The end of the blue bus?

26 Jan 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 5 Feb 2018

We are no longer living in the 1930s. Picture: Unsplash

 “the blue bus is callin' us
Driver, where you taken us”

The End by The Doors 

This week Translink warned that it was losing £13 million per annum on running rural bus services and that this was no longer sustainable. 

It clearly isn’t. But the debate needs to move on from the predictable outrage into a more informed debate about how best to serve the needs of rural communities.

And any such debate has to start from the acceptance that the current service is not fit for purpose, is failing people living in rural areas and that a transport system that dates back to the days of Thomas the Tank Engine is not appropriate for today.

Whilst other industries are embracing and tackling the challenges of 21st Century living our public transport is lost in time, based on the same principles that worked well enough when steam trains were their pride and joy.  

So therefore rather than continuing to prop up a service which is only one step up from useless we should be looking at how it can be transformed into one which serves need.

To bring this alive. I live four miles outside Portaferry. There is one direct bus in the morning from the village to Belfast. It sets out at 9.20 am and arrives at 10.50am.  The alternative is at 6.50 am but requires a change in Newtownards.

I get this service once a year to go to my Christmas lunch. I’ve yet to see anyone commuting to work in Belfast on it – hardly surprising as turning up at 11ish every day would be stretching the concept of flexitime to its outer limits. And for people like me the only way I can use the bus anyway is by getting a lift to and from Portaferry, which is okay for me, but not possible for someone with no access to a driver.

So what we have is a system of fixed routes run to a fixed timetable which only works for those people who live close enough to a bus stop to walk to it – and who can work around the arrival and departure times. This is not much good at all if you have an appointment somewhere, at a hospital, for a job interview, or a flight to catch.

No wonder then that rural roads are filled every morning with cars with single drivers commuting to work and so many people in country areas are effectively immobile.

It is time that this was addressed, and there is an answer. In many areas the basic infrastructure is already in place. It is to invest in a network of community transport services run for and by local communities to supplement and in some cases replace a failing public transport system.

Let us briefly examine the societal and technological forces that make this not only possible, but necessary.

Car ownership amongst young people is falling as is the numbers even taking driving tests. This trend is most noticeable in urban areas. Car insurance premiums are particularly high for young drivers and cars are increasingly expensive to buy and to run. Provided that people can get where they want to go when they want to travel not owning a car is becoming more attractive to younger people in many parts of the world. In England car pools where people share ownership of cars is increasing rapidly and in the USA uber is working frantically on rolling out shared services, whereby taxis take more than one passenger on flexible routes, according to demand. Urban transport is big business and big business is working hard on finding ways to cash in.

Large employers are also getting involved in providing new forms of transport. In England Jaguar has claimed a saving of £1.6 million by operating the largest employee car share scheme in Europe – picking up groups of employees from their homes and dropping them back after work. This has allowed the company to convert one of its giant car parks into a new manufacturing plant. At Norwich hospital a similar scheme has been introduced for its 7,500 staff – this because patients were increasingly unable to park at the hospital because all the spaces on car parks were taken by workers.

The future of public transport in urban areas is easy to predict. There will be an increasing surge of new providers, sometimes large employers, often private sector insurgents who are able to get people where they want to go from their homes at the right time for all.

We can expect government support for this because it will ultimately mean less cars on the road and help cities meet pollution targets.

There will still be a market for buses and trains, especially for long distance journeys. These will increase their popularity at the point where there are shared taxi-type services that make it easier for people to get to and from stations for their journeys.

Some commentators are cynical about this. They say that people will be reluctant to share a car with people they don’t know. However in West Belfast the Black Taxi model has been working on a roughly similar model for decades, proving it can be done. It will happen.

These changes will take place as fast as regulation will allow, in some countries they already are happening.

But this will have little if any impact on rural communities. These will be unattractive to commercial operators because they will not generate profit. New flexible, demand-led models of transport using smaller vehicles require large populations to make margins.

However if government were serious about addressing the problem of rural public transport, the answer is not the status quo, nor is it to provide more large buses on fixed routes. Over time the service will get more and more expensive.

The solution is to be found within communities. Community transport schemes have been round for decades. Currently they offer dial-up services and use volunteer drivers to transport vulnerable people to hospitals, other appointments and to amenities. They also give young people lifts to FE colleges and the like.

For many they are already a lifeline. But they could be so much more than that.

Take the rural, non-driving FE student as an example. Currently there is a subsidy available to pay for the transport to college. After that no further help is available. So therefore if the young person were to get a job, say in Belfast he or she would effectively be forced to move to the city. They may be able to walk or get a lift to the nearest bus stop, but depending on where they live the chances are that there isn’t a bus that would give them a decent chance of getting to work on time.

A not-for-profit transport service, fairly subsidised might be able to address that for rural dwelling workers, transporting them to and from work at a decent, affordable rate.

And to take my own example, a scheme which operated for people living several miles from a bus stop would lead to a greater take up of a long-distance bus service, integrating community transport with public transport. This sort of project is already operating in Scotland.

And, once reasonable speed broadband is universal in Northern Ireland a demand-led service could be operated online with bookings made by smartphone and laptops, provided community transport services had access to the appropriate software.

Public transport for rural areas needs to be sensibly re-examined. It needs to be based on the needs of communities, and outlying isolated individuals and demand-led. For rural areas this will involve smaller vehicles, flexible routes and timetables. It would need to be subsidised, but it is hard to imagine that the current not-fit-for purpose system would be either cheaper or more efficient than the obvious alternative provided by the communities themselves.

We just need to move the debate on from one between those defending a service that doesn’t meet need and those advocating “competition”. This is not the answer in rural areas. Privatisation was introduced in England. It has not been a success.

The problem is that whilst Translink talks of cuts community transport in Northern Ireland has been cut – by £2.2 million. Community transport providers are hedged about with regulation, unable to introduce new services in response to community need and that £150 million we were promised to ensure broadband reaches all rural communities has still not arrived. We have previously analysed the problems faced by community transport services here.

The Translink announcement gives the opportunity for a more informed debate -  one in which the community and voluntary sector’s voice is clearly heard.


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