A clear government strategy is needed for rural bus services to survive
The strategy must support council funding and increase passenger numbers, says Baroness Randerson
Bus services have been declining since the 1950s and the problem was made worse in the 1980s by the deregulation of bus services outside London. Competition was meant to stimulate the market but in rural areas there is effectively no competition within the bus industry. Almost three in every five journeys made by public transport are by bus. That’s not as impressive as it sounds because, outside London, the car is king.
Buses provide vital social links for those who live in the country. The rural population is older and hence less likely to be able to rely on using a car. Young people in rural areas need an alternative to relying on the taxi service provided by mum and dad to get to school, college and employment.
As it costs more to run a car in the countryside, because of greater distances, less affluent members of the rural community are also more reliant on bus services. All these groups are left socially isolated when bus services are cut.
Decline has occurred despite the government funding over 40% of the costs of our bus services, but the system is urgently in need of reform. The problem has become acute because of local authority funding cuts. When buses were deregulated in the 1980s, councils were enabled to subsidise what they judged to be “socially necessary services” but there is no precise definition of this term and no obligation on councils to fund unprofitable (often rural) services. Hard-pressed councils have responded by reducing the number of services they subsidise, and some local authorities don’t subsidise any socially necessary services.
The introduction of concessionary fares for older people encouraged older passengers to use the buses, but the funding mechanism for these fares fails to cover the true costs of travel. This matters because in rural areas most of the passengers are likely to be using bus passes. The reimbursement calculator used for concessionary fares is still based on 2005/6 prices for bus fares, meaning that bus operators lose money on every older passenger they carry.
The priority for the future of rural buses is a review of government funding so that it is better targeted at preventing social isolation, but there’s little point in keeping the buses if fewer and fewer people choose to use them, so we need to encourage more passengers on to our buses and there are several ways to do that.
We must encourage young people to use the bus: they are the passengers of the future. This is an issue of social fairness: we require young people to remain in education or training until they are 18, yet from 16 they may well have to pay full fare. When they start work they are usually on low wages. Concessionary fares will encourage young people on to the buses, just as it has encouraged pensioners, but this time the cost must be properly reimbursed.
If rural buses are to survive, then the model of provision needs to change to fit the expectations of 21st century passengers. All too often rural routes are lengthy and circuitous, timetables don’t fit with local train timetables or the start of the school and college day, for instance. Coordinated timetabling, readily available information via apps, and comfortable buses with charging points and wifi would start to tackle the problems. First Bus in the area around Bristol has more than doubled ridership and one of its innovations is to make routes shorter and to link with local taxi providers who take passengers on the last leg of their late-evening journey home.
Coordination between bus operators, greater use of community transport, and demand-responsive transport for the most rural areas are just some other solutions.
Clear government leadership is urgently needed, with strategic vision and a sense of social purpose. That was sadly lacking when we debated the Bus Services Act last year and a golden opportunity was lost, but the situation is not irreversible. One of the great things about bus services is how adaptable they are and how quickly a new route can be established.
Baroness Randerson is Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson