A recent immigrant reviews some of the UK’s bus services

London buses in the snow. Image: Getty.

As a public transport user day in, day out, I’ve had the experience of riding local buses in few UK cities. Even though it’s a pretty small country geographically, its infrastructure varies widely depending on where you live.

Since I’ve lived the majority of my UK life in London so far, I thought it would be interesting to compare how its bus services compare with other areas. I’ve lived in North Devon’s main town Barnstaple for a while, where I depended mostly on rides from my father. In a few months time, I’ll be moving to Birmingham, which still thinks of itself as the second city of the UK.

But I’ve tried the bus service is all three areas more than a few times – so, I’ll be comparing a capital with one of the UK’s second tier cities and a regional town.

Here’s a chart, summarising the outcome of my research:

London: The defender

The first thing you should know about London buses is that they are not the main method of public transport for Londoners. London boasts the world’s oldest underground network: only a few cities in the world can compete to that service, and certainly there’s nothing like it anywhere else in UK.

But London’s iconic buses do also play a vital role for a huge number of Londoners. They’re still the cheapest way to travel the last leg of your journey back to home, and the top deck of a double decker is a great place from which to explore the capital.

London’s buses are run by multiple different companies, but these days they’re all red and they’re all regulated by the mighty Transport for London authority. You don’t need to know which company is operating your bus: all you need is the route number and the bus stop.


All the buses also have announcements and digital displays listing the next stop inside the bus: if you are travelling somewhere for the first time, you should still be able to follow and updates and get off at the right stop.

To make payments, you can the good old Oyster Card system or a contactless credit/debit card. There is a flat £1.50 fare for a single journey no matter how many stops you travel on or which zone you are travelling to. Since last year, all the buses you take within a single hour are considered as a single journey, just like on the tube. There is a daily cap of £4.50, which is fun because you can make unlimited journeys, and still be charged only £4.50. Trust me, London doesn’t get any cheaper than this! You can purchase a monthly bus pass for £81.50, but I wouldn’t bother, since pay as you go would be cheaper a lot of the time.

Real time bus arrival data display is on offer in most of the London bus shelters, and stops without a shelter are quite rare these days. This data has been made public, so that travel apps like Citymapper and Google can update their users about the next bus in their closest stop. All the buses have two doors for getting on or off the bus.

Birmingham: the Contender

A Birmingham bus on its rounds. Image: Image: Hamz/Wikimedia Commons.

I have not travelled many times on buses in Birmingham, or in the West Midlands in the broader sense, but I can spot the differences already. Birmingham doesn’t have an extensive train or light metro rail like Manchester, let alone London – so, there are many areas where bus is the only option for those who don’t drive.

This city has an identity as a motor city and has been notoriously famous for its road accidents. To reduce congestion around the city, the Transport for West Midlands and West Midlands mayor Andy Street are working hard to take people out of their cars and make public transport more popular again.

The colour of Birmingham/West Midlands buses vary widely, because each operator use their distinctive branded colour for the buses. The biggest operator in the region is National Express West Midlands (NXWM), responsible for around 80 per cent of bus journeys in the region.

Multiple operators often run buses on the same route – but an NXWM ticket won't be valid on a Claribels bus or a Diamond bus. To avoid this issue, you can purchase an ‘nbus’ (n means network) day ticket, accepted on most West Midland’s buses. But these are more expensive – so if you know your journey is covered by NXWM buses, you simply should buy a NXWM ticket and so keep your cost to a minimum.

A London’s oyster style Swift card has been growing more popular among the West Midlanders, but it’s not really a ticket in itself: rather, it’s a payment card, and you have to touch and hold the card on the reader until the driver has finished processing your ticket order.


Multiple types of tickets are available for different areas, times of the day, and number of people in your group – so unless you know which ticket you’re looking for, you might end up spending more. Once your order is processed, you have to wait for the paper ticket to print out and keep hold of it unless it’s a single ticket. You will need to show this paper ticket next time you board a different bus, unless you want to pay again.

The cheapest adult single ticket can be only £1.50 for a short hop and in some parts of the Black Country, but longer journeys cost up to £2.40. Day tickets covering individual networks can be between £3 and £4.60; an nBus day pass, which let you ride on any bus, is £4.90. But without going to the TFWM website, it’s really hard to figure out which ticket you should take before you start your journey.

As to longer tickets, a four week bus pass from NXWM is only £62.50 via M-ticket, and a monthly region nbus pass is available at £64.50 by direct debit. So, a monthly bus pass is cheaper than in London – but single tickets are definitely more expensive in Birmingham. There’s no changing buses, and no daily cap, either.

NXWM has introduced superior quality premium buses, and you can ride them for the same price of a regular bus, if your area is served by one of the X bus routes. These buses are more spacious, fitted with free wi-fi and features voice announcements, unlike regular buses in the region. Some of them shuttle to skip stops to give a faster journey time. But unlike London buses, West Midlands buses have a single door to get in or out.

A Sweden based company MaaS Global has launched its Whim ticketing service in the West Midlands, to help counteract the lack of integration. The monthly plan Whim Everyday will allow you to travel on all the region’s public transport, including train and Midland Metro, for £99. As I write, a bus only package is on the way, and I am excited to see if whim can resolve the ticketing complications in the region. If the HS2 connectivity package is delivered by 2026, and the 20 year “Big City Plan” is successful, the future looks bright.

Barnstaple: The forgotten

A Stagecoach Bus in Barnstaple bus Station. Image: Dave Growns/Flickr/creative commons.

Barnstaple is a relatively small town in south west England, but is a popular holiday destination during the summer. I’ve lived there for about two years, and taken the local bus service fewer than ten times. North Devon is definitely not a public transport stronghold, and First Group withdrew its service from Barnstaple in 2012, but Stagecoach is still active there.

It’s unlikely that a Barnstaple resident can take a bus without walking at least 15–20 mins from their home to the bus station or the Green Lanes shopping mall in the town. From the bus station, there are 21 and 21A buses with at least 10 destinations. I have no idea why they need to keep the same route number for multiple destinations: it means you not only need to keep the bus number in mind, but also have to focus on the final destination.


The network will take you to towns like Bideford, Great Torrington, Ilfracombe, Croyde and Westward Ho!. The last time I took a bus to Westward ho!, I had to wait about 45 mins to get the next bus on my way home. I could suggest the bus network for a leisurely look around, but won’t suggest anybody to take the service on a day to day basis to go to their workplace. Some people might do it, but most workplaces won’t actually be covered by the service provided, and the only option left for the locals will be driving their own car.

Because it’s a monopoly for Stagecoach, pricing is relatively simple: £2 for a single, £4.60 for an unlimited day rider ticket. All the available monthly plans cost below £50, which is a plus.

The last time I checked, the buses weren’t accepting card payments, but would return change if you pay in cash (something not possible in London or Birmingham). There is no live bus arrival API available from Stagecoach, but the buses do maintain the published time table.

There is no tangible future plan to revive the dying bus services around north Devon. This one of the reasons I left the place in the first place.

*****

Use of public transport in UK is decreasing year on year: there are many towns like Barnstaple scattered around the country, but no other city whose bus network is anything like London’s. We need better buses to decrease the divides around this country.

Sami A. Rahman tweets as @samiar_uk.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.