Rural bus services are under threat. Increasingly we hear of local authorities threatening drastic reductions or even complete removal of their budgets for supporting unprofitable bus services, with the risk that communities may be cut off from the public transport network.
Understandably, those affected protest against such cuts, for fear of being isolated and unable to access essential services for education, health, shopping, work or the simple independence of being able to get out and about without having to drive a car or rely on a lift.
They are joined in their protests by observers with an interest in good public transport, who bemoan the loss of any service, every cut in public expenditure on buses, as a threat to the future of the industry.
But is a reliance on heavily subsidised but often lightly used fixed route bus services, really the best way forward for public transport in deep rural areas? Or is there an alternative solution that couples the imagination of operators with emerging technology to provide a more flexible, agile solution with commercial potential?
Whatever one may feel about the rights and wrongs, it is clear that most public authorities are facing massive pressure on their spending and are having to hunt in the deepest, darkest corners of their budgets to find more and more drastic savings. As discretionary items, bus services are a soft target. While many authorities have tried to stave off drastic cuts in their transport expenditure for as long as possible, the fact that such large proportions of their budget can't be touched by law means that they can no longer avoid taking the axe to their supported bus networks.
There's no sign that the pressure for savings will relent any time soon, and when it does, it's hard to imagine that the first priority will be to restore the many hundreds of bus services that will have been lost. After all, even if a future Chancellor of the Exchequer does find a few billions stuffed in shoeboxes under the bed in number 11, understaffed transport departments up and down the country will find themselves jostling with health, education and other worthy causes to have their begging bowls filled.
They will know that many habitual users of rural public transport will have been forced into finding new ways of travelling - or even forced into moving house completely - and won't come back overnight. All other things being equal, the rural bus network of the future may well cost a lot more than it does today to deliver the same outcomes.
But every problem creates an opportunity, and here is a chance for the privatised bus industry to find a new solution to old problems, and develop a new form of commercial business in areas where none has previously existed.
While I'm a child of deregulation and will happily wax lyrical about the many achievements of the privatised bus industry in a deregulated environment, I don't think our industry is completely without its faults. One of those - in my humble opinion - has been too much of a tendency to hold our hands out for public money when it has been an easy alternative to getting off our backsides and seeking commercial opportunities.
For evidence of this, one need look no further than the number of hitherto subsidised journeys - especially evenings and Sundays - on otherwise core commercial routes around the country that have magically been declared to be commercially viable, the moment the local authorities have raised the prospect of having to turn off the subsidy tap.
Admittedly rural bus services are a more difficult challenge. The vast distances to be travelled, serving small settlements characterised by high car ownership, create an unhappy relationship between costs and revenue. Many operators have been clever in scheduling vehicles, using school and college movements to cross-subsidise off peak shopping trips, but even this is not enough to keep many fixed routes afloat in outlying areas.
Part of the problem here is that in many people's eyes, rural public transport means a conventional bus, and bus operators are an easy target. I was listening to a radio programme just the other day in which a village resident described his highly customised daily travel routine - a bespoke series of journeys heading in all directions from his place of residence - and then laid into his local bus providers for failing to anticipate all these widely varying needs and provide his tiny community with a network of services of an intensity that would make even Transport for London's finest planners wince, all on the off chance that he might occasionally need them.
It was rather as if he was suggesting that because he occasionally buys shoes, his village must have a shoe shop, and then of course a clothes store for all his fashion requirements. And perhaps a book store where he can browse the latest titles. And obviously a furniture warehouse for when his sofa needs replacing, and no doubt all while preserving the essential tranquillity of the rural setting that attracted him to live there in the first place.
Of course that's an exaggeration, but while it might sound absurd, the retail sector values his business and has found ways of providing him with the services he needs without having to build an unlimited range of shops in his village. They simply provide their service when he needs it. Whether it be home delivery or click and collect, retailers have harnessed the power of the internet to ensure that all their potential customers - no matter how near or far from their nearest store - can enjoy their full range of products whenever they need them. Perhaps it's time for us to do the same.
"Transport on Demand" (ToD) has been a concept that has been around as long as I can remember. Traditionally it has described dial-a-ride and community transport services, specifically targeted at those unable to use more conventional transport modes. But of course the most obvious form of ToD is a taxi, and the emergence of smartphones and their associated app technology has given birth to a range of taxi-like services for a modern generation in the form of Uber, Lyft, Bla Bla Car and numerous others.
To some extent these compete with more traditional transport modes, to some extent they complement them. But they have their disadvantages, and one of these is that they are not widely available in large swathes of rural Britain.
My own experience of ToD is limited - most of my career has been involved with planning fixed line scheduled bus routes. But a few months running a Cango contract for Hampshire County Council in 2013, coupled with a good understanding of the power of the internet to link vehicles with riders, gives me reason to believe that there is something worth playing for.
Cango was a name for a small network of routes in rural Hampshire that had replaced previous fixed route services that had proved too expensive for the authority to subsidise. Hampshire bought a small fleet of minibuses, painted them yellow, fitted them with hardware that would provide a data link to a call centre at County Hall in Winchester and then hired the vehicles to the winning tenderers to operate the routes.
The principle was that rather than having large vehicles driving round the countryside on very low frequency fixed routes, on complicated service patterns that might only serve particular communities on odd days of the week, the Cango bus would set off from point A and head to point B via the most direct route, veering off only to serve those places where a customer had booked their travel with the call centre the day before.
The vehicles were fitted with screens which gave the driver a list of required calling points and estimated times, uploaded from the call centre around five minutes before departure, and the driver would plan his or her route to serve the places listed. Walk-up customers could appear without pre-booking and use the bus as a conventional service from A to B, paying a normal bus fare, but couldn't take advantage of the demand responsive facilities.
At Velvet, we operated Cango route C41 for around three months in early 2013 following the demise of Countryliner, using a small Solo that proved to be nippy and reliable, albeit with tatty bodywork comprising more filler than structure - perhaps a reflection of the standards of the previous operator - and which did little for the image of the service.
In the case of route C41, the A was Alresford and the B was Basingstoke, and apart from a short section of fixed route at each end, the route had licence to wander across a scattered network of country lanes and tiny hamlets, as the map and timetable shows:
|This is the actual timetable that accompanied the registration, showing the need only to provide times at the terminal points. Everything else was left to chance!|
As the timetable shows, the service provided a range of off-peak shopping and leisure journeys and a limited commuter service, with the bus also being used on a local 'closed door' school journey to Preston Candover School to get the best possible utilisation of the asset. I'll come back to some of the shortcomings of the timetable in a moment, but either way it was a higher level of service than many of the communities could have expected to have enjoyed were they to rely on a fixed route bus service.
Prior to taking on this contract, I had no desire to get involved in demand responsive transport. I saw us at Velvet as being red-meat-eating, self-assured providers of 'proper' bus services. Ambling round the countryside picking people up at their gates was for our (very much admired!) community transport friends. I imagined the users would all be elderly and/or infirm - a very valuable market in itself - but that the service would be a complete irrelevance to the younger, perhaps more demanding customers that public transport also needs to attract if it is to have a healthy future.
I actually resisted the award of the contract to start with, arguing to Hampshire that they must have someone else willing to give it a go. But either they didn't or they were particularly determined to give it to me, so eventually I relented and I'm glad I did, because the experience of operating it was a revelation and completely changed my views - to the point where I was absolutely gutted when we lost it to Stagecoach on retendering a few months later, as I had big plans for it!
The thing that really challenged my preconceptions and gave me massive food for thought was the fact that the service was actually used by a complete cross section of society. Whereas I had imagined that the vagaries of the timetable and the need to pick up an actual telephone to book in advance would put off most self-respecting adults, and have the kids running to their parents for a lift, on the few occasions I drove the route I found myself carrying teenagers going out to meet their mates, families off for the day together, full fare paying adults heading out to the shops or home from work, as well as of course a decent proportion of concessionary pass holders for whom the service genuinely was a lifeline.
Of course most users seemed to be regulars, and their pick-up points were very specific and they were well trained to be out there a few minutes in advance so that the driver would spot them (even if I did have to drive through Preston Candover three times on one occasion looking for my passenger, who haughtily informed me that the regular driver parked outside his house and tooted!). But I did manage to encounter a few who were even less experienced than me, first time users who had found the booking process straightforward and transparent and looked forward to making more use of the service.
|Mixing it with the big boys in Basingstoke Bus Station|
This particular story doesn't have a happy ending. Cango was notorious within the public transport community in Hampshire for its very high subsidy per passenger journey - partly a product of a labour-intensive telephone based infrastructure and the need for bespoke technology in the vehicles. The network has been gradually trimmed back and now even the Alresford - Basingstoke route has reverted to a fixed line of route, no longer demand responsive. While the timetable hasn't changed very much, the loss of the "on demand" element will have deprived many users of any access to public transport.
But my experience of running the service convinced me that the model has great potential. The key point is that it was valued and used by a complete cross section of the market. Let's accept for a moment that the problem with Cango was that usage was too low and subsidy too high, but now start to imagine what would have happened if we could have ironed out a few points that, in my view, were holding it back:
- Branding: While Hampshire are to be commended for the bright, attractive branding and for not falling into the trap of many community transport services of making their buses look like patient transport vehicles, it still looked like a 'niche' service - not part of the normal public transport network - whereas in my view if it was seen more as a part of the bus network potential users would have come to it more naturally
- Timetable: This is specific to this example of course, but the timetable could easily have incorporated a morning commuter journey into Basingstoke to balance the evening return - instantly increasing its appeal. Also, the off-peak timetable 'faced' the wrong way, with Basingstoke having the less attractive off-peak service despite having a much stronger shopping offer
- Route: Because of Hampshire's legitimate desire not to be seen to be interfering with the commercial bus network, walk-up customers could only travel from one terminus to the other, and local journeys could not be made on the fixed route section at each end. If the route had been available to casual users between Old Alresford and Alresford at one end, Cliddesden and Basingstoke at the other, the available market would have grown significantly
- Stops: Customers travelling from the 'on demand' section had to travel either elsewhere within the 'on demand' section or all the way to the terminus. They couldn't get on or off halfway along the road into Basingstoke for example, limiting the appeal for some users.
- Fares: The fares were too cheap. This is very typical of a local authority led service trying to be as inclusive as possible, but a hard nosed commercial operator would have provided a more sophisticated ticket range with offers applicable to different groups of users, including making those who would be willing to pay more, pay more!
- Booking: All the publicity said that intending customers had to book by 5pm the day before travel, rendering the service useless for the vast number of travel demands which are spontaneous. In actual fact, the call centre would quite happily take booking until 10 minutes before departure - as long as it was in enough time to get the information on to the driver's screen 5 minutes before the off. Many regular users knew this and most bookings were made on the day of travel, strictly against the rules. Had the publicity reflected what was actually available, how many more people would have been attracted to it?
- Vehicle: The bus looked battered and was tatty and dirty inside. Despite our best efforts, we couldn't justify major expenditure when we only had the contract for a few months. Numerous users commented about the unattractive vehicle. A more attractive, clean, modern vehicle featuring wifi and charging points for example would greatly enhance the appeal
- Technology: This is probably the key factor. The service was founded on technology which is now effectively obsolete, requiring a telephone call centre to handle bookings and bespoke hardware and software to enable the data link. Partly the costs were driven up by the local authority's legitimate need to be seen to be as inclusive as possible. Imagine what happens to the costs if the journeys could be planned using modern 'off the shelf' technology, including standard issue tablets for drivers rather than bespoke display screens, and if the vast majority of bookings were through the internet and didn't require any human intervention at all.
Would sorting out all these issues be enough to have got the subsidy per passenger down to an acceptable level, or even made the service commercially viable? Well I can't answer that for sure. What I do know is that technology has moved on in leaps and bounds since Cango was in its heyday, and to be blunt, a commercial provider would probably take a more disciplined approach to revenue generation and cost control.
Some of the issues I've listed are of course specific to the route in question, but I would argue that the principles would apply equally well on any route anywhere in the country, where there is a route between two significant traffic objectives with a dispersed rural hinterland in between. In simple terms, it's easy to condemn traditional demand responsive services as being too expensive without exploring the reasons why and how these could be mitigated.
The key point is that the exercise proved to me that people of all walks of life and all sections of the community are ready and willing to use Transport on Demand, and if this willingness, coupled with cost of modern technology, provides a more cost-effective model for serving scattered rural communities than lugging big empty buses round the countryside on fixed schedules that serve a small number of people very well, but don't serve a much larger group of people at all, it's surely a concept worth exploring?