Mike Hedges AM: Why we need buses in Wales?

For people without access to a car, there are three main choices at hand if they wish to go somewhere; these being either walking there, cycling there or by taking public transport. In large parts of Wales, the most accessible and affordable form of public transport is buses.

Buses give people access to work, education, hospitals and doctors, shops and to social, sporting and cultural activities. Without a bus service, many people would be massively restricted in terms of what they can do.

For the over 60’s and disabled population in Wales, the provision of free bus travel subsidised by the Welsh Government allows them access to buses and the opportunity to travel and avoid being stuck at home all day. One of the problems is, not just confined to rural areas, is the lack of available buses especially in the evenings and on Sundays. We often talk of fuel poverty but many people in Wales live in what can only be described as “transport poverty” where travelling means that a car is a necessity for attending work and living a full life, despite the cost it entails.

Whilst car ownership grew rapidly in the 1960’s, there was equally a corresponding reduction in the availability of buses. Despite the Welsh Government’s priority of increasing the use of public transport to combat our nation’s carbon footprint, many bus companies have reduced services and routes especially at weekends and evenings, and I believe it is only the mass use of the free bus pass during the day that is keeping a number of bus services viable and available. According to the latest set of national statistics on “Monitoring the National Transport Plan”, bus passenger numbers in Wales have fallen from 118 million in 2009-2010 to 113 million in 2010-2011, which again raises the question as to why members of the public are not using buses more often?

Many of the current problems associated with bus services can be traced back to the deregulation of local bus services, which came into force during the Thatcher years.

When the bus industry outside Greater London was deregulated in 1986 as part of the Transport Act 1985, the provision of services changed dramatically. The Conservatives highlighted the benefits of the change that the resultant competition brought to users; However many of us on the political left highlighted at the time the predatory pricing, lack of co-ordination of timetables, and the reduction of socially desirable yet economically unviable bus services. I’m also sure that many people will remember the subsequent “bus wars” that resulted between rival bus companies competing against each other, usually resulting in the larger operators introducing low-cost operations to squeeze out smaller competitors.

What we have seen is the development of local monopolies where the vast majority of routes in an area are run by one operator, often part of a major public transport company. Under this current set-up, changes to any timetables or routes are taken as a result of a financial business decision relating to profit, which inevitably have an impact on the users of that service.

The Competition Commission (CC) is currently investigating the local bus market. Interim findings have included:

Profits are higher than they would be if the market was competitive;
Too many operators face little or no competition in their areas;
In terms of remedies, the Competition Commission has found that:

Short term “bus wars” on the streets were not the way forward;
More should be done to facilitate multi-operator ticketing;
Franchising (‘quality contracts’) is a legitimate response in major urban areas.
In Wales, it’s worth recognising that many areas are very well served by their local bus service. These tend to be on main roads leading into a bus hub which is usually a city centre. Then we have those areas which are much less well served and these tend to be either outlying estates or rural areas.

One interesting example of a local bus service operating in a rural area that seems to be very popular with local residents is the “Bwc a Bus” service, which operates around the Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion area. This service operates in response to pre-booked journey requests from residents, and enables them to travel to local towns and villages as well as provides a connection service to the main bus routes.

For many communities, whether they are urban or rural, the provision of a quality bus service is vital to everyday life, but with services and routes being cut by privately-owned bus companies and with local government budgets under pressure, the increase in additional subsidised routes or schemes like “Bwc a Bus” appears unlikely at present.

For those areas that are poorly served, or in some cases not served at all by a commercial bus services, I believe that community transport can fill the void that is left by offering affordable transport to those who cannot access the mainstream bus network.

Community transport provides flexible and responsive solutions to unmet local transport needs. It helps people to retain their independence and continue to live at home combatting both isolation and seclusion by enabling full participation in the life of a community. It also allows access to services and opportunities that would not otherwise be available to those living in remote locations or on low incomes.

The Community Transport Association (CTA) in Wales has over 100 members, of whom around 80% are generic community transport operators, and they collectively provide, on an annual basis, an estimated 1 million passenger journeys. Users of community transport services are usually asked to contribute towards the costs of their journey, although in some areas free concessionary transport is available to the elderly and disabled thanks to the Welsh Government’s Community Transport Concessionary Fares initiative.

In my opinion, community transport provides a flexible and responsive solution to the unmet local transport needs some communities in Wales now face, and is often the only way that some people can access a range of essential services.

Community transport can operate in many forms which are specifically organised to meet the needs of the individual communities. For example, there are social car schemes which at their grassroots level are run by local volunteers using their own cars to give lifts to neighbours. These schemes operate mainly in some of the most rural parts of Wales, which involves taking people to medical appointments and food shopping.

Minibus “dial-a-ride” schemes provide a demand-led responsive door-to-door service to people who would otherwise be unable to travel. These work in both urban and rural areas taking people to town centres and medical appointments. These schemes, unlike commercial bus services, are flexible and the route is determined by where passengers live and where they wish to go.

Additionally, connecting transport services provides a link from communities, either rural or estates without a bus service, to the commercial bus service. Services generally need to be booked by the user who will have to designate the day and time. Further development of community transport could include increasing contracted services with the local authorities or local health boards. There is desperate need to ensure that ambulances do not have to be used as a local bus service to hospitals but that they are kept for dealing with emergency calls only.

In these challenging times of austerity where more and more people are finding it a financial juggling act to deal with the cost of living as well as running a car, it’s clear that public transport in Wales, particularly buses, will have a bigger role to play in dealing with our transportation needs. Therefore, we need to ensure that not only is public transport the cheaper way to travel, but is it also the most convenient and environmentally-friendly way to travel.

From examining this issue in detail, I have some suggestions as to how the bus transportation system in Wales can be improved.

My first suggestion is to introduce “quality bus contract schemes”, which are already in place in areas like West Yorkshire.

Under this contact scheme, privately-owned providers of public transport would be expected to sign-up to the scheme when bidding for public transport contacts. Quality bus contract schemes would give local authorities and public transport bodies a say over decisions such as the routes local buses run on, how often they run, the price of tickets and fares, and the general quality of service the bus operator should provide to customers. These decisions are currently taken by the bus operators themselves; a quality bus contract scheme would however create a legal and enforceable duty against bus operators, should they fail to deliver on the services that are wanted by members of the public.

I also believe that the introduction of quality bus contracts would help towards encouraging more people to use public transport in Wales, especially as it would give members of the public a greater say as to what services they want to see from their bus operators in their areas.

Secondly, I would like to see a greater collaborative-based approach with local authorities in Wales working together towards identifying the transport needs of the local residents they serve.

Finally, I believe that there should be a return to the Traffic Commissioner for Wales regulating bus services so that some measure of control can be brought into what is effectively a public service that is heavily relied on by countless communities right across Wales.

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Author: Mike Hedges MS
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