us know of your support via the website or facebook page. Good news is that there's been sufficient exposure of this consultation, and this idea, for it not to slip below the radar once the consultation's over and the hard work of analysing and detailing the future continues.




Update - 3rd April

I have been informed of a number of inaccuracies in this article, and provided with further information, and am happy to confirm / correct / clarify as follows.

{{1}}. I am informed that the "231 evening and Sunday services were supported even when First had a monopoly", and that my comment "But although Wiltshire Council is currently consulting on withdrawing all support for evening and Sunday services as from next year, they have come in to provide new subsidy for evening services from Bath" is incorrect.

I do not know the historic details, but the present evening service from Bath to Chippenham does not receive council support. The later services from Chippenham to Bath do receive support. So my statement that a new subsidy was being introduced from Bath to Chippenham (that isn't paid at the moment) stands. My sources for the rather curious current arrangement are both the bus operator and the local transport authority ... the arrangement surprised me when I learned about it, and I suspect will come as a surprise to my correspondent.

{{2}}. "Seeing busy buses every Monday through Friday passing outside his home on the corridor, a local entrepreneur thinks he can make a good living out of running buses." I am told I am incorrect, and apologise for the error if the text is applied to Faresaver. Sloppy journalism on my part.

"Faresaver" is purely a trading name as far as I am aware, and it came into common use as such in this area within my memory - I would welcome anyone feeding me a date. Prior to that, the same operator traded as a bus operator under the name "Fosseway" or "Fosseway Coaches", and I am told that predates deregulation. It's my understanding that prior to deregulation, it would not have been possible within the law for a second operator to run a competing commercial route to the 231 without local authority sanction so the daytime x31 wasn't possible until then and I'm told it started in 1998 (ish).

The "past his home" is a colloquialism I shouldn't have used - "On his home turf" would have been far better!

{{3}}. I stated my suspicions that the new x31 diversions in Corsham were going to receive support subsidy, in a similar way to the Notton and Leap Gate diversions of the x34 do. I made it clear that this was just an educated guess. I can now report that there is no support subsidy being paid for these diversions - they're going to run commercially, so my guess was incorrect.

{{4}}. I'm not sure there's any error in the original blog, but it should be made clear that the Calne extensions of the 231/232 were withdrawn a considerable time ago and not at a time when Faresaver was competing to Calne.

{{5}}. Buses used on routes in Wiltshire have varied in age over the years, and I am informed that at the time the x31 was introduced by Faresaver, the First vehicles on the route were typically 22 years old - older than the Faresaver vehicles used; it would seem that at the time First (or Badgerline ? When did First take over?) were running vehicles for longer. It was a simplification that skewed the story to suggest that all First's buses were newer; I suggest that the majority over time have been newer, but the original impliaction that the oldest First but was younger than the newest Faresaver bus in incorrect.

I THINK I've covered every point raised with me there - my apologies for my errors of fact on no. 2, and on no.5. My thanks for the extra information that has allowed me to clarify points no. 3 and no. 4. And I stand by my point no. 1; I now have conflicting data, but I believe that the true situation is as informed by the two parties to the contract, rather than the information supplied by an organsation not party to the contract.

Extra points ... my goodness this has set my mailbox alight!

{{6}} Where two companies are competing on an infrequent corridor, under the current regime (and indeed in cases mentioned) it's sensible commercial behaviour for both of them to amend their timetables from time to time so that they they run just ahead of the other - leaving (for example) gaps of 3 and 57 minutes on an hourly route. And - typically and in the cases under discussion - this has happened both ways, with timetable changes with little changes happening more often than is generally good for passengers. It would be a highly unusual route where it's in the long term passengers interests to have buses running close and then a long gap, and I would suggest that most passengers would prefer the gaps (on my hourly example) to be around 30 minutes each.

Where routes vary and one operator has slower sections than the other, my "twice an hour" examples of a small and a huge gap may result in one company being ahead part of the way and behind for part of the way

Bus ages "see saw" too - with further complications from vehicle's realistic life and quality muddying the equation and preception. Rail experience is that many prefer the HST which is 40 years old this year over the voyager wich is 15 years old.
(written 2016-04-02, updated 2016-04-04)

 
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  [4619] Buses - not about the buses, but about the people who use the buses - (2016-01-10)


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