Operating buses in Wales with a completely different colour of politics and significantly varying aspirations for those services to many other parts of the UK is, on paper, refreshing – but can those hopes succeed, or be made better?
The Welsh Government has been exceptionally bold. Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters stated in 2021 that there will be no new road building in Wales and that funding from those budget lines should go into public transport, clearly specifying bus.
76% of the people using public transport in Wales take bus services. 24% opt to use rail. So where does the lion’s share of the funding go? Certainly not on bus!
Aspirations for bus in Wales ‘are laudible’, but…
The Welsh Government may not be totally to blame here. From operating in Wales, and working with many stakeholders, it is apparent that the Deputy Minister’s aspirations for better and more inclusive bus services across the country, with long-term government support and/or some type of control (which is a whole different article), is laudable.
Unfortunately, we have an organisation that has been set up as the transport delivery agent for the Welsh Government. It operates rail services and is now looking to take over bus. In theory that sounds OK.
But after working with Transport for Wales (TfW) on many projects, it has become abundantly clear that it is a money pit of either very expensive consultants, or a bus team that has no buses to control – and simply cannot do so until the Welsh Government gets its bus services bill through, which may be in 2025/26.
Those employed in the main have no or little bus industry knowledge. That comes across very clearly. So why doesn’t TfW properly and transparently collaborate with the bus industry to solve the main problems facing it, with outcomes that suit the group that is left out of many decisions: The passenger?
Problems remain regardless of who controls or influences
Problems of congestion, decarbonisation, land planning, long-term funding and road space reallocation will not go away, regardless of who controls bus services. But empire building and a lack of knowledge of how to operate any bus service in any part of Wales is wasting finite financial resources.
Many consultants have come and gone over the past three years because the plans suggested do not make sense, or, when scrutinised by the industry and local authorities (LAs), fade away with financial waste into six figures.
“Not unusual in any part of the UK,” I hear you say. But at what cost when funding is stretched, except for when the Welsh Government feeds the growing, unstoppable beast that is TfW?
Many problems and challenges exist within rail in Wales. Why would more control of public transport be handed to an organisation that is yet to prove effective?
‘The bus industry is an art form’
Welsh Government aspirations and desires for bus are brilliant. Effective funding has been pumped into the sector since March 2020, more so than elsewhere in the UK. We are thankful for that, as many SME operators would never have survived otherwise.
But the planned execution of control by TfW is fundamentally flawed. The organisation is not ready for bus, with limited knowledge of an industry that, by design, is an art form.
My plea is this: Stop using expensive and wasteful consultants to advise on how best to operate bus services in Wales. Stop trying to magic major change in one switch.
Instead, use the extensive experience within many LAs and create regional groups with long-term funding and power to deliver change in a controlled, sensible manner. Work with the industry to facilitate that. Operators should be the delivery agents of bus services through a regional strategy, not via the creation of an expensive, inefficient quango.
The public demands better, and rightly so. But without transparency and collaborative, solution-based outcomes from all involved, that will remain a problem in Wales.