Confessions of a car driver

I work in the bus and coach industry. I’m passionate about smarter travel modes and encouraging active travel. I believe that transport industry professionals should use public transport as much as possible in order to understand the needs of their customers. And yet, despite all this, I own and run a car and use it for the majority of my journeys (albeit probably not the majority of my miles traveled because I do a lot of long distance travel by train or coach). But over the past 48 hours, I have experienced an enforced car-free existence whilst said vehicle is in the garage for some minor electrical repairs, and this has led me on a self-reflective voyage of discovery in relation to my travel habits and how well the local bus network meets my mobility needs.

Firstly - I recognise that I appear to be playing the part of the typical motorist, only daring to consider a non-car mode when forced to by circumstance. This isn’t quite true, because I do use public transport for some of my journeys, alongside walking and cycling, but certainly the lack of access to a car has led me to use the bus more. My car-free existence started at approximately 09:45 yesterday morning, when I dropped the car off at the garage. Conveniently there is a direct bus from said garage to close to our Loughborough office, which I made use of.

The bus, operated by Wellglade Group operator Kinchbus, was a few minutes late. I was expecting this because I was able to track the bus in real time - very useful. The driver was profusely apologetic, blaming unspecified “problems in the town centre”, and this was appreciated; Kinchbus and fellow Wellglade operator Trent Barton drivers are well known for their excellent customer service. The bus was warm and clean, but lacked any of the sparkle or extra amenities that more modern vehicles have because it was quite an elderly vehicle. It was perfectly adequate, however, for a short journey.

The problem with using the bus for this journey is that during the 10 minutes I spent waiting at the bus stop, I could have driven in to work, parked my car, gone into the office and made a cup of tea. Instead, I went nowhere and spent a cold and unproductive ten minutes stood at a shelter-less bus stop. In addition, the fare of £2, whilst standard for a local town service, is uncompetitive with the marginal cost of motoring.

After a circuitous loop through Loughborough’s housing estate (which I was quite happy with from an interest point of view, but which also added time to the journey), I got off the bus in sight of the office. So far, so good. Except I couldn’t find a direct walking route out of the housing estate where I had got off the bus to the main road on which the office is situated, so I spent a further ten minutes getting my shoes muddy as I walked cross-country over a playing field, crossed a 4 lane dual carriageway and eventually made it to the office via the back entrance.

The remainder of the working day passed with no further need of transport, until the time came to head home. I am lucky to live a 15 minute walk from work, but I confess that despite this, I find myself making the journey by car more often than not. I enjoyed the walk home; I listen to music as I walk and always enjoy seeing my surroundings at a slower pace. Would I want to do it every day? Probably not in the rain, but apart from that there is really no excuse for not walking.

My final journeys of the day took me to Leicester, for a belated Valentine’s Day dinner date. Had the car been available, we would have probably used an informal “park and ride” arrangement involving driving to somewhere in Loughborough where we could catch Kinchbus’ Skylink service, which runs non-stop from Loughborough to Leicester. As it was, we instead took Arriva’s 127 service from just outside our house - double the journey time but much more convenient.

I was unsure of the fare, so took three £5 notes with me and a couple of pound coins. The bus driver was friendly and, in response to my query about the best fare option, informed us that because it was the school holidays (I hadn’t realised), we were travelling there and back together (assuming the date wasn’t a total disaster!), we would be returning before midnight (not that there are any buses back after midnight) and there was a full moon (OK not this one), he could sell us a ZonePlus Family Day Saver for £7.00.

This was a good value fare; probably cheaper than fuel and parking would have been had we driven to Leicester, and far more cost effective than taxis. However, at no point in the three and a half years that I have lived along this route have I seen any printed or digital media advertising these good value prices, and nor is there any fare information on bus stop posters. This is a missed opportunity to promote good value leisure travel in an area that is full of students and lower income families; very much a demographic in which additional travel demand can be induced by attractive fares.

I feel unqualified to comment on the journey itself, because I was happy sat at the front of the double decker bus. However, my girlfriend, who has no connection with the bus industry whatsoever, commented on the bumpy ride as the vehicle negotiated speedbumps, and unfortunately the return journey was soured by a passenger using extremely offensive language during a telephone call - only once, but once would have been enough, I suspect, had a family taking advantage of the discounted ticket been present, to deter the parents from potentially exposing their children to such behaviour.

So, overall a good experience of using buses, with drivers leaving a positive impression but work for management to do in ensuring that bus travel offers an attractive journey experience. In a later post I’ll discuss some of these factors more in terms of how a small town’s bus network should look - but for now, I have the choice of a 15 minute walk home through deserted streets late at night, or a 5 minute walk at each end and a 3 minute bus journey in between. Let’s see what happens…!

What's your DRT demographic?

What's your DRT demographic?

Demand Responsive Transport, or DRT, is the buzzword of the moment. Everybody in the bus industry is talking about it, and we’ve seen a huge influx of investment to fund various forms of DRT scheme. Falling bus ridership, limited public funding and an ever growing culture of immediacy have created the perfect set of conditions for DRT, whilst ever evolving technology looks set to provide the means to deliver it. But at Vectare, where we’ve been doing extensive strategic work on DRT, we’ve found a big issue with the implementation of DRT – nobody seems to know what their target demographic is! In the coming months we’ll be revealing more about what we’ve been working on, so you can expect big things, but for now take a look at what Dominic Kalantary, Director of Vectare, has to say.

Rural schools are out of reach

Although Local Authorities have some statutory duties in relation to home to school transport, there is still much more that could be done if the transport and education sectors worked more collaboratively together

Although Local Authorities have some statutory duties in relation to home to school transport, there is still much more that could be done if the transport and education sectors worked more collaboratively together

I was concerned today to read about Rural England research which has found that three fifths of young people in rural areas of England lack adequate public transport to get to secondary school. The report, entitled The State of Rural Services, goes on to say that the lack of public transport is harming educational opportunities for young people. It is obvious that where public transport does not allow pupils to get to and from school, either because bus routes and timetables do not coincide with school start and finish times or simply because there is no bus at all, pupils will be reliant on their parents driving them to school.

This increases congestion at one of the busiest times of day for our road network and increases risk outside schools as parents drop off and pick up their children, but more concerning is the fact that any child whose parents cannot access a car will find their educational opportunities significantly restricted.

Local Authorities do of course have some statutory transport obligations in relation to home to school transport, but many pupils do not qualify for this. In any event, the problem is not so much the lack of access to any school but the fact that a lack of transport prevents parents from choosing the school that will be the best for their child.

One option is for schools to consider working with the transport industry to investigate what services could be provided to improve accessibility for prospective pupils. A school bus network and travel planning advice about public bus services that serve a school are both valuable tools to increase the catchment area of a school, and parents really value high quality information which is personalised to them.

My team is responsible for undertaking transport audits at schools across the UK, and we offer these free of charge in order to help schools become more accessible. If you would like to widen your potential market, please do get in touch. We would be very happy to assess the transport provision that you are offering at the moment, and make recommendations as to how you can improve.

Rural reflections

Quite a line up in Stamford bus station, with two CallConnect minibuses, a double deck school bus from Mark Bland Travel (formerly with Happy Al’s as per the upper deck window!), a Centrebus Optare Solo on route 12 and three high specification National Holidays touring coaches. This image contains such a variety of vehicle types, commercial arrangements and operating practices, making it clear just how broad the spectrum of demand catered for by the bus and coach industry is.

Quite a line up in Stamford bus station, with two CallConnect minibuses, a double deck school bus from Mark Bland Travel (formerly with Happy Al’s as per the upper deck window!), a Centrebus Optare Solo on route 12 and three high specification National Holidays touring coaches. This image contains such a variety of vehicle types, commercial arrangements and operating practices, making it clear just how broad the spectrum of demand catered for by the bus and coach industry is.

Today I took a lengthy but enjoyable journey from Loughborough to Nottingham, travelling via Leicester, Uppingham and Stamford, with a diversion to Bourne as well. The purpose of the journey was to gain a deeper understanding of the extent and quality of rural bus provision that residents in these areas are experiencing, and the overall conclusion that I drew was that service quality was very dependent on who was operating the service.

I was pleased to travel on the 747 from Leicester to Uppingham that I blogged about during the latter part of last year - although I had used the service before it was the first time that I had made use of it since it was threatened with withdrawal. The bus was clean, modern and comfortable, with leather seats and a friendly driver, but some of the roads he drove along were very tight for a scheduled bus service. The bus was by no means busy but a number of passengers made use of the service.

From Uppingham I travelled to Stamford on service 12, operated by an Optare Solo and again transporting a modest but not negligible number of people. We certainly took what could be described as a scenic route, evidenced by the number of road signs I saw indicating that the route we were taking was at points the way back to Uppingham! Passengers of all ages were travelling, and it is clear that for a non-driver the service acts as a lifeline.

From Stamford I went to Bourne and back with Delaine Buses, who offered an exceptional standard of service for a relatively rural route. The bus, which starts in Peterborough and runs via Stamford on its way to Bourne, runs hourly, and I travelled on two different extremely smartly turned out vehicles. Both drivers were polite and helpful and I observed the best loadings that I had seen all day.

My inward journey to Nottingham made use of the Centrebus Five Counties service, so named because it passes through five counties on its two hour, 50 minute journey from Peterborough to Nottingham. Loadings were again good here, with the benefit of a reliable hourly service throughout the main part of the day clear to see, but it is a shame to see a lack of early morning, evening and Sunday journeys. I also felt very sorry for a passenger who missed the bus because she was on the wrong side of the road - she waved frantically at the driver but not unreasonably he did not see her in time to stop safely when travelling at 40mph.

I was pleased to discover well-used, high quality bus services operating across rural, and potentially quite challenging, bus operating territory. Without exception I encountered polite, friendly, helpful bus drivers, who drove carefully and with passenger comfort in mind. There is no doubt in my mind that if you offer good standards of service, it will pay dividends in terms of increased passenger numbers. It is very satisfying to go out and travel on buses and see this theory reflected in reality.

Who's behind the wheel of your vehicles?

Any vehicle that is designed to convey more than 8 passengers needs to be operated under a PSV O Licence if you want to make a profit from the service. This includes minibuses which might be sent in place of taxis without the customer’s knowledge.

Any vehicle that is designed to convey more than 8 passengers needs to be operated under a PSV O Licence if you want to make a profit from the service. This includes minibuses which might be sent in place of taxis without the customer’s knowledge.

Minibuses have been in the news today following reports from the Local Government Association that some taxi drivers are taking advantage of the differing regulatory systems that apply to vehicles with up to and over 8 passenger seats. Taxi drivers (driving vehicles carrying up to 8 passengers) must undergo an enhanced criminal records check with the Disclosure and Barring Service as part of the Local Authority licencing process, but no such requirement exists for drivers of vehicles carrying 9 or more passengers. Some contracts do specify that these drivers need to be DBS checked, but there is no overarching legal requirement for employers to perform the checks because drivers of such vehicles are treated as bus or coach drivers.

In contrast to larger buses or coaches however, minibuses are often sent in place of taxis where operational convenience dictates that this is the most efficient option. There is no fundamental problem with this, but it means that there is a risk of vulnerable passengers (such as schoolchildren) who are expecting a DBS checked driver being transported by a driver who has not had a criminal records check.

It is also worth recognising that for a minibus to be operating legally, the driver must have a category D or D1 driving licence, and they must complete regular training to ensure that they are driving in a safe and professional manner. In addition, their employer must hold a government-issued Operators Licence, and the vehicles must usually be operated under the supervision of a qualified Transport Manager.

There is a considerable quantity of legislation surrounding the transport of passengers for profit in vehicles of all sizes, and it is essential for the safety of the public that operators comply. If you are responsible for purchasing transport services and you are concerned about one or more of your suppliers, or you would simply like the peace of mind that a compliance audit gives you, our compliance and surveying services are likely to be of interest. Please do get in touch with myself directly, or one of our team, to discuss things further.

Centrebus operate a large network of rural and urban bus services across Leicestershire, Rutland and Lincolnshire. However, as patronage declines and government subsidies fall further, much of their network may be under threat.

Centrebus operate a large network of rural and urban bus services across Leicestershire, Rutland and Lincolnshire. However, as patronage declines and government subsidies fall further, much of their network may be under threat.

UPDATE: 16th December 2016

I am pleased to say that further to my post below, a temporary reprieve has been granted to the 747 bus service. Leicestershire County Council and Rutland County Council will each contribute £40,000 and £20,000 respectively to make up the £60,000 in subsidy that Centrebus require to continue operating the service for another year. The subsidy secures the service at its current frequency until January 2018, and local people are expected to work in partnership with Centrebus (and other operators) with the aim of devising a long-term strategy for operating the route on a commercially sustainable basis.

Whilst this update is positive news in the short term, the uncertainty over the future of the route will not be conducive to generating new growth going forward. As a non-car user seeking to relocate to Leicester I would not be searching for houses along the A47 corridor, and if I was a regular user of the service I would probably start to actively seek alternatives. Local Authorities and bus operators must understand that for a bus service to be successful the provision of a service alone is not enough; current and prospective passengers must be confident that they can rely on the service in the medium to long term. Otherwise we will continue to see bus usage decline along these important but low-density interurban corridors.

Concerns have been raised in part of rural Leicestershire this week after local bus operator Centrebus announced that their 747 bus service (Leicester to Uppingham via the A47) will be withdrawn from early January next year. The service is the only link between the town of Uppingham (population 5,000) and Leicester, and the majority of villages it serves do not have any other bus services. This means that its withdrawal will leave a significant gap in that part of Leicestershire's public transport network, rendering a number of people isolated in their villages.

This is merely a local example of a concerning national trend, which has been ongoing for many years. The continual reduction in service levels in rural areas and along interurban corridors has been occurring since well before the bus industry was deregulated in 1986, but now that entire communities who live on strategic A-roads are at risk of being left with no bus service the problem has become even more severe.

What is clear is that for some areas the current method of providing rural public transport is not able to meet the needs of local stakeholders whilst also being financially sustainable. Fixed route, scheduled services offer customers certainty on when they will be able to travel, and permit a turn-up-and-go approach to travel (albeit not at typical turn-up-and-go frequencies in rural areas), whereas Demand Responsive Transport services require pre-booking but do offer scope for flexible scheduling and routing, delivering improved vehicle utilisation and increased accessibility.

With continual improvements in technology, I can see a time when the majority of rural transport will be provided through a demand-responsive model, with transport supply meeting the volume and type of transport demand as closely as technically and economically possible. For now, though, we must watch this space and hope that communities along the route of the 747 are successful in persuading their elected representatives to subsidise an alternative bus service.

More young people needed in transport

Encouraging the younger generation to get involved in the transport sector isn’t easy, but when younger people do engage they offer fresh thinking, creative innovation and a comprehensive understanding of the latest technological and digital trends.

Encouraging the younger generation to get involved in the transport sector isn’t easy, but when younger people do engage they offer fresh thinking, creative innovation and a comprehensive understanding of the latest technological and digital trends.

Today I went to hear Chris Grayling, our Secretary of State for Transport, speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. He said a considerable amount, highlighting the significant improvements to transport that have been delivered under Conservative administrations, but I was particularly pleased to hear him highlighting the transport industry as a great place for young people considering careers to work in.

It is certainly true that the transport industry needs more young people, who will embrace the cutting-edge technology which has the capability to revolutionise our industry. We need younger management teams, but we also want younger front line staff; 29% of bus and coach drivers are at least 60 years old. There is a wealth of experience in these career busmen and women, and it is vital that this is imparted to the next generation whilst it is still available.

Here at Vectare, we are certainly ahead of the curve when it comes to engaging with young people. Myself and Peter are of course fairly young ourselves, and we actively recruit the brightest and best straight from school and university. Indeed, some of our employees are still in education when they start to work for us, and this furnishes them with vital experience that they can call upon when applying for full time jobs later in their careers. It is certainly pleasing that the UK's top transport man agrees with, and advocates, our strategy.