Car is main competitor to bus services

A small railcar on a branch line in the Midlands. Picture by John Wylde.
A small railcar on a branch line in the Midlands. Picture by John Wylde.

The Northern Rail franchise is to pass from the Dutch National Railways (Abellio) in partnership with Serco to the German National Railways (Arriva) on April 1, 2016. The choice of date reflects the ideology which decrees that anybody can run British railways except the British.

The expiring franchise has been in operation since December 2004, until when local services in the North East were operated by Arriva before it was taken over by Deutsch Bahn. In 2004 the Government did not believe that people wanted to use trains so Abellio and Serco took it on with an expectation of ‘no growth’. Northern now carries 40 million more passengers a year than it did a decade ago.

The basic driving test covers technical ability to control the car and knowledge of the rules of the road, but the thing that is missing is people’s attitude to other road users and to situations where drivers may become impatient.

This time, Arriva plans great improvements. Unpopular ‘Pacer’ trains will be replaced by the end of 2019 by new air-conditioned trains, 43 unstaffed stations will be staffed, fares will be simplified and advance tickets will be easier to obtain. These improvements are driven by the idea of the Northern Hub.

Growth in demand for rail travel is a universal trend, while bus passenger numbers outside urban areas decline. This is not a comparison between buses and trains, which ought to work together, but do not because of the attitude that public transport is a business rather than a service.

The chief competitor to buses is the private car. A university lecturer asked his students “When did you last see a good advertisement for a bus service?” For years buses have only catered for people who cannot afford a car. This is, of course, a generalisation. There are some who realise that some trips are better done by bus. Especially is this true of the elderly, with their bus passes.

With declining patronage, and the diminishing ability of councils to support socially-desirable services, the number of buses in rural areas has been declining for 60 years, and in some areas there are none left. Experiments with minibuses and taxibuses have never achieved lasting success, but the principle of using a small vehicle for small numbers is being tried in the Midlands on the railway branch line linking Stourbridge Junction with Stourbridge Town every ten minutes. The advantage of using a railway is that it has a reserved track so does not suffer from congestion.

Traffic congestion is one of the main reasons for bad driving. The basic driving test covers technical ability to control the car and knowledge of the rules of the road, but the thing that is missing is people’s attitude to other road users and to situations where drivers may become impatient.

People applying for jobs as bus drivers find that the Passenger Carrying Vehicle test brings the realisation that there is a lot more to being a good driver than the technical ability to drive vehicles within the law. When the writer joined London Transport, his manager said “Just remember that any fool can drive fast, but it takes a good driver to drive slowly”.

One of the most serious hazards is that nowadays even small cars are capable of rapid acceleration. Even young people who have not learned how to handle vehicles can afford a car whose capabilities may lead them into dangerous situations.

Overtaking is probably the most lethal manoeuvre, but some do it seemingly without any appreciation of the possible consequences of misjudgment.

The high death rate among young male drivers has given rise to the offer of free tuition by the Institute of Advanced Motorists for young people after they have passed the basic driving test. It is in all our interests that they should be encouraged to take advantage of the offer.

Road works are a major hazard at night now that they are surrounded by powerful orange flashing lights, which make it difficult for drivers to work out where they are supposed to go. What would be a help is a steady white light above the works.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp? This book is priced at £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation, at £11.95. Order through the website www.john-wylde.co.uk