Last reviewed 9 April 2021

The role of bus operators in the current deregulated marketplace is to deliver good customer service in a safe and efficient manner, while providing value for owners and shareholders. Balancing these often conflicting demands with very little outside support, bus operators have struggled to achieve these aims and have thus generally welcomed the National Bus Strategy as a positive step. Our Consultant Editor takes a look at this new strategy which pledges £3 billion of new funding to “level up” buses across England to London standards.

Establishing the need for better buses

Despite much hard work, the disparate and often isolated organisations involved in delivering bus services have generally failed to halt the decline in passenger numbers, while managing greater congestion and falling subsidies. However, buses are seen as the quickest and easiest solution to delivering a better and greener local transport system. The National Bus Strategy recognises this, making those involved in delivering bus services, both operators and Local Transport Authorities (LTAs), pool their collective specialisms and work together to deliver that strategy. In particular, the recognition that bus networks should no longer be planned on a purely commercial basis is a significant step change.

Aims of the National Bus Strategy

The strategy represents a wish list for bus passengers, who have been placed firmly at the heart of the aims and expected outcomes, with the emphasis on growing patronage and reducing car use. These aims can be split into the following areas:

Bus service provision

  • turn-up-and-go frequencies on main routes

  • evening and weekend services, with 15 minute frequencies on main routes

  • improving service reliability

  • routing and timetables that are easy to understand and use

  • improving co-ordination between bus services and with other transport modes

  • improving and expanding bus priority schemes

  • encouraging Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) services in rural areas, in the evenings and at weekends.

Fares

  • low, flat fares in towns and cities

  • multi-operator ticketing without a premium

  • capped fares for multi-journey use

  • specific fares for young people

  • contactless ticket machines on all services

  • concessionary fares to remain but include cards put onto mobile phone apps.

Information

  • information at the touch of a phone

  • information available on bus, at bus stops, on websites and in printed format.

Funding the scheme

The total funding package of £3 billion is for the period before the current Parliament ends, ie before May 2024. The key areas of funding include the 4000 new “green” buses already announced by the Prime Minister in 2020.

In addition, there is £120 million for zero emission buses in 2021/22 as well as £50 million going to Coventry as the “All Electric Bus Town”.

LTAs will have £300 million to introduce new and increased services in 2021/22, of which £25 million will support LTAs in the development of Enhanced Partnerships or franchising and to recruit or train people with necessary skills. This includes England’s first Bus Centre of Excellence enabling the delivery of a long-term programme of activities and support.

Consultation will be held on changes to the Bus Service Operators Grant, with likely changes to this grant being paid via LTAs and based on live miles operated, reformed payments for low carbon buses and extra payments for rural and DRT services, with implementation from April 2022.

There will be upgrade incentives for the 16% of operators who are not using contactless ticket machines as well as £1.5 million to enable smaller operators to fit Next Bus announcement equipment.

Finally, there will be funding for five “Glider” Bus Rail Transit Schemes, similar to that currently running in Belfast.

Vehicle specification changes

As part of the drive towards net zero carbon emissions, future buses will be powered by either electric or hydrogen with the Department for Transport (DfT) now consulting on the last date for new diesel buses to enter service.

Next Bus announcement equipment is to be fitted to all buses, with legislation for this being introduced in Summer 2022. All new buses will also be fitted with CCTV, Wifi and charging as standard.

Buses funded by the DfT will also have a second wheelchair space, hearing loops, space for assistance dogs, onboard audio and visual information and cycle spaces on rural routes.

Finally, the DfT will consult on revisions to PSVAR Regulations, with these being introduced by the end of 2023.

Implementing the scheme

This strategy will be implemented through LTAs setting up either “Enhanced Partnerships” or through franchising, although the latter is recognised as time consuming.

Enhanced Partnerships are part of the 2017 Bus Services Act, so do not need further legislation to establish. LTAs will work with operators in planning and agreeing routes, timetables and frequencies, ticketing and information. LTAs will also be expected to use their role in highway management in helping tackle congestion. LTAs will also take on the work of registering Bus Services. More guidance on Enhanced Partnerships will be provided during April or May 2021.

A challenging implementation timetable has been set to develop the initial stages of this strategy.

  • By July 2021, only LTAs who have started to develop Enhanced Partnerships and operators co-operating with this process will receive the Coronavirus Bus Service Support Grant and Bus Service Operators Grant.

  • By October 2021, all LTAs must publish Bus Service Improvement Plans setting out how they will improve local bus services in their area. These plans are expected to include all of the aims set out above.

  • By April 2022, LTAs must start to deliver on their plans. Bus funding, including reformed BSOG, may well be devolved to the LTA.

While not explicitly set out, by placing them at the centre of the process along with the funding, and by working with bus operators, LTAs will be able to develop and fund their own ideas of networks and frequencies.

However, what is not clear is how new funding will be paid to operators and, as direct subsidies for bus service operation have never previously been possible, it may be that LTAs will have to follow a procurement process after the current emergency and de minimis payments have ceased. This could also be applicable for single routes and larger area networks. Additionally, by setting common or network liveries, local fare strategies and branding, the outcome could be seen as franchising by the back door.

The future of bus services

The DfT is using the current opportunity of reduced services, operators reliant on large subsidies and new funding streams to fundamentally change the way bus services are planned, seeking a step change in frequencies, quality of service and information provision — all long time aims of bus operators who have not previously been able to afford this.

In a time of such uncertainty and with significant potential threats to the future of bus service provision, the opportunities presented by the new scheme are to be welcomed and explored.