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,

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.

“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.