The UK public transport sector was braced for a chill wind after government departments were asked to find efficiencies within their budgets in the wake of October's disastrous mini-budget. The November 17th statement was not as harsh as some had feared, but government spending will become increasingly constrained. How does the bus industry adapt?
Although Department for Transport budgets look set to remain largely intact in the coming years, bus operators will be pushed to wean themselves off Covid recovery support as quickly as possible. Bus operators are under pressure to win back passengers lost during the pandemic (partly as a result of a strong ‘avoid public transport’ messaging from Government), ending the requirement for continued emergency funding.
The latest Quarterly Bus Statistics from the Department for Transport reveal that total bus passenger journeys across Great Britain in the spring quarter (April-June), the first full quarter in which all Covid restrictions had been lifted, were 20.6% below the same quarter in 2019 - before the pandemic.
In England, pressure on the Department for Transport could have implications for the ambitious vision set out in Bus Back Better, the National Bus Strategy for England, in March 2021. How frustrating it must be for England’s bus operators to have finally won recognition of the vital role their services play and received the promise of billions of pounds of extra money, only for a global pandemic to arrive - followed by a mini-budget that poured fuel on the fire.
With the Government under pressure to protect spending for health, education and defense, as well as ensuring local authorities have enough money to meet their statutory obligations, the bus sector will have to make a vigorous case for support.
Bus operators and local authorities will be in familiar territory of being asked to do more with less, and after years of constrained spending there are no easy economies to make. Bus industry management is already lean and local authorities have made many of their officers redundant (although some are currently recruiting in order to deliver their Bus Service Improvement Plans).
Significant service reductions will conflict with the ambitions of the respective governments in England, Scotland and Wales, where bus services have moved up the agenda. They will also make life harder for people during a cost of living crisis.
One way the bus operators and local authorities can achieve more with less is through rigorous management of urban roads to guarantee bus journey times and help operators to keep the promises their timetables make to the public. Other policies that give buses priorities or constrain car use can enable bus operators to run a higher frequency service with the same level of resource, resulting in huge savings that can be reinvested in the network.
Writing in Passenger Transport magazine this month, Robert Montgomery, the former managing director of Stagecoach’s UK bus business and now a member of the CitySwift board, observed:
“People question whether the commercial bus model is broken. It is not. It is simply crippled by traffic congestion which has a far more detrimental and sustained effect on the bus industry than Covid. Covid was just a straw that broke the camel’s back. Let urban buses run freely, demand will rise, cost will fall and the commercial model will blossom".
The problem for bus operators is that this will require a brave Secretary of State for Transport, willing to face down those who allege that there is a “war on motorists”.
Here at CitySwift, we strongly believe the future is bright for public transport, but there are clearly some major short-term challenges in the UK and elsewhere.
Leveraging high-quality data offers another way of achieving more with less, and one over which operators have control. It can’t offset the loss of millions, or perhaps billions, of pounds of Government funding - but it can equip bus operators with sophisticated insights and scenario modeling that informs their decisions.
Commenting last month, Brian O’Rourke, CitySwift Co-Founder and CEO, said: “The public transport industry must rethink its traditional ways of operating and shift its focus from supply to demand in order to optimise networks for the future – and data is what will unlock these efficient and optimised networks.
“Private operators and public authorities require data-enriched insights to inform them on how to best adapt and operate their networks to provide more efficient, reliable and sustainable services.”
There’s nothing new about bus operators and local authorities being asked to do more with less, but there are no easy economies to make. Initiatives that speed up buses can and must be implemented to help the industry achieve more with less.