Cut the politics, not the bus services

Latest Government figures show that there were 80 million fewer bus passenger journeys last year than the year before, a decrease of 1.8 per cent.

Free bus passes for OAPs and the disabled cost Government and Councils around £1 billion each year, and another £200 million is given to Bus Operators in the form of reimbursement on fuel duty for qualifying bus journeys, even to multinational groups who abandon small communities in order to monopolise profitable city centre routes.

Council-supported bus services in rural areas have reduced by approximately 40 per cent in the last decade, yet tens of millions are being spent on vanity infrastructure projects and “green” transport schemes which do nothing to improve service provision. Reductions tend to fall on evening and weekend services as these were less likely to provide access to jobs, shops, healthcare or schools; but cutting evening services can reduce daytime patronage, and weekend services can have an economic value in providing access to leisure services as well as to jobs in the night time economy.

So how could Government increase bus patronage, encourage Operators to retain marginal services, and protect those services that are commercially unviable but socially necessary?

 

ABOLISH THE ENCTS SCHEME

The English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS, otherwise known as “the free bus pass”) provides pensioners and some disabled people free off peak travel on all local bus services in England at a cost of £797.9 million per year, paid through Local Authorities (LAs) to Bus Operators by reimbursing lost cash revenue on the principle that they would be “no better and no worse off” as a result of the scheme.

In September 2014 Greener Journeys produced a report in which they claimed that, having analysed the costs and benefits of the ENCTS scheme, that for every £1 spent on it “generated at least £2.87 in benefits” to the economy as a whole.  It states “half of the benefits accrue directly and immediately to concessionary travellers themselves (enhanced bus service frequencies, smart and integrated ticketing).”  Greener Journeys extrapolated Department for Transport assumptions on the elasticity of bus service kilometres to passenger demand to estimate that “the provision of concessionary travel will lead to… a 10 per cent increase in the number of bus kilometres”.  The report went on to predict that “the additional patronage generated by the concessionary scheme may mean that operators are able to deliver services which may otherwise be at risk.”

But analysis of official statistics by the BBC Shared Data Unit found the UK bus network has shrunk by 8 per cent in the last decade, which equates to 214,400 fewer bus kilometres.  There are a number of reasons why Britain’s bus network is shrinking in size, according to John Disney, a transport researcher and lecturer at Nottingham Business School:

“Operators have definitely, over the last 10 years, become much more risk averse and so they are really concentrating on what they consider to be their core routes and are not really bothered about much else.  At the same time many local authorities, which would have stepped up to subsidise unprofitable routes, have reduced this spending.”

The Local Government Association (LGA) is warning that this continued decline could increase traffic congestion and reduce air quality in local communities, that marginal bus services will remain under threat, and that because LAs are spending at least £200 million a year to subsidise the ENCTS, other services such as bin collections and filling potholes are being neglected.

Councillor Martin Tett, LGA Transport spokesman, said:

“It is hugely concerning to see such a steady decrease in bus journeys.  Buses provide a vital service for our communities and a lifeline for our most vulnerable residents to go shopping, pick up medication, attend doctor appointments or socialise with friends.  Councils know how important buses are for their residents and local economies and are desperate to protect them.  It’s nearly impossible for councils to keep subsidising free travel while having to find billions of pounds worth of savings and protect other vital services like caring for the elderly, filling potholes and collecting bins.  Faced with significant funding pressures, many across the country are being forced into taking difficult decisions to scale back services and review subsidised routes.  The way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall has not kept up with growing demand and cost.  By… properly funding the free bus pass schemes the Government could help us support and maintain our essential bus services, reduce congestion and protect vital routes.”

Only last month Kent County Council introduced “The Big Conversation”, a public consultation where they invite the public to “explore ideas” to find out if there is a better, more sustainable way of providing transport to rural communities not currently served by Operators.  Pointedly they highlight the fact that they have issued over 252,000 ENCTS bus passes, and are now looking to reduce funding for bus services.  Derbyshire County Council held a similar consultation two years ago, and many other LAs including Lincolnshire and Northampton have seen supported bus networks decimated.

As regards ticketing, this has been achieved not through ENCTS but BSOG, which provides a partial reimbursement of fuel duty paid by Operators on qualifying journeys (currently around 34 pence per litre), with an additional 8 per cent uplift for Operators who have introduced “smart and integrated ticketing”.

The Greener Journeys report went on to claim that around 20% of the benefits of the ENCTS scheme were enjoyed by other bus passengers and other road users from transport network improvements (modal transfer from car to bus, with associated highway decongestion benefits, environmental improvements and accident savings). But again, modal shift has been in he opposite direction.  The BBC analysis attributes the shrinking bus network to “rising car use”.  A report produced by the Department for Transport “Road Use Statistics” in 2016 explains that although traffic growth slowed over the last two decades, and levels fell for three consecutive years after the 2008/09 economic downturn, recent trends show a resumption of traffic growth as GDP recovers, and provisional statistics suggest that car traffic has returned to pre-recession levels.  This debunks the Greener Journeys claim that the ENCTS scheme creates modal shift from car to bus, as now there is no such shift.

The final benefit claimed by Greener Journeys was that to the wider community (wider economic impacts from increased levels of volunteering, health and wellbeing benefits associated with more active lifestyles greater centralisation of social and health service provision). This last claim is particularly interesting as later in the report Greener Journeys admit that they “have not been able to quantify the impacts of concessionary travel on social inclusion, mental health and wellbeing.”  Despite this they went on to predict that the magnitude of these benefits is “potentially substantial”, with the Royal Voluntary Service estimating that the value of older people participating in voluntary work, social care and child care is £10 billion, £34 billion and £3 billion respectively, without actually providing any evidence whatsoever that these figures would reduce if the ENCTS scheme was withdrawn, instead vaguely assuming that modal shift “might occur”.

Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach CEO, claims the government is putting bus services at risk by concealing the cost of free travel for pensioners from the public, according to the boss of Stagecoach, who compared the policy to ordering Tesco to give OAPs free food. He said:

“I won’t provide a service and not get properly paid for it. You would not go to Tesco and say to them – ‘great idea, we’re going to let OAPs have free food’.  They cannot stand up there and be dishonest with people and say we’re going to have a scheme but not fund it properly.  That punishes people who do pay, whether it’s full-fare paying adults or the children or young adults who I want to be the passengers of the future.  Are there some passengers who board our buses who could probably afford to pay? Of course they could.  As a voter, I want to know bus services are going to be protected. They have to decide what is the prioritisation.  They can’t be dishonest just because these people vote – 8 million of them, they all vote so don’t tamper with the concession scheme.  Politicians are being disingenuous with all of us.”

He is correct.  Already “passengers of the future” are being exploited to plug the gap left by the loss of revenue as a result of the ENCTS scheme and the reimbursement levels which are leaving Operators worse off, despite promises to the contrary.  In Greater Manchester the previously heavily subsidised child fares and risen very significantly since the introduction of ENCTS to cover the funding shortfall for the scheme.  And in Derbyshire the b_line scheme, which offered a 50 per cent discount on adult fares to children aged 11 to their sixteenth birthday, was withdrawn, instead relying on Operators to provide any subsidy to child fares.  For young persons aged 16 to 19, instead of giving 33 per cent off full adult bus and train fares, the discount was reduced to just 25 per cent.

Operators would be more inclined to offer generous discounts to children (and OAPs if the ENCTS scheme was withdrawn) for commercial reasons if those passengers paid a proportion of the fare (say, half) and were reimbursed the difference in full.  OAPs never demanded such a scheme, indeed where bus services have fallen under threat because of reduced funding, they often say they would rather pay something towards the fare.

The main problem with the ENCTS scheme is that Operators are not fully reimbursed for the revenue lost by pass holders no longer paying fares.  Calculating reimbursement clearly requires an ability to determine what revenue Operators would have received if the scheme did not exist.  As this cannot possibly be known, this has to be estimated, and this is therefore dependent on knowing the number of journeys that would have been made by concessionary travellers (known as “non-generated journeys” – they would have happened anyway).  This is also not known.  Then a calculation is made to determine how many additional journeys have been made by concessionary travellers (“generated journeys”).  This can be calculated by taking the current number of journeys (known) and subtracting from it the number of non-generated journeys (unknown) giving an unknown number of generated journeys.  There are also additional small provisions for increased administration and operating costs.

The principle of reimbursement supposedly ensures that Operators are “no better or no worse off”; no better to ensure that EU State Aid regulations are not broken, and no worse to ensure – in theory – that Operators do are not punished.  EU Regulation Number 1370/2007 states that an allowance for ‘reasonable profit’ must be made in the reimbursement of bus operators.  There is an implicit allowance for Operator profit within the revenue forgone element of reimbursement through the average fare forgone.  It goes on to recommend that a profit allowance be made, in the form of rate on return on capital employed for additional peak vehicle requirements.  The total reimbursement usually works out such that Operators are paid between 30 and 50 per cent of the average adult fare.  However, research conducted by the University of Hull suggested that journeys undertaken by concessionary passengers since the introduction of the scheme have increased by 34 per cent.  This means that if, for example, 100 passengers were previously paying £1 each per journey before the scheme (total £100), and then 134 passengers (100 passengers plus 34 per cent) paid nothing, at best Operators would receive £67 based on a 50 per cent reimbursement of the £1 fare, a loss of a third (£33) of the expected revenue.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Greener Journeys report was that, in all of its 31 pages, mention of Operator reimbursement was limited to a brushing away of any interest: “We have assumed that this principle [that Operators should be ‘no better and no worse off’ as a result of carrying concessionary passengers] holds and that the net impact of concessionary travel on Operator profitability is zero.  We note however that Operator reimbursement is technically complex and contended.”

The LGA is calling on the Government to increase funding for the ENCTS scheme.  They say Government funding for the statutory scheme has fallen by 39 per cent since 2010 and councils are having to use their own funds to fill the gap.  “Unless the Government commits to fully funding concessionary fares, elderly and disabled people will be left stranded with a free bus pass in one hand but no local buses to travel on.”

By abolishing the ENCTS scheme altogether, Operators would be free to charge a reduced commercial rate for OAPs and the disabled, as National Express already successfully does.  The funding provided for the scheme, around £1 billion from central and local Governments, could be devolved to LAs to reinstate withdrawn socially necessary services, evening and Sunday services and other unviable or marginal services, particularly in rural areas.  Although the overall number of journeys made under the ENCTS scheme would undoubtedly reduce, these would almost entirely be socially unnecessary and repeated leisure journeys, and this number would be largely offset by more worthwhile journeys in areas which currently have a very poor or even no bus service but would see their services improved.

 

ABOLISH THE BUS SERVICE OPERATORS GRANT

Around 80 per cent of bus services nationally are commercially viable.  These services are primarily funded by passenger fares, with no direct funding from councils.  However, Operators receive a Bus Service Operators’ Grant (BSOG) which is a fuel duty rebate paid directly to Operators by Government at a cost to the Exchequer of £199.5m per year..

The fact that the BSOG is tied directly to fuel duty means that its benefits accrue to Operators irrespective of the wider social and economic benefits of a service and is paid even when a service would be profitable without it.  Large Operators can enjoy many millions of pounds of BSOG funding despite concentrating their operations on hugely lucrative town and city centre services, while at the same time abandoning marginal and unprofitable services in rural areas, leaving them to be picked up by small, family run concerns subsidised by LAs.  It is these very services that are at risk of being cut, meaning that effectively the BSOG scheme makes the rich Operators richer and poor ones poorer.

The Campaign for Better Transport recently detailed how council funding had been cut by £182 million – 45 per cent – since 2010, including £20.5m last year for same period the UK Bus operations of First between them received £39,609,689.20 of BSOG funding, DOUBLE the total amount cut from spending on bus services by LAs, and representing 12.5 per cent of their operating profit. This meant 199 routes were altered or completely withdrawn last year, 3,347 since 2010.  Steve Chambers, the group’s public transport campaigner, said:

“Our latest report confirms that the slow death of the supported bus continues, with local authority bus budgets suffering yet another cut this year.  The resulting cuts to services mean many people no longer have access to public transport, with rural areas hit especially hard.  The cuts would have an adverse effect on the local economy, with people prevented from getting to shops and businesses, affecting people’s mental and physical health too.”

The LGA would prefer this money to be devolved to local authorities who could target the subsidy at the most socially necessary but otherwise unprofitable services.  This approach has been trialled in Better Bus Areas (BBA) with encouraging initial results; for example patronage has grown in Merseyside since devolution of the BSOG and the formation of their BBA.

The BBA principle is sound enough, but the almost £200 million spent on the BSOG scheme should be pooled with the £1 billion spent on the ENCTS scheme to effectively turn the whole country into a BBA.  The only caveat would be that some of the money spent in BBAs is diverted to “green and sustainable” aspects of bus service provision, which does absolutely nothing for service provision.

 

ABOLISH LOW EMISSION BUS SCHEMES

In March 2018 the Government announced £48 million for “cleaner, greener buses” as part of a “New Ultra-Low Emission Bus Scheme” aimed at cutting emissions and ensuring cleaner and greener journeys.  The programme will see LAs and Operators bid for a share of the fund, which they can use to buy hundreds of new ultra-low emission buses as well as the infrastructure to support them. Buses Minister Nusrat Ghani said:

“We are doing more than ever before to reduce greenhouse gas pollution across all modes of transport and we are committed to ensuring nearly all cars and vans are emissions-free at their tailpipes by 2050.  In order to achieve this ambitious target, the transport sector is going to have to change dramatically over the next couple of decades – and buses are no exception.  We are confident this scheme will encourage councils and operators to invest in these ultra-low emission vehicles – speeding up the full transition to a low emission bus fleet in England and Wales.”

Claire Haigh, Chief Executive of Greener Journeys, said:

“[The] announcement is a fantastic step in the UK’s fight against air pollution and we’re delighted that the government has recognised the important and vital role that buses play in helping reducing harmful emissions. The cleanest diesel buses emit fewer emissions overall than the cleanest diesel cars, despite being able to carry 20 times more passengers.  Buses are also the lifeblood of our communities, connecting families and getting people to work.  [The] announcement sends a positive message that the government is serious about connecting the communities it serves and committed to putting the bus at the heart of the clean air solution.”

The current funding comes as part of a wider £100 million scheme announced in November 2016, including £30 million last year to support low-emission buses. £2.25 million was awarded to The Harrogate Bus Company will transform journeys for thousands of passengers in the North Yorkshire town.  The Harrogate Bus Company is a subsidiary of Transdev,

The Harrogate Bus Company have recently introduced eight 100 per cent electric powered new buses, and install charging points at key locations to keep them on the move, although they admit that buses will have to stand “a little longer” at bus stations to recharge, and timetables have had to be adjusted to accommodate this. Transdev CEO Alex Hornby said:

“I’m delighted and immensely proud that we’re one of only 13 organisations to secure funding this year under the Government’s Low Emission Bus Scheme.  The aim of our innovative bid was to attract funding that will take electric buses to the next level in the UK, and the contribution will allow us to introduce the next generation of electric buses to Britain and our home town of Harrogate.  It’s a further sign of our determination to set new standards for bus travel and is great news for our passengers.”

Transport Minister and Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones said:

“This is positive news for our area and for the quality of life of local people.  Harrogate is set to become a low emission bus town.  Transdev have shown huge ambition: the technology for this is a first for the UK. Improving air quality and cutting carbon emissions are transport priorities for the Government.  But they are more than that.  They are a priority for local people who want our air to be clean and our environment improved.  That is why this news is so significant, because it will deliver those goals for local people.  There were many bids from large organisations for this cash.  It is a testament to the powerful case put forward by Transdev, and supported by Harrogate Borough Council, that we have won £2.25 million of that cash.  The Harrogate bid was a winner competing with those big cities, such as Sheffield, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Birmingham.”

The new buses for The Harrogate Bus Company will operate on an already profitable route, and will feature free superfast 4G Wi-Fi, USB power points, plush leather coach seats, personal tables with quilted leather seating and a chill-out area on the lower deck.  Which is all very good, but does nothing for those areas of North Yorkshire who have had their services cut or withdrawn altogether. Public transport campaigner for the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), Lianna Elkins, said:

“Buses across Yorkshire have been hit hard by funding cuts. These cuts come on top of cuts to school transport and the underfunding of free pensioner travel; together these threaten the viability of whole bus networks and will lead to ‘transport deserts’ in some rural and suburban areas where there is no public transport at all.”

In Yorkshire, the total budget for supported bus services has been slashed by £2.7 million from £32.6 million to £29.8 million, a figure of nine per cent in the past financial year.  The biggest cuts were in North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) budgets, with a 51 per cent fall in funding of £1.4 million.  Yet a grant of £2.25 million has been given to an Operator which has a turnover of £8.9 million and just a few years ago imposed huge cuts to bus services across Harrogate (Harrogate Advertiser, July 17, 2009).  Changing from diesel to electric buses and installing multi million pound infrastructure than can only be used by a handful of buses does absolutely nothing to improve service provision.  It doesn’t reinstate services to the isolated communities of rural North Yorkshire, doesn’t enhance frequencies on poorly served routes, and doesn’t actually do anything to reduce air pollution, as the carbon dioxide not produced by electric buses (though nobody has thought about how the electricity is generated) is more than offset by the cars now replacing withdrawn bus services.  Surely this money would have been better spend preserving socially necessary but commercially unviable bus services?

Rachael Maskell, MP for York Central:

“If we are to address these [air pollution] problems then we really need to have effective services.  We already know there’s narrowing of services on a Sunday and into the evening.  That results in people using private transport which adds to the problems.  We need to encourage as many people as possible to use public transport in order to improve the air quality.  We want to encourage more public transport, it’s there for everybody and it increases mobility.  Every time bus services are cut back it does have a real impact on the wider community.”

It’s not just in North Yorkshire that the backslapping is going on to celebrate unproductive vanity projects.  Down south, Oxford City Council have secured £1.7 million of Government funding under the same scheme earlier to upgrade 78 buses to be ultra-low emission over the next 18 months – and convert five of Oxford’s sightseeing buses to become the city’s first fully electric double decker buses. Which is marvellous.  Except at the same time Oxfordshire County Council have cut their public transport budget, including the Sunday X47 service from Ardington to Wantage, Ashbury, and Swindon, peak time Abingdon town services 41, 42 and 44, and service 65 from Faringdon to Swindon bus.

 

BUSES FOR EVERYONE

Three Government schemes, setup with the best of intentions, are targeting the wrong areas.  They are providing greater benefits where they are not needed at the expense of those who often have no alternative.  The ENCTS scheme provides what is effectively a blank cheque to OAPs and the disabled regardless of their means, or whether their journeys are necessary, and yet children, the very people the Government should be encouraging to use public transport, are being penalised to make up the shortfall in ENCTS reimbursement.  Children in rural areas are just as isolated as the elderly, need the same access to services, to learn and to play.

The BSOG scheme simply enhances the profits of already affluent Operators, while having little effect on the demise of rural services.  Indeed, recent changes to the scheme has meant that BSOG cannot be claimed for services supported by LAs; these services are often the ones most at risk of withdrawal.

And the Low Emission Bus Schemes simply subsidise capital investment for large, multinational groups with a hollow promise of cleaner air, forgetting of course that while the generously remunerated Directors gaze out of their office windows at their shiny new buses, the rural pensioner stares wistfully in the distance, hoping for any kind of bus at all.

Better, then, to pool all of this money, around ONE AND A QUARTER BILLION POUNDS each year, and give it to LAs to support those services which the larger Operators feel they cannot run.  The marginal, the commercially unviable services.  The rural, evening and Sunday services.  Get communities moving again, get people back on the buses.  That’s how to reduce air pollution.  That’s how to reduce isolation.  Supporting local families, including OAPs and the disabled in getting out and about.  Supporting local, family owned bus Operators who specialise in providing such services.  Scrap the disproportionately unfair subsidised fares, the profit enhancing grants, the vanity projects and all the administration that goes with them.  Scrap the interference from “quality partnerships”, devolved regions, Mayors, and egos sitting on PTE boards.  Scrap the lot.  Let Bus Operators run buses on a level playing field.  Let buses get communities moving.

Demand responsive transport – there’s no demand for it, and it simply won’t work

On 26 January 2016 a report from the Strategic Director – Economy, Transport and Environment for Derbyshire County Council (DCC), Mike Ashworth, entitled “Proposed Changes to Local Bus Support (Highways, Transport and Infrastructure)” (the “January 2016 report”) was published which recommended that a public consultation should be undertaken on a proposal to cease all funding for subsidised conventional bus services, with effect from 1 October 2017.

Currently bus service provision throughout Derbyshire is provided by a network of commercially operated services, supplemented by subsidised conventional bus services where services are not commercially viable, with Community Transport (CT) schemes operating in particularly rural areas where even the provision of supported bus services would be logistically and economy ideally prohibitive. The report acknowledged that DCC “has an important role in supplementing this commercial network by subsidising public transport services for less populated areas of the County”.

In spite of this, DCC are proposing to withdraw all supported bus services and Community Transport schemes. The report went on: “A mitigation measure which could, in part, address this would be the development of funded Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) solutions, as an alternative to conventional fixed route scheduled services. Such services do not provide the frequency or the simplicity of a conventional ‘turn up and go’ service, but they do enable a level of service to be maintained in areas that may otherwise be without a service. It is an approach that has been adopted in other areas of the country where there has been a desire to maintain some level of public transport service. Examples include Lincolnshire’s CallConnect.”

This simply is not true. On 17 April 2016 Andrew Addo-Smith, Transport Officer at Lincolnshire County Council, when asked to confirm that “the model for bus service provision in Lincolnshire is a network of commercial services supplemented by a number of fixed route (registered local) bus services funded by Lincolnshire County Council, and in the most rural areas provided by CallConnect” he replied: “I can confirm that the model of bus service provision is as described.” Mr Addo-Smith supplied a list of 151 bus services supported by Lincolnshire County Council. In other words, in Lincolnshire a DRT scheme runs ALONGSIDE supported bus services, and is NOT “an alternative” which is clearly stated in the January 2016 report. Therefore to cite CallConnect as an example of how Derbyshire can replace all subsidised conventional bus services with a DRT scheme is very definitely NOT “an approach that has been adopted in other areas of the country [including] Lincolnshire”, and to state or even suggest this is clearly misleading to the residents of Derbyshire, especially those who wish to make an informed contribution to the public consultation.

Further, the evening edition of BBC East Midlands Today on 15 April 2016 featured a report on the DCC proposed bus cuts. A transcript has been provided by Kevin Hall, Assistant Editor, BBC East Midlands Today:

Reporter: “But the Councillor in charge of Transport (Councillor Dean Collins) told me they’ve seen how bookable services already work in Lincolnshire.”

Councillor Collins: “Removing just over £4million out of the budget is going to have a big effect on the whole transport network and it is a concern of mine that the rural side of the county will be the worst affected.”

It is of great concern that these misleading comments may have led residents of Derbyshire to be reassured that the proposed DRT scheme would provide the same level of public transport provision enjoyed in Lincolnshire, and they would then either feel that it was not necessary to participate in the consultation, or they may have answered questions in a different way to that had they not been misled. This could, at a later date, bring into question the whole consultation process.

Indeed, the Lincolnshire CallConnect website describes their scheme as follows: “Anyone can use the CallConnect bus service for any reason and as frequently as required. The service is operated by modern, fully accessible minibuses and operates between 7am-7pm Monday to Saturday. In most cases CallConnect will pick up and set down at designated locations in each village or town. Passengers with a disability or those living in more isolated locations (where there is no natural pick up point) can be picked up and returned to their home address, if it is safe and practical to do so. You can use CallConnect to travel to any location within each service operating area, and if you are travelling further afield you can connect with the main Interconnect bus service.”

The service operating areas are clearly defined (examples include Kesteven, Peterborough, Louth from where they connect with Interconnect bus services which operate on main trunk routes. Derbyshire doesn’t have anywhere near as many such services, with just the X17 (Matlock – Chesterfield – Sheffield) and the Transpeak (Derby – Buxton – Manchester) offering anything comparable.

While Lincolnshire’s CallConnect scheme is very mature and details of how it operates are very clear, the January 2016 report outlined a very vague outline of the DRT scheme DCC proposed to provide: “The DRT proposal would be to provide a minimum of 10 modern accessible vehicles, operating between 0700 hours and 1900 hours Monday to Friday, offering an opportunity to travel for those remote from commercial bus services.”

“The service would operate as pre-booked only and would principally offer a service transporting users from designated pick up points to their nearest town, providing access to essential services, or for onward travel using conventional commercial bus services.”

“The ability of an individual to travel at any time within the window of operation would depend on what other bookings have been made. It may be, for example, that they would need to change the time when they intend to travel or they may find that a particular service is fully booked. Individual bookings would, however, be grouped together to travel on a single journey where possible. Concessionary pass holders would continue to be able to use their passes on the DRT services, which would be operated using accessible vehicles.”

“As well as providing an alternative for supported bus services, where commercial services are least likely to be viable, the proposed DRT service would offer a potential alternative for some of the current users of the Dial-a-Bus (DAB) services provided through Community Transport organisations with grant funding from the Council. This is an important consideration given the separate proposal to withdraw grant funding for Community Transport services.”

“Whilst a DRT service would help maintain opportunities to travel for those rural areas remote from commercial bus services, enabling each vehicle to cover a much bigger area than would be the case through a conventional bus service, it should be noted that DRT services are an inherently less efficient means of provision compared with a conventional bus service. This is because average passenger loadings per vehicle trip are considerably lower, due to logistical limitations. Consequently, DRT typically involves significantly higher subsidy costs per passenger journey made than would be the case with a conventional bus service.”

“Although the DRT proposal would focus on those areas likely to be the most affected by the proposed cessation of funding for supported bus services, these do not typically correspond with areas of highest use. It should also be highlighted that DRT would be likely to provide an alternative for only a small proportion of the current users of the supported bus network, and that overall DRT passenger use would probably equate to less than 5% of the 4.0m journeys currently made on supported bus services.”

This, the misleading comparison with Lincolnshire CallConnect scheme, and a simple outline map of Derbyshire shaded in four different colours at the back of the consultation questionnaire was the only information provided by DCC for the public consultation on which participants could base their opinions on.

In fairness to DCC, they simply weren’t able to supply any further information. Because despite somehow being able to publicly state that they could provide adequate public transport provision over an area of 1,014 square miles with “10 modern accessible vehicles” at a cost of £1.3million, they hadn’t a clue how. This is evident in their response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by me on 7 March 2016. In order to ascertain the viability of DCC’s proposed DRT scheme, DCC were asked to supply a number of pieces of the information under the terms of the FOI Act 2000:

“1. The total annual mileage for subsidised regular local bus services.” DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

“2. Details of how the proposal to use 10 vehicles for the DRT scheme was calculated.” DCC reply : “At the moment, this is still being considered by officers, therefore, this information is not currently held.”

“3. The anticipated average length of route for the new DRT services.” DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

“4. The anticipated frequency of services to be provided by DRT to villages currently served by subsidised bus services.”
DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

“5. The anticipated subsidy per passenger under DRT.”
DCC reply : “This information is not recorded or held by DCC.”

The reply concluded laughably: “I hope this now satisfies your request.”

It didn’t. But on BBC East Midlands Today Councillor Collins went onto say: “We’re hopeful that some of these routes will be picked up by the commercial sector.” Sadly, in the January 2016 report Mike Ashworth didn’t share his confidence:

“Whilst it is likely that other commercial alternatives would emerge to replace withdrawn supported services, these are likely to focus on the most popular routes at the most popular times of day, rather than complete like for like replacement of existing services. The Council cannot, however, oblige any operator to provide commercial services and it is therefore not possible, at this stage, to anticipate the extent that commercial alternatives may develop if the proposals to withdraw financial support were implemented.”

“There may be circumstances where it would be appropriate to continue to provide some financial support, for example, for a limited period to ensure continuity of some of the better used urban services where there is a reasonable prospect of them becoming commercially viable with a modest increase in passenger use. However, it is unlikely that funding would be sufficient to do this other than on a limited scale. It is recognised that commercial alternatives are unlikely to be viable in many areas, particularly for deeply rural areas where population is sparse.”

An alternative proposal, submitted to DCC on 7 April details various criteria for determining which subsidised conventional bus services should have funding withdrawn. Two particular groups, Monday to Saturday evenings and Sundays often have services which carry more passengers than subsidised conventional bus services which operate during Monday to Saturday daytime. It could be argued (and almost certainly would be by Stagecoach in Chesterfield) that the loss of Monday to Saturday evening and Sunday services may impact on the commercial Monday to Saturday daytime network.

Indeed, the January 2016 report observes that: “The withdrawal of funding for early morning, evening and Sunday supported bus services, which often complement daytime commercial bus services, would additionally impact on further areas of the County. Loss of the supported bus network would also impact on the ongoing viability of commercial bus services. For example, if a passenger could no longer make their return journey because their supported evening bus service had been withdrawn, they may be unlikely to continue to make their outbound journey on the commercially provided daytime bus service.”

But whenever funding is cut from any service provision, public transport or otherwise, it is important to do the best for the most, and therefore DCC should be targeting this limited funding to provide a core network of the most viable services. It should not be subsidising Monday to Saturday evening and Sunday conventional bus services to increase the profits of large, multinational transport groups providing a commercial network.

Returning to DRT, with DCC admitting that they have no clue how the DRT scheme would operate, and misleading the public by incorrectly stating that “it is an approach that has been adopted in other areas of the country”, maybe they are basing their proposal on previous experience. Perhaps, for DRT has been tried in Derbyshire before, albeit very briefly. In May 2012, as part of a review of their commercial network Stagecoach in Chesterfield withdrew their service 98 (Chesterfield – Clay Cross – Stonebroom – Alfreton), and in order to maintain a connection between Clay Cross, Morton and Stonebroom DCC diverted service 150 (then operated by DW Coaches) away from Hallfieldgate Lane and Higham. At around the same time, K & H Doyle Coaches withdrew their service 99 (Hilcote – Alfreton – Somercotes). In order to provide some level of public transport service to these areas which found themselves with none, DCC introduced two small-scale DRT schemes: the “Higham Connect” and the “Hilcote Connect”. They operated in precisely the same way as DCC envisage for the proposed countywide scheme.

And failed after less than 18 months. For two reasons: firstly, because average passenger loadings per vehicle trip were considerably lower, due to logistical limitations, and therefore secondly because they were expensive, there being a significantly higher subsidy costs per passenger journey made than would be the case with a conventional bus service – exactly the same reservations outlined in the January 2016 report.

In October 2013 the “Higham Connect” and “Hilcote Connect” were replaced by a conventional supported bus service, the 149, which runs from Alfreton to Sutton via Higham, Morton and Hilcote. Based on DCC’s own figures (that a DRT scheme can be expected to provide less than 5% of the passenger journeys achieved by conventional services), the 149 now carries almost 6,000 passengers per year, and therefore DCC’s first foray into DRT carried, on average, less than one passenger per day.

So why are DCC looking to impose a previously failed scheme, based on no information and misleading comparisons, onto the travelling Derbyshire public? What if it fails again?

If all subsidised services are withdrawn, inevitably some operators will cease trading, most likely those that are the smallest and most competitive and have provided many subsidised conventional bus services for many years with low overheads and consequently at a relatively low cost to DCC. And if DRT does fail (as it has in the past) and DCC are forced to return to the tried, trusted and tested model of subsidised conventional bus services return there will, of course, be fewer operators to bid for their operation, meaning that tenders in future will be far less competitive, and DCC will end up paying even more for less.

To spend the entire public transport budget of £1.3million on a DRT scheme that has failed in the past, that DCC have admitted in a FOI response that “information is not recorded or held by DCC” relating to any potential route, frequency or subsidy for DRT, and that both the Strategic Director for Economy, Transport and Environment, Mike Ashworth, and the Cabinet Member for Transport, Dean Collins, have compared misleadingly to Lincolnshire County Council’s CallConnect scheme has to be a mistake, the consequences of which could be the loss of jobs, social isolation and inaccessibility to vital services including hospitals and GP surgeries.

By DCC’s own admission, the proposed DRT scheme would be “less efficient” and with a “significantly higher subsidy cost per passenger” than conventional bus services, and “that DRT would be likely to provide an alternative for only a small proportion of the current users of the supported bus network, and that overall DRT passenger use would probably equate to less than 5% of the 4.0m journeys currently made on supported bus services.”

Surely it would be far better to provide an efficient, core Monday to Saturday turn up and go network which would in itself provide over a million passenger journeys – plus half a million more with passengers who currently use subsidised conventional bus services which would be withdrawn being easily able to use those that would not. The administrative and logistical infrastructure is already in place (it would simply be a matter of terminating the contracts for the subsidised conventional bus services that would be withdrawn under the alternative proposal and retaining under the original terms those for the subsidised conventional bus services that would not).

By contrast, I fear the administrative and logistical nightmare that would be foist upon DCC by the failure of the proposed DRT scheme would be hugely expensive. A heavy burden to bear both for Derbyshire taxpayers, and a Cabinet who was foolish enough – in spite of all the evidence against the proposed DRT scheme and a solid, feasible and fully costed alternative – to press ahead with a proposal which has previously failed, based on no information and misleading comparisons,

SYPTE: Clean up your act

Last year South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE), an enormous power-crazed quango formed of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield councils, announced it needed to save £8million from its annual budget. As part of this, an all too brief consultation was instigated with the aim of cutting the Sheffield bus network by about 10%. As is usually the case with local authority consultations, the original plans were rubber stamped almost without change as reported in the Sheffield Star on 2 September 2015:

“Transport chiefs have agreed proposals to remove, replace, reduce and renumber buses across Sheffield despite last-ditch protests this afternoon.

“Campaigners demonstrated outside the meeting in Barnsley while inside protesters highlighted how the changes would hit people travelling to work or for hospital appointments.

“Martin Mayer, secretary of Sheffield Trade Union Council, asked councillors if they wanted to ‘take the political responsibility for the biggest ever cut on a single day to Sheffield buses’ – which he said amounted to at least a 10 per cent cut.

“Sheffield Bus Partnership claims the proposals will improve the city-wide bus network, reduce duplication and pollution, and make it more efficient.

“The plans were revised after thousands of people raised concerns during a heavily criticised public consultation.

“The cuts and changes will now come into force from the weekend starting October 31 after the plans were agreed.

“Plans were revised after thousands of people took part in consultation, with nine separate petitions against the changes submitted.

“But it was said at the meeting of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority transport committee that the amended plans would still have an impact on passengers, with several people speaking at the meeting and others protesting outside.

“Geraldine O’Connor, speaking as a disabled Sheffield resident, said she only found out about the consultation in July on the day it ended. She told councillors: ‘If your plans go ahead I might not be able to get to a job.’

“She claimed there was potential for a judicial review because disabled people would not be able to access ‘essential services such as the Hallamshire Hospital’ via the number 70.

“Graves Park Councillor Ian Auckland, who sits on the committee, said it was a ‘shrinking’ bus network. He added: ‘All the evidence is that shrinking networks lead to fewer passengers which leads to higher fares and so on – the only people who will benefit from that are the bus operators.’

“The changes were agreed as part of an interlinked package of measures under a devolution deal for the Sheffield region.

“David Young, from the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said a ‘very good number of changes’ had been made to original plans as a result of consultation and as almost 2,500 people had taken part the ‘message has got out.’

“He said people travelling to hospital via the 70 would be able to change buses without having to walk.  Mr Young added: ‘There’s a lot of discussion about it all being bad news and cuts – there are increased services in some cases. These are all based on the actual patronage data, use it or lose it is very much a cliche but if customers are not using the services it is not sustainable to keep them running.’

“He said that most passengers’ concerns had been addressed by the revised proposals and some services had seen positive changes.

“The meeting also heard that it was estimated there would be ‘30 less job opportunities’ for people as a result of the changes, but no compulsory redundancies.”

And in the Sheffield Star just a week after the cuts…

“Sheffield Bus Partnership claimed the changes – which were revised after a public outcry – would improve the network and be more efficient.

“But Ann Suckley, of Ecclesfield, said it was now a battle to get to work at Meadowhall shopping centre, one of Sheffield’s biggest employers.  She said: ‘I now have to walk further which is fine but the 35 buses have gone to one an hour. The bus misses half the time so if you get the next hourly one you are going to be late for work.  You have to leave two and a half hours before work to make sure you can get there when it is a shopping centre that employs thousands of people.’

“A petition against changes to the 83 and 83a services was presented at Sheffield Council’s full meeting last week.

“Mary Fraser said it meant that elderly and disabled people in Firs Hill had to walk further and change buses to access shops in Burngreave.  She told councillors: ‘The elderly in Firs Hill don’t have any cars or anything like that to take them to these areas – I had to wait 25 minutes for a bus to take me home which I think is a disgrace.’

“Councillor Terry Fox said there had been several inquiries about bus changes and they would be passed on.

“Raymond Pixley, aged 89 and from Dore, said he had a printed timetable for the new 81 service which has replaced the 70 but it did not match the one online.  He said: ‘Even when I called SYPTE they couldn’t tell me which timetable was the right one.  We’ve got hospital appointments to get to and we can’t even find out what bus to get on.’

“Others have complained about long queues and cramped buses on the 52 routes from the city centre to Crookes, and the services up and down Ecclesall Road.

“Some called it a ‘shambles’ and one dad said his daughter now had to walk in the dark to catch the 87 bus to school or get there 45 minutes early by changing buses – which cost more in fares.

“Hairdresser James Pashley said there had been an incident of ‘bus rage’ at a stop outside The Crucible theatre when three buses passed as they were not in service on Thursday night.  He said: ‘When the 20 arrived a man asked if it went to Pitsmoor and the driver didn’t know – the passenger kicked off saying he had been there for 45 minutes.  They had an argument and the driver said he would call the police but then the passenger got out.’

“Transport chiefs say they are monitoring bus complaints to see which are more ‘significant’ – and that requests for changes will be reviewed.

“South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive said it has seen an increased number of complaints since the cuts were introduced last Sunday.

“A spokesman added: ‘This is normal when changes of this scale are made.  The executive and the bus operators are closely monitoring these and are determining which are temporary issues which will get resolved as people become more familiar with their journeys over the next two weeks, and which are more significant.  SYPTE is confident that accurate timetable information is available online, at bus stops and through printed timetables produced by the bus operators.  Passengers should be aware that printed timetables feature condensed travel information, and in some cases may include approximate times. We also encourage all of our passengers to plan their journey in advance, using our journey planning tools available at travelsouthyorkshire.com and on information kiosks in interchanges.  Customer satisfaction is important to us and we are encouraging bus users to give feedback on the network changes if something isn’t right, so the Sheffield Bus Partnership can understand where services are not meeting community needs. Requests for changes will be reviewed by the partnership and put in place where possible.'”

If SYPTE are so desperate to slash costs that they’re prepared to cut bus services to such an extent as to put people’s jobs at risk, make access to healthcare almost impossible and isolate the most vulnerable in the community, you’d think the easier cost savings would have been taken care of first, right?

Wrong.

Last year I filmed a member of staff at Sheffield Interchange spending 35 minutes wiping a grit bin clean with a bucket of soapy water.  A few weeks after there were THREE people cleaning the same windows – one with a squeegee, one with a blade and the other wiping the sills.  And now – as illustrated by the picture heading this blog – FOUR people sweeping up gravel. So I thought I’d ask SYPTE what was going on, starting with an email with the above picture and some others:

“Those pictures were taken at your Interchange today.  The first two show FOUR – repeat FOUR of your staff together doing nothing more than sweeping up gravel, including Anita Smith who I understand for reasons that escape me is a senior member of staff.  They were doing that – ALL FOUR OF THEM – for at least two hours; feel free to verify this via your CCTV records.

“The next picture is the state of the toilets at the same time (picture of toilets that looked like a bomb site).

“A few months ago I filmed the member of staff next to left wiping clean a grit bin near D2 with soapy water, taking 35 minutes.  This nonsense has to stop.  Without giving me a stock, straight bat answer such as ‘I’m sorry you were disappointed but be assured I’ll pass on your comments’ I would like you to answer the following questions:

1. What roles did each of the four members of staff have in sweeping up the gravel?

2. If all four did not have roles then why were they there, and will they be paid for that period?

3. Were any of the four staff more senior than the others and if so why did they not deploy surplus staff to clean the toilets?

4. How often are the toilets cleaned (cleaned does not mean attended, cleaned means swept and mopped, all surfaces wiped)?

A few days later came this reply:

“I have been passed your e-mail relating containing photos of 4 staff together on the runway at Sheffield interchange together with a photo of litter in the toilets. Following an investigation into this it transpires that the 4 staff were actually required to carry out a task they had been set – removing salt and grit from the kerbs and runways.  This required two staff to carry ‘buckets’ of a cleaning substance, one to do the ‘scrubbing and one to ensure their safety.

“Unfortunately due to current staffing levels any tasks such as this take cleaning staff form their regular duties including clearing the toilets.

“Thank you for taking the time to contact SYPTE, this allows us to explain why such actions take place.”

Not good enough.  I emailed back:

“Thank you for taking the trouble to look into this matter and for your prompt reply.  It is important that all SYPTE resources are used with the maximum efficiency and effectiveness, especially just a few months after the biggest cuts to the Sheffield bus network – including those services supported by SYPTE – in living memory.

“Whilst I perhaps expected any response to my email to be defensive, I am very disappointed with your explanation, though at the same time I have a morbid admiration for your defence of PTE staff, and the fantastical imagination necessary to justify allocating four people for at least half a day to sweep up some gravel in such a small area.

“Why would it take two members of staff to carry the cleaning agent? Surely, given the distance from the furthest point in the Interchange to the main building, even if the buckets couldn’t be carried in one journey by one person, then it would take less than 5 minutes for that person to make the same trip? And once the buckets were carried, what were the two people doing then?  Perhaps more puzzling is that in the pictures that I sent to SYPTE, plus many more I have, not only were no buckets being carried, but there is no evidence that any buckets were involved whatsoever. Maybe your investigation should have looked at the evidence before explaining it.

“As for the one person being responsible for the safety of the rest, presumably this was to ensure that if whoever was the scrubber couldn’t see or hear any oncoming buses then the person responsible for safety could alert the scrubber to the impending peril, and rapidly ensure that they and any equipment were relocated to a safe refuge until danger had passed. This, although rather over the top, would be reasonable enough, except in none of the pictures sent to you – plus others – was anyone looking in the direction of oncoming vehicles which can be clearly determined from the photographs.

“Wouldn’t it have been more honest to reply with a grudging admission that perhaps, on reflection, staff were not deployed in the more efficient and effective manner that day, that you’ll review procedures in future, and work with taxpayers rather than being defensive to the point of ridicule when all everybody wants is the maximum resources available for what the SYPTE should be doing, supporting local bus services?

“Wouldn’t it have been better for just two people to be allocated to the grit removal; one carrying the equipment and doing the actual scrubbing, and the other carrying the buckets then once the buckets were in situ snd not requiring to be carried, to be looking out properly for their safety while the scrubbing was taking place?

“Wouldn’t it have been better then for the two superfluous staff to be helping customers, promoting the use of local bus services, ensuring that tourist and locals alike are given the best possible travel experience in order that they will choose Sheffield again?

“Wouldn’t it be great if public bodies were more open, honest and clear, receptive to constructive criticism and be adaptive, ruthlessly efficient, always striving to do things better and maximising ever dwindling resources?”

No reply.  So the next time you’re not happy with your buses in South Yorkshire, you might ask if your council tax is being spent as efficiently as it might.  Local authorities seem to think they’re untouchable and get rather angry – almost intimidating – if you question them.

My previous blog on the forthcoming bus cuts in Derbyshire caused a bit of a kerfuffle at County Hall in Matlock.  I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Derbyshire County Council (DCC) to ascertain what the subsidy per passenger is on each supported bus service in order to see if there was a better way to preserve bus services rather that spend a proposed £1.3million on Demand Responsive Transport, a simple enough request and one sent in a purely personal capacity.  But DCC know who I work for, and rang them to tell me not to make such requests, and were clearly threatening unwelcome consequences for me and my employer if I refused to desist.

But that is my right – and your right – so exercise it.

Derbyshire County Council should choose a different route

Derbyshire County Council (DCC) are looking to withdraw all funding for all supported bus services, with the exception of school buses which they are legally obliged to provide under the 1985 Transport Act. They say budget cuts imposed upon them from central Government leaves them with no choice.

The following is taken from their website:  “Local residents are being asked their views on proposals to stop paying for local bus services and community transport to help us deal with the biggest budget cuts in our history. By 2020, the funding we get from central government is expected to be more than a third less than in 2010.”

“This means we need to review what we spend on paying for local bus services which don’t carry enough passengers to be run commercially (subsidised buses). We’re also reviewing the amount of money we give to Derbyshire’s six community transport schemes to run Dial-a-Bus (DAB) ‘shopping buses’. We’re already scaling back on our support for DAB services meaning that from this year we will fund one of these trips a week for every community, town or village, to a nearby town centre or supermarket. Some areas currently have several services a week.”

“But we are now putting forward further proposals to help save £4.4 million on transport costs.”

Their proposals would see the withdrawal of all county council funding for subsidised buses from October 2017, and therefore unless they can be run commercially they will stop. They also plan to withdraw all county council funding for DAB services, meaning that unless they can be funded from elsewhere they too will stop. To mitigate these losses, DCC would provide £1.3 million for a new Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) service which would be available to all passengers, both those currently using subsidised buses and those using DAB, and also provide a new Door-to-Door Plus service for people who currently use DAB but would be unable to use the proposed DRT service.

A quick look at how DRT services work: intending passengers have to book their seat either by telephone or online, much like a taxi. They then wait for the bus to turn up at the place and time booked, much like a taxi, and are then taken to the shops before being taken home afterwards, much like…

Councillor Dean Collins, Cabinet Member for Highways, Transport and Infrastructure, said of the DCC proposals: “We are facing unprecedented cuts and must review all our services, particularly those, like subsidised buses and community transport, that by law, we do not have to provide.

“We know from previous consultations that public and community transport is vital to helping people get out and about, enabling them to maintain their independence and wellbeing, but unfortunately, the fact is, we just don’t have the money to continue funding these services to the level we have previously, so we need to look at running things differently.

“No decisions have yet been made on these latest proposals and I would encourage people to take part in this new consultation so we are well aware of the public’s view of our plans.”

The consultation will run for eight weeks until Sunday 24 April 2016. However, smack bang in the middle of this period something even more significant in terms of impacting upon local services is about to happen. Under something called the Devolution Deal, part of Chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” fairytale, all councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – the city councils, borough councils, district councils and county councils – are expected to reach a deal in March, following negotiations with central Government the “North Midlands” devolution deal, also known as D2N2.  As part of this it is intended to develop a North Midlands combined authority which would mean that decisions on and funding for services including public transport currently provided by Derbyshire County Council would stay in Derbyshire.

Whilst DCC laud this plan, claiming that as well as providing 55,000 new private sector jobs and building 77,000 extra homes, they would introduce “a better co-ordinated public transport system with ‘Oyster’ style smart ticketing that will help make sure communities are connected to jobs and training.  The inevitable conclusion would be quality contracts and effectively re-regulation.  All well and good and even nostalgic you might think. But since deregulation of bus services 30 years ago much has changed.

The promised revolution for bus networks and ticketing can work well in large cities such as London, but in shire counties like Derbyshire there are far smaller towns and villages, often served by single operators for the simple reason that there isn’t sufficient demand for a multi-operator high frequency network. Worse still, such schemes often result in cartels in all but name – Sheffield being a prime example – where two large operators (First and Stagecoach) effectively share the spoils between them, squeezing out small, independent operators who are more customer focused and offer a better standard of service with cheaper fares. With lower overheads these firms can continue to provide marginal services to areas which might not be satisfactorily profitable to the shareholders of the bigger companies, but are perfectly acceptable to your family run rural bus company.  This would be lost.

DCC believe that their proposals are “the best option for Derbyshire to bring more money into the county, improve the economy and protect services in the future.”  The plans also refer to a new “joint fund to spend on improving transport” whilst failing to mention that this refers to road infrastructure; not a single penny piece is promised towards supporting local bus services.

As if this wasn’t enough, Chesterfield Borough Council (CBC) are looking to bail out of the D2N2 scheme and instead join the new combined Sheffield City Region, which DCC object to, warning that if plans by CBC go ahead it will mean the biggest change to local government in Derbyshire for generations, meaning that “some key services in Chesterfield – Derbyshire’s largest town − would no longer be provided by Derbyshire County Council,” including public transport.

By now two things should have become apparent. Firstly, that DCC seem intent, come what may, to remove all funding – and responsibility – from local bus services. They’re simply not interested any more. Despite Councillor Collins’ words decisions have undoubtedly already been made and therefore secondly, the threat to supported services in Chesterfield is moot – they’re not going to exist anyway.

But rather than making party political capital at the expense of local bus services, surely there’s another way? DRT doesn’t work: they are inefficient, huge distances between the few passengers that use them meaning the exorbitant current subsidy of £24 per passenger for community transport would be peanuts. You’d have thought DCC themselves would know this following the last (and only) two DRT services they introduced, the Higham Connect and Hilcote Connect, both catastrophically expensive and unused failures swiftly replaced by a proper bus service, the 149 operated by G & J Holmes of Clay Cross.

Of course there is a better way.  The subsidies DCC currently provide to local bus services works out at, on average, £1.19 per passenger. They could quite easily use the £1.3 million they are planning to throw at a crackpot DRT scheme to continue funding more the most used but still unprofitable services. In 2010 DCC held a similar consultation, requiring the buses budget to be cut by roughly a third. The same questionnaire was published along with a list of supported services.  The original DCC proposal at the time, to withdraw all supported services where the subsidy worked out at more than £4 per passenger, was nodded through once the pantomime consultation dragged its way to the end.  If DCC repeated the exercise but set the bar at the current average subsidy per passenger of £1.19 this would save the £1.3 million they’re planning for DRT.

However if for nothing other than to apportion blame for unnecessary service cuts on central Government they insist on cutting a full £4.4 million there are ways to breach the shortfall.  When you first look at how local authorities receive funding aside from their grant from central Government, council tax and business rates come to mind. But councils throughout the county have already raised council tax by the maximum 2% allowed, and gave also opted for the additional 2% precept earmarked for social care. As for business rates, under plans announced by the Chancellor last October, although councils can cut rates they are not allowed to raise them, unless they are devolved cities with an elected mayor, and even then rates can only go up by 2% which must be ring fenced for capital projects. So what could be done?

Firstly, DCC could compel bus operators to charge commercial fares for schoolchildren on supported schools services, rather than the current 70p flat fare; the additional revenue of over £100,000 could be offset against the amount paid for the contracts.

Then take this a stage further and allow community transport schemes to charge 75% of the equivalent commercial taxi rate (the discount being exactly that offered to children under DCC’s b_line scheme), rather than a £3 standard fare.  This would better reflect the cost of the journey being undertaken and also relate more closely to what the service actually is: a group hire taxi service.  This would generate just over £300,000.

Introduce a 35p on-street departure charge (roughly the going rate for similar schemes) for bus services operating via or terminating in Derbyshire towns. This would share the burden between highly profitable services and other socially necessary ones. DCC provide bus priority measures and bus stops at effectively no charge to bus operators. There is precedent for this in council and PTE-run bus stations, and would be no different for charging for on-street car parking.  In Chesterfield alone there are well over 6,000 departures every week and throughout the county this would raise £1.5 million.

Speaking of car parking the introduction of a 15% precept on car parking where fees are already charged, revenues from which would be clawed back from district and borough councils, would raise around £1.2 million.

And with all this, supported services that run across the county boundary would continue, and in turn DCC would still receive contributions from neighbouring local authorities to support these services of over £300,000.

And there’s the £4.4 million DCC want to keep bus services running. All figures are based on or taken from central Government and DCC websites along with Freedom of Information requests.

But having said all of that there is an even simpler way, which would relieve DCC of the logistical and administrative burden that supported bus services brings, and would genuinely ensure that local bus services continue to be provided where there is a clear demand.  The £1.3 million earmarked for what would undoubtedly be an ill-fated DRT scheme should be diverted and used to more realistically reimburse operators for journeys made under the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (ENCTS), a ludicrous idea implemented by Labour in 2007 giving virtually unlimited free bus travel to ten million people and reimbursing bus companies pennies in return. That is to say that currently, whenever a pensioner or disabled person boards a bus in Derbyshire (or anywhere) with a free bus pass, bus companies are not reimbursed the correct fare or even anywhere near it. They are paid about £1. That’s it. Even if the journey is 30 miles long and is totally unnecessary. And that is why not only are rural services more at risk under the politically motivated cuts that DCC seek to implement, but bus companies are not receiving what they should to contribute towards the running of what services do remain.

Despite their public service bleeding heart attitude, both locally and nationally Labour, through their “we know best” attitude of innovation-stifling regulation, continue to demonstrate their frightening lack of knowledge of the bus industry, risking isolating communities through political point scoring. It’s time they chose a different route.

Having to work on a Saturday afternoon? That’s life…

Earlier today I drove past protesting junior doctors opposite Sheffield Children’s Hospital holding placards saying how tired they were (well go to bed then), how underpaid they all were (13.5% pay rise on the table taking potential earnings up to £70,000) and how many hours they work (apparently working after 5pm is antisocial).

They also wanted passing motorists to honk their horns in support. But that would have been in breach of Rule 112 of the Highway Code as enforced by the 1988 Road Traffic Act and would have put lives at risk. So I didn’t.

I was slightly puzzled although more annoyed that, in spite of their claims to be striking in the interests of the safety of patients, they were blocking the pavement while shouting their incomprehensible nonsense at the top of their union-sponsored voices, while simultaneously jabbing their placards up and down in a kind of half-arsed wanking motion, scaring small children shitless – as if going into hospital wasn’t nerve wracking enough – and forcing them and their parents to walk into oncoming traffic on the busy A57 coming out of the fourth largest city in England.

Back in the real world I drive buses.  Those who have experienced this would probably say I don’t do it particularly well but nevertheless I am paid £8.91 per hour, regardless of what day of the week it is and what time of day I work.  I regularly work significantly more than 60 hours per week including evenings and weekends and when everything is rotted up I take home about £420 per week, after giving a third of the gross to the Government, of which 17p would go to Trident’s replacement (well worth it), and around £1.60 to the EU which, having banned wonky vegetables, are singularly responsible for the demise of That’s Life and, thankfully, the fucking irritating Doc Cox.

Speaking of irritating Docs, I suspect I do my job for the same reasons as many junior doctors. Of course it’s for the money – let’s be honest, the bills wouldn’t get paid otherwise and we all want to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle without necessarily wanting to be extravagant. But also, surely, because each and every day we, in our very different ways, provide a service which is largely appreciated. We don’t get it right all of the time, we all get tired and frustrated, but that’s life. I’ve never been on strike or off sick, I do my job to the best of my ability then go home.  I enjoy a quiet life.

The thing is, the striking junior doctors claim to be saving the NHS, but how many patients lives have they put at risk today?  3,000 operations have been cancelled or postponed as a direct result of industrial action, 7,000 in total to date with more set to follow.  It’s a bit like that thing you did at primary school, where you were told there were a dozen people in a hot air balloon and you had to lose some so the rest could survive. Except nobody is forcing the junior doctors to go on strike.

The key sticking point appears to be payments for working Saturdays. The British Medical Association (BMA) wants the whole day to attract an “unsociable hours premium”, but the Government says the hours between 7am and 5pm should be paid at the basic rate.  Like the rest of us. The BMA proposed accepting around half of the 13.5% basic pay rise (that’s THIRTEEN AND A HALF PER CENT) offered by the government in return for retaining extra payments (about £7,000) for working Saturdays.  Jesus.  Based on my current hourly rate, in a typical working week I’d be about £200 better off, and if such a whopping pay rise is, as the bleeding hearts claim, going to destroy the NHS then perhaps it’s not worth saving.

It’s perhaps worth noting here that the proportion of the total salary bill for junior doctors which would pay for the increase alone is almost exactly half of the entire mental health budget (currently just 1.4% of total NHS spending), so some people seem to have, shall we say, a skewed sense of priorities.

The Government says it wants to make these changes – which would be cost neutral so that the extra £8 billion they’re investing into the NHS would go directly to caring for patients –  to make it easier for hospitals to roster junior doctors at the weekend to address evidence of higher mortality among patients admitted Friday to Monday which, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in September 2015 increases by up to 15 per cent.

Could any of the supporters of the strikes and other bleeding hearts honestly say they’d turn down such an offer?  Back in the day at the tender age of 19, I was staff representative (NOT union rep – can’t abide unions, bunch of trouble causers) for the IT and Purchasing departments at the fabulous Markham and Company of Chesterfield, and was able to secure the overwhelming majority of colleagues’ wishes not by strikes or walkouts or childish militant behaviour, but by building coalitions with others, differentiating the important and achievable from the outrageous and unrealistic.  And everybody was happy.  It was a cracking firm to work for (we built the machines that dug the Channel Tunnel, you know which, come to think of it, although was a terrific feat of engineering, the consequences have become catastrophic, allowing a [insert appropriate collective term here] of migrants virtually unrestricted entry into the UK) with a friendly atmosphere, devoid of back stabbing and selfishness, everybody pulling together for the common good   Not unlike my current employer which just goes to show that if you put in the effort and are alway prepared to listen, others will too.

What I can’t understand is how exactly, as the BMA claim, such a proposal would put patients’ lives at risk. Is it because junior doctors would be a bit miffed because they wouldn’t get an extra SEVEN GRAND for working after 5pm on a Saturday, and so would deliberately botch operations to get their own back at the nasty Tory Government?  Grow up.

The starting salary for a junior doctor is currently just under £23,000 a year, but with extra payments for things such as unsociable hours, this can quite easily top £30,000. Junior doctors at the top end of the scale can earn in excess of £70,000.

I get tired most days.  Driving a bus while listening to passengers witter on about the last person to get off (and wonder if they’ll ever be seen again other than in the obituaries column of the Derbyshire Times) and having to think for every other retarded arsehole motorist in five hour spells with just the occasional few minutes layover is tiring, and one slip of the steering wheel – like a slip of the tired doctor’s scalpel – could prove fatal.  The difference is the doctor would just kill his one patient; I could kill a bus load.  Surely in any other occupation you’d kill for those terms doing a job you liked, so what on Earth makes junior doctors think they’re so special?

Thr similarities between the NHS and the once thriving coal industry is stark.  There was an insatiable demand for coal in the UK, a demand privately owned and run organisations would be grateful for.  But because it had a unionised workforce for whom striking was a sick habit, satisfying that demand became so expensive it simply wasn’t economic – or in the country’s interests – to artificially prop up the mines, and so more efficient alternatives became commonplace and gradually (and sadly) our mines closed.

After their day in the fresh air and on the telly he junior doctors will return to work and catch up on the backlog of work they’ve created – and doubtless moan about that, too.  But for the many thousands of bleeding hearts – surgery is not the answer.

“Can I have a return to common sense, please?”

In 1957 then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the country they’ve “never had it so good”. Fifty years later slack-jawed paranoid lunatic Gordon Brown, the former Chancellor-cum-PM, with all the economic acumen of a rent boy, his one good eye looking nervously over his shoulder for any Blairite blades that might be hurtling his way leaving him blind to the impending economic disaster, introduced the bloated electioneering vanity project known as The Concessionary Bus Travel Act, rimming the wrinklies to the tune of £1.1 billion per year courtesy of hardworking taxpayers which, needless to say, our country couldn’t afford as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. It provided (and still provides) unlimited free bus travel for pensioners on services in England (there are similar schemes in Scotland and Wales); bus companies are in turn paid a “contribution” towards the lost fare revenue which Brown promised would see them “no worse or better off”.

As funding to local authorities is being cut, evening and Sunday services throughout the country and all day rural provision are under threat. For example, last week Derbyshire County Council (DCC) – local authority to the small, family run bus company for which I work – announced proposals to reduce the support for bus services that are not commercially viable (defined as being socially necessary but not profitable) from £5.4 million to zero. That is to say all funding for bus services, except for school buses for which they have a statutory obligation to provide, will disappear. DCC are looking to bus operators to run underused services on a commercial basis – likely at a loss, or they will disappear. So, they will largely disappear.

Peter Box, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, said councils were finding it “impossible” to continue to make up a funding shortfall for the scheme.

“The way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall has long been unfit for purpose and has not kept up with growing demand and cost. Unless the Government commits to fully funding concessionary fares, vital bus services that support the most vulnerable in our society will continue to come under pressure.” Amen to that.

As a bus driver, day after day I see the abuse of the free bus pass scheme. For example, one lady travelled on three separate services around the Derbyshire countryside, a total of 43.2 miles, to go home – which was just 1.8 miles from her starting point. This week, 4 pensioners boarded my bus which runs a particular route just once a day but is over 30 miles and takes almost two hours because it was a “nicer run” than the direct service that was stood in front of me which runs every half an hour, and is half the time and distance. And this is commonplace. A few years ago there was a debate on rehabilitated coke-fiend Richard Bacon’s BBC Radio Five Live show on which I explained that this kind of thing was happening, neither he or his guest David Quantick believed it.

Bus companies are obliged to accept free passes between 9.30am and 11pm weekdays, and all day weekends and Bank Holidays. There are 9.8 million of these free passes currently in circulation, each of which performed 102 journeys on average in the financial year ending March 2015. Now, given the cost of the scheme, that means operators are paid a CONTRIBUTION (that’s a CONTRIBUTION, not subsidy) of £1.10 towards the cost of each journey. As the average single fare in England is £2.01 (all based on Department for Transport figures), and in the same period a third of Concessionary journeys were “generated” (that is to say had they not been free they wouldn’t have taken place), bus operators lost over £303 million that year alone, effectively in unpaid fares. This used to be called “theft”.

It is argued that free bus passes encourage pensioners to be more physically active and socially integrated. In a study performed by The Imperial College London and published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers analysed data on the travel habits of 16,900 people over a four year period.

Over this period the percentage of pensioners with a free bus pass increased from 56.8% to 74.7% – a jump of around a third – in line with the DfT’s own figures – while over the same period there was an increase in the percentage of bus pass holders walking three or more times a week. The study also found that these people were more likely to undertake any “active travel” – defined as walking, cycling or using public transport.

Sophie Coronini-Cronberg, who led the study from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said the public health benefits of the scheme should be taken in to consideration when deciding its future.

“Although the costs of the scheme are considerable, it may offer value for money as it seems to promote physical activity among older people, thereby helping to reduce inactivity-related mortality and morbidity.”

“It enables a huge glut of the population to be active. It also supports economic growth, particularly as grandparents are freeing up mothers to go back to work. They use them to take grandchildren to museums and to and from school.”

Former councillor Richard Worrall, from Walsall, has made several long-distance trips on his pass and argues that pensioners who travel extensively are not abusing the system.

“On your way you’re spending money on B&Bs, food and drink and putting money into the local economy. So when people say we don’t like retired tourists gallivanting on the bus pass for free, they ought to think again. What they aren’t spending on local buses, they’re spending in the local shops.” So that’s alright then.

He and several friends, reported The Guardian, armed with a hefty A-Z and four paper bus maps, pointlessly and at tremendous expense to the taxpayer and at a roughly equal loss to the bus companies who fell victim, set out to travel every bus route in London from end to end. They completed 549 journeys within 12 months just because, er, they could.

You think that’s bad? The best free bus journey in Britain is Lancaster to Keswick via Windermere Ambleside and Grasmere on the 555 in the Lake District, according to another freeloading sponger, retired engineer Steve Gibbs, 74. He completed a 2,000-mile round trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats, entirely on local bus services, armed with his bus pass and a total absence of shame, starting with the 1A bus from Land’s End to Penzance and returning 13 days later.

But why is it the responsibility of private companies – especially small, family-run concerns such as the bus firm for which I work – to subsidise public health? Why should bus companies bail out other struggling businesses? Why don’t the B&Bs that the former Councillor enjoys give him and his ilk a free warm, hearty meal? Why aren’t the food and drink retailers of the local economy obliged to provide unlimited free fruit and vegetables then be reimbursed just half the cost? Or why not provide free energy so pensioners can keep warm, then expect the energy providers to stand half the cost? Oldies would be shovelling strawberries between their dentures with their thermostat set to “tropical” at the drop of a loose fart. Such schemes would be abused – just as the free bus pass is now. And when something is abused in this way provision becomes unsustainable, either through the inability to supply or due to it simply being uneconomic.

Martin Griffiths, Chief Executive of Stagecoach, agrees: “I won’t provide a service and not get properly paid for it. You would not go to Tesco and say to them – great idea, we’re going to let OAPs have free food. They cannot stand up there and be dishonest with people and say we’re going to have a scheme but not fund it properly. That punishes people who do pay, whether it’s full-fare paying adults or the children or young adults who I want to be the passengers of the future. Are there some passengers who board our buses who could probably afford to pay? Of course they could. I want to know bus services are going to be protected. They have to decide what is the prioritisation.”

It is often argued that bus companies wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the free bus pass. Er, wrong. Do the maths – two-thirds of journeys would have been made anyway generating twice the revenue per passenger, net gain of a third. And that other one – “Well, the bus is running anyway so why shouldn’t pensioners be able catch it for free?” Ok, and then on that same logic since there’s electricity and gas already running into your house why not simply bypass that inconvenient meter thing that someone had the temerity to install – you know, that monitors what you use so it can be paid for – and enjoy unlimited free energy? What’s the difference between a meter and a bus ticket machine?

In the 1970s a scheme was introduced where pensioners would be given a number of tokens which were exchanged for free bus journeys. This meant that bus rides were chosen prudently and according to necessity, not because they were abundant.

And that is why bus services are being cut. In 2010 new Chancellor George Osborne asked the public for ideas. I submitted one which proposed that pensioners be allocated one free return journey per day by the most direct route to their nearest suitably equipped town (which, say, has a hospital, GP, dentist, library and a big-five supermarket), and any unnecessary journeys would be charged at the normal fare. Economically sustainable while providing socially necessary free bus travel. Not even a reply.

So, dear pensioner, when you start moaning that your buses are disappearing, just think back: would you have made all of those bus journeys around the countryside if you’d had to pay for them? Because a third of you wouldn’t have, and soon you won’t even be able to nip to the shop on a Sunday or go to the bingo of an evening. And if you live in a rural village you’re set to be isolated, cut off from the real world whose hard earned taxes you frittered away while munching your sandwiches and gazing out of the bus window. And you’ve only got yourselves to blame.

Google caused my mid-life crisis

A year ago almost to the day I was browsing the Internet, looking for an excuse to explain a life of missed opportunities, when I stumbled upon a very interesting piece about ambition and confidence. My problem is that despite having oodles of the former it has just about always been stifled by a distinct lack of the latter, and that the balance between self-belief and can’t-be-arsedness has been constantly tipped in favour of underachievement. Even more thought-provoking as the article itself was, for me, it’s author. I immediately recognised his quite distinctive name as being the person three positions above me on our school register some 25 years ago. After some toe-dipping we exchanged a series of emails detailing each other’s life choices and career paths. He was and remains tremendously likeable and highly intelligent without a modicum of bombast. In terms of schooling, we started from the same point: both in the top set for maths and English, both got a raft of a-grade GCSEs, but then we diverged spectacularly. He, via sixth form and (Oxford) University, is now an Editor at The Economist whereas I, via IT support and starting an ill-fated small bus company which could be best described by a quote from Denis Norden (“it was a bit like making love in a hammock – an interesting experience but of uncertain duration”), am a bus driver in the Peak District.

My father was a coal miner and was made redundant in 1986. A hefty redundancy lump sum was soon whittled down by his partner who he met a year after my mother died in 1983. This meant that by the time I reached school leaving age in 1990, every penny counted, and so my desire to take the sixth form and university path came a tearful second to the need to go out and pay my way.

As it happens I’ve largely enjoyed the work I’ve done and running a bus company was something I’d wanted to do since having a toy box full of them, but now after hitting 40 and having spent almost a third of that time driving without any intellectual stimulus whatsoever for the same firm on the same routes and seeing the same people I’ve decided that much more of this will tip my current human-to-cabbage genome ratio so far that my veins will take on a distinct hue of chlorophyll and any phallic representation by means of a cucumber/courgette/gherkin (delete as appropriate) would take on a greater reality. It comes to something when one of my primary school teachers, Mrs de Chiro, quite by chance boarded my bus a couple of years ago and said with a look of genuine despair: “It’s such a shame, you were a very bright child, I thought you’d be doing something much better than this.”

Over the last year I’ve been Googling the rest of that school register. Contemporaries who messed around in class and showed little potential have gone on to great things: one is Head of Creativity at an advertising agency in Edinburgh, another is Executive Finance Director at an NHS trust. A football manager, Head of Business Development at a District Council and Engineers various. And here I am, stuck behind a wheel.

So what did they do that I didn’t? They followed that Economist guy down the sixth form and university route. Am I jealous? Definitely. Am I bitter? Slightly. Don’t get me wrong, where I currently earn my corn is a cracking place to work and I’ve had this conversation with my boss several times, but realistically nothing is going to change unless I put more weight on the self-belief side of the scales. I have to do what all my former classmates did and take a different path.

And so this is part of that. Finding a creative outlet, a whimsical whinge, call it what you will. But for the first time and every fortnight I can say these two words with sincerity:

Welcome aboard.