A bus user’s story

Savage bus cuts in her village have prompted one long-time bus user to write an open letter to her local council. In it, she explains the devastating impact these cuts are having on the lives of her family and the wider community.

Open letter from a bus user to her local County Council

Since the axing of our local bus service and changes to the rules of carriage on the school service, our village has effectively been ‘cut off’ from the wider community and other transport links.

The impact has been extremely damaging to people who relied on public transport. The elderly, young people, those on low wages are now subjected to isolation and a lack of opportunity to access services and facilities most take for granted.

As a non-driver I relied on bus travel to maintain employment: since the axing of the service, I have tried to continue in my employment, relying on the goodwill of neighbours and colleagues. With different work patterns and holidays, however, this has become impossible. The people in our village who do not have access to a car, no longer have an opportunity to access employment, training or the job centre.

My daughter is unable to attend after school clubs or GCSE revision sessions, take part in her Duke of Edinburgh Award or take drama at GCSE. She now has to leave promptly at the end of the school day in order to catch the school bus directly home. Her brother, who schooled two years previously, enjoyed participating in all of the above using our local Link service, enabling him to get home independently.

Young people in our area must now attend a ‘designated sixth form’ at post 16 as there is no independent means of travelling to any other college or apprenticeship, restricting their choice and opportunities. The 6 mile walk to the nearest bus stop which gives access to the rest of the county and all other transport links is simply too far.

There is no means of leaving the village during school holidays: holidays are now spent at home. My children used to enjoy meeting up with friends, using the library, leisure centre and cinema. We used to enjoy family time visiting places of interest around the county. Life is now restricted and isolating. I worry about the social impact on my children and their safe mental health as their only means of maintaining friendships is through social media.

Lack of affordable, accessible, efficient transport options prevent those who rely on a bus service from maintaining health care and hospital appointments. When axing the daily service which used to run Monday to Saturday in our village (due to its size) we were promised a ‘safety net service’ by our County Council to ensure socially necessary journeys, like hospital appointments, would continue to be met.

In November, I received a hospital appointment for cancer screening. I phoned to book a car with my local community car provider, but they had no availability. I was passed to a neighbouring scheme which kindly took the booking but on the day of the appointment, did not turn up. My appointment was missed and cancelled, the testing delayed. The ‘safety net service’ does not work.

In December I had three hospital appointments. Using community cars this would have cost a total of £70 – a charge that pensioners must also pay: these charges are an obstacle to accessing health care.

I have been in correspondence with my local Council for some time, highlighting the impact of bus cuts over a long period of time. I believe the difficulties our village faces are not unique and show a ‘gap in provision’. I understand the difficulties councils are facing in today’s climate, but I think there must be affordable ways to keep villages like ours connected. Records will show there was never an empty bus on our local route, it was always busy.

I ask you to give further consideration to this issue.

 

What do passengers want?

img_2233__featureThis a regular topic asked at a variety of meetings and the answer is generally a variation of the same response: passengers want reliable, accessible, affordable and clean buses with well-planned routes, friendly drivers and easy-to-find and understand information to plan their journeys.

So what’s changed? In terms of what’s required, not much, but in recent months, we’ve seen a variety of Local Authorities in England responding to the relentless call for further cuts by deciding to completely remove subsidies for bus services.

This is not only lazy, inappropriate and ill-considered but it’s also illegal. Under Section 63 of the 1985 Transport Act, Local Authorities have a legal duty to provide socially necessary bus services in their area. While there isn’t a clear and accepted definition of what constitutes a socially necessary service, any LA that tries to go ahead with such sweeping cuts will certainly find themselves spending a lot more money on lawyers as they defend themselves from the legal challenge which is bound to follow.

Why councillors are not given the relevant legal advice before announcing such “decisions” is unclear but there does seem to have been an increase in the politics of pandemonium recently – “let’s announce a policy/cut/proposal and see what furore it provokes – oh, that’s really unpopular, let’s now claim that we’ve listened to what you’ve got to say and are revising our opinion”. What happened to doing your homework before you take a decision?!

Why would you think that it’s reasonable to cause panic among the millions of people who rely on the bus to get to work, to visit their child or other relative in hospital, to get to school or college, to spend their salary in the High St or other shops rather than weighing up if they can afford a taxi or not?

We all understand the difficult task facing Local Authorities and accept that, in the current climate, cuts are inevitable. It may be feasible to alter or remove some services altogether and bus operators are creative entrepreneurs who will often make life easier for Local Authorities by finding ways of keeping some subsidised services going without the funding previously on offer. However, it makes no sense to do this without talking (and I don’t mean a few questionnaires and a couple of public meetings) to those likely to be affected.

What do passengers want? They want to be consulted on matters that make a huge difference to their daily lives, that’s what. And, above all else, they want a bus, any bus, to take them where they need to go!

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Why don’t we stay out of bus lanes?

_51147766_bus_laneOf course I use buses but I also have a car. Where I live, I am surrounded by bus lanes with varying timings of operation and accept that it can sometimes be confusing but I am always amazed by the number of other drivers hopping in and out of the bus lanes when they’re clearly operational in the hope that they won’t get caught.

There’s a lot of street furniture and multiple hazards to watch out for but signs telling you not to drive in a particular lane are just one of the many things an urban driver has to look out for and obey. Where the signs are overgrown or completely confusing, you can appeal and the relevant authority or agency will usually try to rectify the problem and even allow your appeal if you stick with it, but it’s much easier just to keep ‘em peeled and avoid the issue arising.

When a driver goes the wrong way up a one-way street or straight past a No Entry sign, they’re going to get fined, more often than not, and the general public and press accept that this is in all our interests.

Yet when drivers get fined for using a bus lane when they shouldn’t, the headlines scream “Unfair” “Profiteering Councils” and so on. Why should this be a rule that so many people feel entitled to break? Do people really believe that their, usually solitary, car journey trumps that of a lot more people on a bus?

Bus lanes make life tolerable for the vast majority of commuters and shoppers by giving them priority and getting people there faster. If everybody who didn’t need to carry tools or deliver goods took the bus whenever possible, the roads would be a lot less congested and all lanes would move more freely, to the benefit of all (not to mention the environment)

If you choose to drive or have no feasible option but the car, then you need to make a choice: grit your teeth and wait for the congestion to subside and accept you’ll get there eventually or take the risks of undertaking and lane-hopping, but don’t moan if you get caught and fined!

So don’t get fined for going in a bus lane – if you really want to make your journey easier then get out of the bus lane and onto the bus!

Kids on buses – aaaaargh!

school-bus2Kids on buses are out of control, a complete nightmare, no respect nowadays apparently.

Are they, really?

OK – now and again we’ve all found ourselves on a bus that’s full of schoolchildren with a resulting noise level that threatens our eardrums, not to mention our patience.

If you can, just for a moment, try to put yourself in their shoes/boots/stupidly expensive trainers: you’ll probably be coming home from a day (a whole day, hours and hours) of sitting quietly, trying to learn things you may or may not think are useful and resisting the urge to share your every thought with your friends on Snapchat/WhatsApp/Facebook/ Instagram or whatever the latest social media trend is.

From that perspective, it’s only to be expected that the whole day’s frustrations and pent-up energy are going to be unleashed in excited chatter, laughter and raucous noises of varying kinds.

Fine, it’s not much fun for those of us who, until then, have been enjoying a nice quiet journey (although we may do well to remember that we were probably exactly the same however many years ago). But we have numerous ways now to block out our surroundings with music or radio on mobile phones, TV or radio downloads on the IPad or that eternal friend of the bus user, a good book.

And even those of us who are unused to being around children need to consider that they have just as much right to travel by bus as we do. Drivers, especially, should appreciate that young people are the commuters of the future: without them growing up happy to use a bus, a great many bus drivers could find themselves out of a job.

So next time you feel your shoulders tensing and your frown deepening while a tutting noise hovers around your lips, bear in mind that we rely completely on these very children to ensure that the buses we take for granted will still be there when we get our bus pass.

Just saying…

Bus users are the future

SMorris (2)As Stephen Morris steps down as Deputy Chief Executive of Bus Users he reflects on the passion that has driven a 35-year career.

Bus users are the future. A bit of empty rhetoric? An attention-grabbing headline with no substance? A sick joke maybe?

Hopefully it’s none of the above. It is a sincere belief that has inspired me since my days of commuting in the ’60s and ’70s and watching the madness of traffic queues getting longer and longer, bus journeys doing the same and buses becoming more and more infrequent and emptier.

I remember as a very callow young journalist in my first ever conference season quietly sharing my views with the managing director of a major bus manufacturer over dinner, and he tried to get me to share those views at the conference. I was indeed far too callow for that, plus in those dim and distant days the press were there to record the news, not make it.

Sadly bus users have never been taken seriously and buses have, by and large, been seen as the ‘poor relation’. My career really started on Buses magazine, which was always the poor relation in a magazine stable dominated by railways and aviation, yet my poor little magazine plodded on quietly and reliably, immune from the fickle nature of the rest of our magazine market: how appropriate is that! Eventually my voice was heard and we employed someone who believes, like I do, that buses can present themselves in a bold and self-confident way, Ray Stenning, and together we transformed the magazine into something that was no longer poor or little.

Yet there was still too little recognition of the part buses could play in being a real alternative to cars. They served far more people and far more communities than trains ever could, still do, yet in no time at all the Transport Users Consultative Committee turned its back on buses and became the Rail Users’ Consultative Committee: only when Caroline Cahm set up Bus Users UK did bus passengers get any sort of representation.

So why do bus users always get ignored? And why are buses so overlooked in the whole transport mix? We, as users, and the bus companies themselves need to be much more confident about the role buses can play as an essential component in the whole fabric of society. Cars have had their day; they are a victim of their own success, wasting the economy £13billion a year in congestion. Promoting low-emission and electric cars is just a sticking plaster that does nothing to address the congestion issue nor the inefficient use of land that cars create.

Cars do have a role for those who can afford them and are able to drive them, but they are no longer suitable for every journey. So car users need an alternative that is attractive, affordable and gives them real benefits in getting quickly and efficiently to their destination; that’s far more likely to be shops, workplaces, hospitals, schools, railways stations, airports etc etc than some nearby car park. Bus services are the one solution to the twin evils of congestion and pollution and need to be promoted as such.

Cloud cuckoo land? I don’t think so. Not many years ago railways were a joke; now they’re not and they’re carrying far more people very efficiently than at any time most of us can remember. The same goes for London buses; 20 years ago they were a mess: now they’re efficient, attractive, much more dependable and offer a real and genuine alternative to the car. Bus Users’ manifesto throws down the gauntlet to any incoming Government: do the same for buses everywhere else.

Chief Executive Claire Walters is joined by a group of passengers to launch Bus Users' 10 point Manifesto

Chief Executive Claire Walters is joined by a group of passengers to launch Bus Users’ 10 point Manifesto

Carbon reduction targets are not just there to look good politically; they are essential for the future of our planet. Unlocking congestion is equally essential to release the potential of UK towns and cities. It’s a no-brainer; buses are good for us, they’re not just for ‘poor people whose vote doesn’t count for much’. The very name, bus, is short for omnibus, Latin for ‘for all’: buses once again need to be ‘for all’, benefitting the entire country and every community in it.

The dreaded driver changeover

As a regular bus user there are few things that raise the blood pressure more than a driver changeover.

You know the score: you’re waiting at the stop for your bus and it pulls up. Passengers get off and you’re all ready to board when the driver closes the door, puts on his or her jacket and walks off through the throng of waiting passengers – usually standing in the pouring rain – without saying a word.

You then wait for what seems an eternity for the replacement driver to stroll along, invariably at the bus departure time, and board the bus, again without saying a word to the passengers. They then go through the whole procedure of taking off their jacket, adjusting the seat, the mirror, getting change ready and reading their rota only to discover that they should have left already!

Then it finally happens. Without a word the doors open and passengers, knowing this is their cue, are finally allowed to enter the bus and show or purchase a ticket. Of course by this time, the bus is 10 minutes late and the driver is now rushing to get back on schedule.

We appreciate that for legal and operational reasons drivers need to have breaks – but it doesn’t have to be this way. Would it hurt the departing driver to tell waiting passengers that another driver will be along shortly to operate the service? Or better still, to let passengers board before waiting for the relieving driver to arrive?

In most retail operations it would be seen as the natural thing to do but for some reason, with buses, passengers are made to stand outside and wait. Would it really be too much to ask that the new driver was already at the stop, waiting for the bus to arrive? Or that they got to the vehicle, say, 5 minutes before it was due to depart to board passengers and ensure the service left on time?

It can be done, I’ve seen it. But what baffles me is why it doesn’t happen more often.

Passengers are human beings so talk to us – you may be surprised at how well this is received. The best example I’ve ever experienced was a driver change at a timing point along the route. The new driver got on and said “Good morning” and a few passengers said “Good morning” back. The driver asked “Is everyone sitting comfortably?” to which more passengers replied “Yes”. Then the driver said “I’ll soon change that!” The passengers erupted in fits of laughter and through that simple interaction, he immediately had them on side.

It’s not rocket science. Tell us what is happening, treat us with some respect and we will be far more understanding.

By Barclay Davies, Deputy Director Bus Users Cymru

Is the tide beginning to turn?

Over the last decade or so we have seen attitudes to public transport begin to change. There are now more people riding on London’s buses than ever before. Trains too are a great success, and liable to become a victim of that success if there isn’t serious investment in capacity.

That leaves the buses the rest of us use, outside London, which are yet to experience such a rebirth. Some are doing well, and experiencing serious growth, some are holding their heads above water, but in too many places decline is still the order of the day.

But are attitudes to bus services beginning to change?

The message is beginning to get through that the real cost of saving a few quid by chopping off funding for unremunerative bus services is greater than that saving. That it’s not all about balancing the books in County Hall, but is about savage impacts on real people’s daily lives; that economic recovery is hampered by people’s inability to get to jobs or to get to shops; that there is a ‘double whammy’ on those in the lowest income brackets when they can no longer get to supermarkets selling affordable food; that older people’s well-being improves when they can get out of the house; and, to look at it in the most cynical way possible, that it saves the NHS and Social Services money.

Moreover, people are beginning to question their local authorities being starved of the money they need to provide essential services. In East Sussex recently, councillors voted not to accept proposed cuts to local bus funding for all of those reasons.

We’ve also seen more and more people responding to local consultation on the future of bus services. And the recent Scottish Devolution referendum has stirred up a debate about devolution of local decisions to areas of England that feel just as remote from Westminster as do people in Ross & Cromarty.

There is a realisation that more people live in the urban belt across Northern England than in London, that it is bigger than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, and that Newcastle is much further from London than Cardiff or even Swansea. Greater Manchester looks like being the first region of England to be given greater local autonomy, in what is being described as ‘Devo Manc’.

Does this open up opportunities for passengers in our major urban areas to get a better deal and return to public transport in the way their counterparts in London have? Good transport is essential for economic growth, and pouring more cars into an already crowded transport infrastructure can no longer be the answer.

Buses have enormous unleashed potential to be tomorrow’s transport: and the signs are that continued squeezing of local funding for them simply can’t continue. We can only hope that changing attitudes will bring about the long-awaited renaissance of bus services that will benefit the whole of society.

Not all about winning 

It is a genuine pleasure to see the surprise and joy on people’s faces at the annual UK Bus Awards ceremony in November when they discover they or their company have won an award. Whether it’s the National Depot of the Year or Unsung Heroes or London or National Driver of the Year.

It’s also lovely to see those who are normally at the coalface taking a rare break from the day-to-day. And no-one who attended last year can surely forget the exuberant bus driver for Lothian Buses, Raul Campos Folgado, who leapt and bound on stage with such unbridled joy to collect his Top National Bus Driver award: there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

And this year’s ceremony, on the 18h November and in its 19th year, was no different – teeming with drivers, engineers, managers, network planners, marketers and many more.

Being at the lunch got me thinking about the day itself. Okay, so the ceremony and the glitz and the winning are important, but the UK Bus Awards represent so much more and rightly so. On an immediate level, they celebrate and raise the profile of the bus services provided to passengers across the UK – and all the behind-the-scenes staff who make everything run so smoothly so much of the time – and of course, the passion, dedication and sheer hard work this entails.

But more than this, the awards play an important role in encouraging companies and local authorities across the whole bus sector to learn from and take forward winning approaches, initiatives and qualities. This can only raise the bar of services. More than just a handful of the judges’ published comments on finalists and winners referred to model and exemplary behaviours and measures – from marketing strategies to the attitude of engineers and drivers.

Then, we get to see a shower of positive media stories on buses raining through regional publications – from the East Lothian Courier to the Island Echo in the Isle of Wight this year – frankly, to change the weather metaphor, a ray of sunshine amongst the gloom of stories on cuts and complaints which local bus services largely attract nowadays. In fact, if anything, such stories serve to make the case for keeping bus services by showing how successful or moreover valued they are within a community.

I have been a judge for three years on the UK Bus Awards panel and the judging process is challenging but also fascinating. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of the role which mystery travelling plays in the awards, through independently assessing the finalists in the operating categories to ensure service delivery is up to the mark. Operators don’t only have to talk the talk: mystery travelling checks they are walking the walk too.

And the awards are not just an inward-facing scheme, inaccessible to the public – bus passengers themselves can and do nominate their favourite drivers for the Top National Driver award directly and this is exactly as it should be. In the 2014 awards, there were some 200 nominations by the public and we would like to see this number grow and grow – as it is the passengers who use the buses day in day out, who are the best judges of services and for whom service quality matters most.

So the UK Bus Awards are not just about winning on the day and a slap-up lunch – they are about the industry aiming high and higher.

Claire Walters, Chief Executive, Bus Users

Find out more about the UK Bus Awards

Who’s the real customer?

As the bus industry gathers in Birmingham for its annual display of gleaming new hardware, everything from coaches costing half a million quid to wheelnuts and ticket rolls, we throw down a gauntlet to the people who build buses. Why not ask the real customers, the people who will use your product day in, day out, for their views to inform your next-generation designs?

There is little doubt that bus design has come on in leaps and bounds. I rode on one of the few remaining classic Routemasters still in service in London the other day and was struck, not so much by its iconic design, as by its lack of legroom and rough ride. I have also ridden on some new buses where I’ve actually been reluctant to get off at my stop because I’ve been so comfortable! It’s not all bad by any means but there’s always scope for improvement.

To the people who design and build our buses, the ‘customer’ is in actual fact the bus company. And while, to a certain extent, this may be understandable, it means those of us who actually use the bus are a long way removed from the design and build process. The philosophy is often ‘You tell us what you want and we’ll build it’, tempered by what’s legal, physically possible and affordable. But manufacturers are missing a marketing trick: if they were to carry out passenger research prior to designing, they could use those passenger views to sell buses to companies which haven’t done any research themselves.

Ultimately, customers are what the industry quaintly terms ‘bums on seats’; you and me. Without our contribution handed to the driver, or paid on our behalf through an obliging local authority’s smartcard tapped on the reader, no-one would be buying new buses.

Manufacturers do consult some groups of passengers, and today’s accessible buses could not have been developed without a lot of consultation with people with disabilities. As highlighted in the latest Bus User magazine, though, there are still issues which could easily have been resolved by early testing with passengers.

Blind or partially sighted people, for example, can still bump their heads on unexpected handrails. Buses that tell people where they are remain far from commonplace, despite being invaluable to blind and partially sighted people (not to mention jolly handy for the rest of us) and despite the fact that the technology is readily available.

Many of us will still shiver in the winter and melt in the summer, when drivers are unable to control the heaters. And while posh leather seats may look and smell lovely, do we actually prefer them, when a lead-booted driver can have us sliding all over the place? Or would we rather sit on moulded plastic with a thin bit of padding?
Another regular barrier to bus use is the lack of space to stow shopping. How often do we hear car owners say, ‘I would use the bus if I could get my shopping home’? OK, 70 people on a single bus, each with a month’s worth of Tesco shopping would be interesting, but the reality is there is very little space for anyone to store shopping or luggage.

Then there’s the issue of ventilation. Do we prefer windows that open or decent air conditioning? Can we actually see out of the windows? Are we worried that the handy bell push on a pole might do us a serious mischief if the bus stops too quickly? Will we bang our heads if we have to sit right at the back, over the engine?

Obviously there are immovable constraints: buses still have to be able to negotiate the medieval street patterns of some of our towns and not weigh too much. Manufacturers still need to put luxuries like engines and wheels somewhere, and work within sensible and legal dimensions while enabling operators to carry enough passengers to make it worthwhile running the service in the first place.

The perfect bus will never exist.

But maybe tomorrow’s generation of new buses will not only emit cleaner air than they draw in, do an entire day’s work on three gallons of diesel and have the fanciest headlamps imaginable, but will also benefit from having asked us, the passenger, what we think and how we want to use the bus in everyday, real, life.

Go on manufacturers, we dare you: talk to us.

By Claire Walters, Chief Executive, Bus Users

Cashless or just heartless?

We may have mentioned this before but London buses are now cashless.

The fact that paying cash costs you twice as much as using an Oystercard had pushed many people away from using cash anyway. And if you have an Oystercard there’s no doubt it’s a much more convenient and quicker way of paying than having a pocketful a loose change. Indeed even DfT, in its bid to roll out Smartcards across the country, recognises that what everyone really wants is the equivalent of Oyster.

Bus Users has its base in a strange London hinterland, actually across the border in Surrey. In our borough, bus services are provided in almost equal measures by Abellio Surrey, which despite being owned by the Dutch state railway, runs a private-sector deregulated service much like the rest of Britain, and Transport for London. So, on half of our buses the casual fare-paying user has no option but to pay cash: on the other half they have no option to pay cash.

Of course the answer is that if you don’t have an Oystercard and you get on a ‘red’ bus you can pay with your contactless bank card.

You may not think the words ‘poverty trap’ and ‘Surrey’ could ever be used in the same sentence. Believe us, in this borough there are plenty of people on low incomes who may not have a bank account and, being outside London, may well not have access to an Oystercard. Without these things they are disenfranchised from much of the local bus service.

And who’s to say that the contactless bank card is the panacea TfL would like us to think it is? We came across a case recently of a woman and her two 20-something daughters who tried to board a London bus locally. Not having an Oystercard (as many people out here don’t) she presented her contactless bank card to pay the three fares. “You can’t do that”, said the driver; “you can only pay for yourself on a bank card”. The woman elected to let one of her daughters travel while she was unceremoniously turfed off the bus.

Added to which, this happened in the farflung corners of TfL’s empire where most of the buses run every 20 minutes or half hour: it isn’t Oxford Street where there’ll be ‘another one along in a minute’.

Had a revenue inspector boarded the bus on which her daughter was now travelling solo, the daughter would have had absolutely no means of proving that her fare had been paid. Her only proof of payment was her mum’s bankcard which was naturally still with her mum. She could have been facing a fine for travelling without paying even though she had.

So, assuming you qualify for a bank card, and yours is contactless (which not all are) you can’t assume you can take your family out on a London bus on your bank card. Of course had this family been travelling on a route served by Abellio Surrey, they could have paid for all three of them in cash, end of story.

TfL still has some thinking to do before cashless buses can really be made to work: and what, we wonder, happened to all those promises of a compassionate approach which wouldn’t leave people stranded?