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Are the aspirations of the National Bus Strategy unreachable?

bus stop sign

A guest blog post by Jeff Counsell, Managing Director of Trentbarton.

When I was first asked to consider writing this blog it was the start of this summer and, while keen to do so, I found it difficult to produce something with relevance, such was the speed of change around us. 

Having thought often since about putting pen to paper, I’ve concluded that the Virgo traits that govern my thinking need to be put aside and to just go for it, given a blog is only relative to the time it’s written. 

The original theme of the note was to consider if the National Bus Strategy (NBS) will bring about a transformative change to our industry – I won’t mince my words, having previously welcomed the aims of the NBS, it’s aspirations now seem more unreachable than ever. The £3 billion pledged by the Government has somehow diminished by almost £1 billion as a result of this Autumn’s Spending Review and no one seems quite sure how much of this is old or new money. 

Bus operators and Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) are frantically burning the candle at both ends in an effort to produce legally binding enhanced partnerships in a timeframe only a time traveller akin to Dr Who could meet. All in the hope that they will be successful in receiving a share of the 20 times over-subscribed funding from the Bus Service Improvement Plans' pot.

Despite showing some encouraging signs of recovery in the late summer, bus patronage levels had plateaued well before the emergence of the Omnicon variant. Passenger confidence has been dented throughout the pandemic as buses were framed by the media as plague ridden boxes to be ridden only by Derry-Booted construction folk or NHS workers on their way home from a long night-shift. Public transport is depicted to be avoided at all costs, where everyone coughs and only the brave should tread. Really unhelpful!

So, will the NBS deliver the improvements that bus users want to see? In the short term the answer is no, given that the attention of the operators and LTA’s will be rightly fixed on commercial recovery and network stability. We ought to remember that life pre-Covid was far from perfect, with many routes and services struggling to cover their costs and justify investment even then. 

We know that one of bus users' top priorities is punctuality and that they are frustrated by increased journey times. Unless operators and LTAs adopt a combined strategy which genuinely tackles congestion, and with it pollution, with policies that pro-actively encourage modal shift, good money will be thrown after bad. Aside from every other aspiration within the NBS, if we start with this as our main objective, we’ll reduce one of the biggest barriers to bus usage. 

Jeff Counsell is Managing Director of Trentbarton

Jeff Counsell of Trentbarton