If you listened to the gloomadon poppers at left wing (and taxpayer funded) lobby groups such as the Local Government Association and the Campaign for Better Transport you would think bus travel is in decline. The BBC will always be ready to let the spokesman of such groups take to the airwaves and say that as subsidies as being cut the buses will be unable to survive.
In fact across the country bus travel is flourishing. There are more routes and more passengers. These are profitable services. These are people using their own money to travel – enough of them, willing to pay enough, for the service to make a profit.
Competition and privatisation have been crucial. Before 1986 buses had been sharply declining in popularity. In 1955 there were over 13 billion bus journeys in Britain. By 1986 it had fallen to 5.3 billion. The impact of the market reforms was to stabilise the numbers. If anything they are now tending to rise. In 2012/13 it was 5.1 billion.
Consider the Annual Report from FirstGroup plc:
UK Bus has achieved overall passenger volume growth for the first time in several years, as a result of the network transformations, fare reviews and significant investments in fleet and service during the year. Going forward, we will continue to improve our commercial proposition to drive passenger volume growth and revenues, while continuing to strengthen operational discipline.
Driving growth through attractive commercial propositions
A typical approach in a market is to rebase certain fares products to ensure competitiveness and value for money, which encourages volume growth and maintains revenue levels in the early stages. This acts as a platform from which to build further volume and pricing growth in future years.
Following our success in the first half of the year principally in markets in the North region, the full year passenger volume growth across the division of 2.6% is the first full year of commercial passenger volume growth for a decade. Tailored fares reductions in Manchester have persuaded an extra 150,000 people per week to travel with First and contributed to an improvement of more than 30% in customer perceptions of our value for money.
In the second half of the year we expanded our fares reviews to other markets including Leeds, Portsmouth, Southampton and Bristol, where we worked with the elected Mayor of Bristol to undertake a wide ranging consultation that we used to inform our new fares structure introduced in November.
In many areas we coupled changes to the fares structure with improved network designs, allowing us to maximise growth opportunities and increase market share. We have completed ten major redesigns so far, including our SimpliCITY network in Glasgow which has restored frequencies of ten minutes or better to core services and coordinated these routes to create simpler links to the city centre. Against the backdrop of an economy that struggled in 2013/14, SimpliCITY outperformed the rest of the network, delivering a growth rate 1.0% higher.
Then there is Stagecoach. They are also expanding. They are also proving that it is possible to provide affordable bus travel and still make a profit rather than rely on a subsidy. A spokesman tells me:
Our success is down to our low fares strategy and consistent investment in improving services. Stagecoach was recently confirmed as Britain’s best value major bus operator for the third successive time. Independent research published by transport specialists TAS shows that Stagecoach weekly travel is on average 12% lower than the next cheapest operator and more than 50% less than bus fares charged in the capital by Transport for London.
The TAS National Fares Survey 2013 found that average weekly bus travel was £12.50 with Stagecoach, compared to £19.60 on the Transport for London bus network. We have delivered this despite the cost of providing bus services rising faster than RPI inflation in recent years. This is one reason why we also have the highest bus satisfaction of any major bus operator in the country.
Stagecoach has placed £545m of orders for new buses and coaches for its regional bus operations in the UK in the last seven years. The Group has also ordered more than £100million of new vehicles for its London bus operations since buying the business in 2010. The majority of these orders were with UK vehicle manufacturers, helping support British jobs.
Also good news in Bournemouth – where bus travel has been liberated from the dead hand of municipal ownership:
Yellow Buses has invested nearly £1m in five brand new double-decker buses ready for another busy summer.
Following sustained business growth, the Bournemouth-based company ordered the Volvo Wright Gemini double-deckers, which will have the distinctive Yellow Buses livery.
They will be rolled out onto routes across Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch areas within days.
This purchase brings the number of vehicles in Yellows’ growing fleet to over 150 and follows a £1.4m investment already this year on ten new StreetLite Max single-deckers.
Claiming that public transport needs subsidy is a counsel of despair. Bus subsidy is going down. Bus travel is going up. That proof of resilience is something that the true friends of public transport should welcome.