Is this a new golden era for the UK bus sector?

By Andrew Smith, Director

The Government has made two big transport announcements today. The long awaited decision to go ahead with HS2 is likely to dominate the headlines, but it is the Government’s plans to invest billions to provide frequent bus services and simpler, more affordable fares which will have the more immediate impact on the provision of public transport across the UK.

Buses are too often neglected in the debate about transport. Train commuters in London and the South East and other large cities are well represented in the media and policy community and this means that train services often dominate the national conversation on public transport. 

What is too often forgotten is that bus services dwarf rail in terms of the number of people using them and the frequency of journeys. Every year there are about ten times more journeys by bus than by train. Investment in bus services is a very effective way of delivering rapid improvements in public service provision.

Boris Johnson has made much about his commitment to bus services, his championing of the New Routemaster for London as well as his claims that he likes painting buses on wine crates as a hobby!   His first speech on domestic issues after becoming Prime Minister talked about new investment in bus services and allowing combined authorities like Manchester to regulate bus services on a similar model to London’s franchising arrangement.

There has been a gradual strengthening of Conservative interest in bus services over recent years.  In David Cameron’s second term the party began to shift away from its previous support for bus deregulation and there was an increased interest in the effectiveness of bus services in improving economic growth. This continued under Theresa May whose Government passed the Bus Services Act 2017, giving local areas the power to take more control over their bus services through franchising or enhanced partnership arrangements. 

Under Johnson as Prime Minster and Sajid Javid as Chancellor, there has been a new intensity of focus on the advantages of delivering investment in new bus services.

Sajid Javid, whose father spent a period working as a bus driver, wants to be known as the Chancellor who was able to deliver revolution in infrastructure investment, which he believes will help the UK to boost its productivity. 

Johnson has talked about doing for the rest of the UK what he did for London; which was to support growth and unlock the potential of left behind areas with investment in transport infrastructure.  As he said in his Manchester speech, while new rail services will be an important to improving transport links between cites, they take years to deliver. Better bus services can deliver a quick impact in improving people’s experience of daily local travel.

The Conservative manifesto promised lower bus fares, more frequent services and the bold claim that areas across the country can have services as good as London’s. 

Today’s announcement brings together a number of previous commitments aimed at improving bus frequency, lowering and simplifying fairs and allowing for more bus priority routes to improve the reliability of services. This builds on previous Conservative commitments to give more local authorities of the country more control of how bus services are operated in their area in a similar model to London. 

As well as supporting economic growth bus services are important in helping the UK to tackle poor air quality and meet its commitments to decarbonisation. The Government has announced new funding to help the delivery of 4000 new electric buses.  Last week, the Government launched a competition to support the development of the first all-electric bus town where all public sector bus services would be provided by electric powered buses. 

The UK is already playing a leading role in the take up of electric buses, with London now having the largest electric bus fleet in Europe and plans to significantly increase the number of electric double decker buses from UK manufacturers Alexander Dennis Ltd and Optare.

The use of buses has been declining in the UK, as it has in many urban areas in advanced countries.  The space of government announcements on bus investment which will lead to the development of a long-term bus strategy and funding settlement as part of the this year’s Spending Review could help to reverse this decline and herald a new golden era for the UK bus sector. 

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