We should talk trains less – and buses more

Buses on Manchester's Wilmslow Road. Image: Divy/Wikimedia Commons.

Buses have long been underappreciated in the UK. In the debates that rage around public transport, the bus seems to lose out to other modes in the battle for attention that has an impact on policymakers.

The traditional New Year uproar over train fares rises is one example of this trend. But it goes unremarked that bus fares have risen in line with rail fares over the last 30 years, with both growing at nearly twice the level of inflation. By contrast, the real cost of motoring has fallen in that period – something which is much worse news for buses than trains.

Who does this bus fare inflation primarily affect? People from the poorest fifth of households catch nearly 10 times as many buses as trains, but buses become much less popular relative to trains as household incomes rise. As we go up the income scale, that ratio shrinks to 7:1 for the second lowest quintile of household, then 3:1 and 2.4:1, until we get to the richest fifth of people, who on average catch more trains than buses.

In other words, the political and media obsession with rail fares is to the detriment of poorer people in cities across the country.

This is one good reason why buses should have a more prominent place in the national debate about public transport – but there are many others.

The scale of bus usage is huge, especially relative to rail/light rail usage outside London

Buses are the workhorses of local transport systems. The National Travel Survey shows that, in urban areas outside of London, around 6 per cent of all journeys are made on buses exclusively – much more than via rail, which accounts for only 0.5 per cent of all journeys, in seventh place behind cars, walking, buses, bicycles, taxis and other modes of transport.

Around half of multimode journeys include rail usage. But even if we add those to journeys taken exclusively on trains, that still equates to less than a quarter of the number of bus journeys in cities beyond the capital.

Bus services reach into almost every corner of our cities, linking neighbouring areas together. Trains play much more limited role in local travel in most cities. In fact, 64 per cent of train journeys begin or end in London – which nonetheless accounts for over half of bus journeys in England.

As such, the debate about train fares is primarily of interest to people in London and its surrounding areas. By contrast buses, by far the main mode of public transport in cities elsewhere in the country, barely get a mention in public discussions around transport.


Buses are a brilliant – and undervalued – mode of transport

We might not think of them as being the newest technology or hugely innovative. However, the modern bus – running in a well organised, integrated transport network – offers economic, financial, social, cultural, and environmental qualities it would be foolish to look past.

For example, a large modern diesel bus can be up to 500 times less toxic (per passenger) than some small modern diesel cars. Around 22 per cent of bus journeys are commutes, underlining their importance as mode of transport for people getting to work. (This figure is bigger in London, where buses are cheaper, more plentiful and more integrated in to the transport system.)

Suffice to say that buses offer benefits that other transport modes do not, and deserve a greater role in the debate on public transport on this basis alone.

Bus services are under threat

Despite some notable exception – such as Brighton, Merseyside and Nottingham – journeys have fallen in most cities over recent years.

The reasons for this are numerous: some people have been tempted into cars because driving, or being driven, is cheaper. Others may be put off buses because the reliability/efficiency/regularity/price have deteriorated, possibly driven by reduced local authority subsidies.

Research by the Campaign for Better Transport shows that, since 2010-11 a total of £73.8m has been cut from supported bus services in England, a reduction of 25 per cent. But the decline of the bus – if allowed to continue – will be result longer traffic jams, dirtier air, and less active, prosperous or integrated cities.

Moreover, the scale of bus usage means that any falls in journey numbers have a big impact on overall public transport usage in a city. In South Yorkshire, a 20 per cent fall between 2010 and 2016 equated to around 15m few journeys per year – greater in absolute terms than the entire annual ridership of the Sheffield Supertram network, which carries around 12.6m passengers.

The truth about trains

Compared to this, trains appear to be in rude health, if a little cramped and expensive at rush hour. Rail passenger numbers have doubled in 20 years. On some parts of the network in the South East growth has outstripped even that: the Thameslink franchise has seen numbers double in just 10 years.

The railways are fantastic feats of engineering. They stand apart from other modes of transport by physically standing apart: they have the privilege of operating on their own network completely free of any other kinds of traffic, apart from freight trains and the occasional level crossing. It’s fair to argue that we need more and better trains.

But whatever the problems with the existing rail system, the threats to bus services across the country are deserving of a much greater focus in national conversations about transport.


Devolution will be integral to strengthening and improving bus networks in cities across the country

These threats have started to get some national media coverage outside in recent months – for example, the BBC highlighted the issue of shrinking services last month as part of its collaboration with local media. But as Chris Todd from the Campaign for Better Transport points out, getting buses up the policy agenda to where they need to be is not helped by the probability that journalists and politicians catch the train more than the bus.

And with national media and politics so focused on London – where bus quality and usage has flourished since the start of the millennium – even those that do catch the bus won’t be having a representative experience. Personal experience can have a huge impact on public policy. This can be for good if it is representative of the broad spectrum of experience. But if it is narrow and unrepresentative, it can blinker policy and warp its focus. Putting more powers and funding in the hands of cities is one way to avoid some of the biggest blunders that this can create.

Buses deserve and demand a bigger place in the transport debate. Much of what makes trains work in this country – franchising, focus and funding – would be fantastic for our bus networks and our cities.

Hopefully this is what the Bus Services Act will help bring to cities with metro mayors.   

Simon Jeffrey is a researcher and external affairs officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

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