Inclusion and access should be at the heart of the new Bus Services Bill

A bus in Manchester. Image: Divy/Wikimedia Commons.

Thirty years ago, the British government deregulated the bus market outside London. The move meant the needs of passengers were to be met largely by the market, with some subsidy from local government to incentivise bus companies to meet a greater range of needs through the provision of “socially necessary services”. 

It was known even then this would leave gaps in provision and un-met needs – needs that continue to grow as commercial and subsidised services are withdrawn in the face of cuts to local public spending. But the act of Parliament which deregulated the bus market did at least provide the legal framework for local communities to come together and form their own not-for-profit transport solutions: community transport. 

Too often we still see people excluded from the mainstream bus network due to their rural location, disability, or simply the time at which they want to travel. Now a new Bus Services Bill, which will provide a once in a generation opportunity to create a fundamental shift towards better local transport networks across England, is working its way through Parliament. If we are to develop a bus network that allows people to embrace their full social and economic potential, then we must keep a relentless focus on accessibility in that bill.

To achieve this, it is vital to question the purpose of our bus network, and the motives that fuel its development. In a deregulated market there is not a sufficient framework to enable non-profitable services to prosper. 

This may in part be addressed through the introduction of Enhanced Quality Partnerships in the Bill. These partnerships will enable local authorities, community groups and bus operators to agree standards on a range of measures – fares, bus times, frequency of service, vehicle standards and ticketing products. Passengers should be at the forefront of consultations when introducing new partnerships and deciding which measures to adopt.


What we would like to see is a greater narrative about the importance of accessibility to the bus network. To achieve this, the Bill should advance a measure of accessibility to routes as a key criterion to judging the success of new partnerships between local authorities, communities, and bus networks. 

Of course, one way of increasing the coverage of bus services is by network design through franchising. On its own, franchising might well deliver little that can’t be provided through partnership agreements. But if franchising schemes could provide a framework that encourages collaboration between the not-for-profit and commercial sector from the outset, it becomes possible to imagine a situation where the different strengths of the sector are used to their full potential, to ensure we have a bus network that strives to works collaboratively.

Finally, if we put access as the key measure of success in the Bus Services Bill, this means information also needs to be of a high quality. If we are to have an increase in the accessibility of routes, data needs to be open, to enable greater information and planning of services to enhance our networks and improve travel confidence.

The Bus Services Bill may be our best chance to radically reimagine the way we increase access to the bus network, and in turn improve social and economic opportunities through better transport links. It will be Parliament that decide the bill’s direction – and imaginative local authorities who will decide its impact.

James Coe is policy and public affairs executive at the Community Transport Association, which support the providers of voluntary transport through the UK to deliver inclusive and accessible services. He can be contacted @CTAUK1 and blogs here.

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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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