The government has launched its long-awaited National Bus Strategy for England. It heralds the plan as a “£3bn bus revolution” for services and the “most ambitious reform to the sector in a generation.”
In what is perhaps the most revolutionary part of the Strategy, it marks the beginning of the end of what the government calls “the fragmented, fully-commercialised market that has operated outside London since 1986.”
The Strategy effectively mandates the entry of operators and local authorities (LAs) into statutory enhanced partnerships or franchising agreements to deliver improvements. Most notably, from this summer onwards only services under those arrangements will be eligible for continued emergency support or to access any new sources of funding from the £3bn investment.
National Bus Strategy: Working together ‘is expected’
The Strategy promises that buses will be more frequent, cheaper, greener and easier to use. The government adds that “we expect to see LAs and operators working together to deliver services that are so frequent” that passengers can ‘turn up and go’ on trunk routes.
Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps says that the National Bus Strategy will provide “unprecedented funding” to LAs. But he has underlined the notion that close collaboration between councils and operators will be required to access it. Targets for patronage growth and journey times also form part of policy.
On ticketing, the Strategy aspires to see lower and simpler flat fares in towns and cities that are coupled to ‘turn up and go’ trunk frequencies.
Daily capping and the ability of all buses to accept contactless payments will both be introduced, as will intermodal ticketing across bus and rail.
More evening and weekend services also form part of policy, while “hundreds of miles of new bus lanes” will be rolled out.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson says that as the economy is rebuilt from the COVID-19 pandemic, “better buses will be one of our first acts of levelling up. Just as they did in London, our reforms will make buses the transport of choice, reducing the number of car journeys and improving quality of life for millions.”
4,000 zero-emission buses promise underlined
The government has also reiterated its earlier commitment to seeing 4,000 zero-emission buses delivered. It has once again stated that those vehicles will be British built – but follows that by saying that the step will lead to the “safeguarding the UK bus manufacturing industry.”
That commitment to battery- and hydrogen fuel cell-electric power will help to “transition cities and regions across England to emission-free buses,” the Strategy continues. On 15 March, a consultation on the date for an end to the sale of new diesel buses will be launched as part of that work.
Access to buses and bus services is also addressed in the Strategy. It sets out plans to require onboard next stop announcements throughout Great Britain, while a consultation will launch on new PSV Accessibility Regulations to improve access for wheelchair users.
Later in 2021 a further consultation on reforming BSOG will get underway.
The government says that exercise will form part of its aspiration to see all services operated via statutory enhanced partnerships or franchises, suggesting that such mechanisms may be incentivised through BSOG.
Accepting that high-frequency services are not appropriate for all rural and suburban areas, the Department for Transport will shortly announce the winners of its £20m Rural Mobility Fund. That will enable demand-responsive services to be trialled in areas where traditional services are not suitable.
Early industry response to Strategy is positive
Early response to the National Bus Strategy was positive. Confederation of Passenger Transport Chief Executive Graham Vidler has welcomed what he calls “ambitious plans,” and he has described the Strategy as “a huge opportunity for a step change in bus use.” Mr Vidler has called for Westminster’s plans to be matched by local delivery and consistent policy “to put buses at the heart of transport networks.”
He adds that local targets for passenger growth and accelerated journey times should “be the focus of everyone involved in delivering bus networks, rather than the distraction of debates over regulatory models that deliver nothing for passengers.”
For a detailed analysis of the key policy fundamentals of the National Bus Strategy, click here.