Bus services are not as bad as you think

Almost all candidates in the General Election expressed their intention of pressing for better public transport.

Interchange between buses at a meeting point in the Scottish Borders.  The pattern of connections involves four routes and takes two forms, each of which happens reliably every two hours.
Interchange between buses at a meeting point in the Scottish Borders. The pattern of connections involves four routes and takes two forms, each of which happens reliably every two hours.

Some may even have been serious, but experience suggests that, once in office, they find public transport improvements are difficult to achieve.

Secretaries of State rarely last long enough to achieve anything significant because the post is used as a stepping-stone on the way up, or a penitentiary on the way down. There have been one or two major exceptions.

Some people have the impression that public transport is worse than it actually is because information about it is sometimes not very good. London has been mentioned in this column frequently as an exemplar of good practice, and this is particularly true of the provision of information.

One difficulty is that this is an identifiable cost, which yields an unidentifiable revenue, so it is one the first things to suffer from budgetary constraints.

The London Underground map was devised by Harry Beck, an engineer who had the greatest difficulty in persuading management to accept it, but it has been used as an inspiration by public transport operators all over the world.

The fundamental difference between London Transport and many public transport operators has been that London works up to a standard, while others work down to a price. There are some, like Edinburgh, who make a good attempt at copying London’s standards, but others who seem to make no attempt at all.

One small cathedral city refused to issue timetables because the manager said “everybody knows when our buses run”. It was obviously assumed that none of the visitors to the city would want to use them.

Bus services in small rural market towns are vulnerable because they are almost always provided down to a price, rather than up to the needs. It is a vicious downward spiral as local authority support has become necessary and the funds have diminished.

The timetable for one such route includes so many off-putting notes of the sort described as ‘runs on Shrove Tuesday and Sausage Fridays only’ that residents have given up on it. Similarly, running a town service every two hours is ridiculous because nobody will use it.

Better planning, and particularly much better information, would make a world of difference to their viability.

Bus services that do work are the longer distance routes, which link towns and villages on a reliable frequency. It does not seem to matter much what the frequency is, so long as it is recognisable and reliable. Every two hours in a rural area works as well as every half hour, or even every quarter of an hour, in more populated areas. The frequency will depend on the size of the settlements it links.

Attention has been drawn to the comfort of buses. In cities, buses have little opportunity to work up high speeds, but rural areas are different. Passengers have been observed hanging on to grab-rails and seats because they were in discomfort due to the speed at which the bus was being driven. Many passengers are elderly, and drivers need to be aware of their needs.

One bus company manager sent his drivers out to ride as passengers, and he equipped them with dark glasses, ear-plugs and weighted arms and legs so that they would better understand what is like to be old.

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