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Cuts to tendered bus services – is there another way?

mabrams's picture
17.03.2015 | mabrams | Save our buses

Local Councils are on the front line of Central Government austerity, having faced near 50 per cent cuts in Government funding since 2010 and are often criticised for then making cuts to council services. However, many councils are looking at new and innovative ways of mitigating against funding cuts. Nottingham City Council is one of those Councils and Andy Gibbons, Head of Public Transport has very kindly agreed to outline what they are doing to ensure buses continue to serve the needs of the people of Nottingham.

All councils are facing severe budget problems and are likely to do so for several years to come. Every month we hear of another area drastically cutting its tendered bus service network. The Campaign for Better Transport survey shows that 46% authorities reduced their expenditure in this area during 2013/14. The Passenger Transport Executive Group predicts a reduction in annual expenditure of £500m over the four years from 2010, allowing for inflation.

Recent reports by Greener Journeys demonstrate the value of supported bus services in assisting the growth agenda and delivering social mobility. However, despite calculations of a benefit cost ratio above 3:1, expenditure remains discretionary and constantly vulnerable when councils are struggling to maintain core statutory services, particularly in adult and children’s services.

Nottingham is no different to any other authority in facing such pressures. Despite a vibrant commercial bus network, around 12% of trips are fully supported by the City Council to the cost of around £4m pa. Patronage levels on these services are either growing or static, with over 7 million trips pa. It is also estimated that some 3 million pa commercial trips are also made because of connecting subsidised services.

In 2013, after three years of difficult cuts to other areas, it was faced with a bleak choice – either cut all tendered services and discounted travel schemes or come up with an alternative self-funding model within four years.

The ambitious self-funding option was chosen, supported by local politicians with a good track record in backing innovation such as the local workplace parking levy.

The overall package of measures uses a mix of the following approaches

  • Invest-to-save, often using successful external capital bidding processes
  • Income generation from proven areas of local excellence
  • Rethink and deliver in a completely different way
  • Develop and build on strong partnership.

These are the ten workstrands

  1. Identify providers of specialist bus services – works buses, college shuttles, school and health services – and examine their precise needs. Work with each provider in flexible open partnerships, amending existing Council tendered services to incorporate these other movements. Use capital funds to purchase new accessible buses, together with bespoke ticketing and information systems to fully merge such movements into the mainstream network. In return, get the partner to contribute scarce on-going revenue funds.
  2. Use existing external grant opportunities to convert services from diesel to fully electric. We are now half way through converting our in house fleet of 60 buses to fully electric, with a network of charging points across the conurbation. With a 6p per km grant on electric buses and fuel duty rebate no longer being available for new diesel subsidised services, this gives savings over some £15,000 per bus per year. It’s an extremely difficult project, but the rewards are substantial.
  3. Work closely with local community transport organisations to encourage them to take on tendered service work. Bolster their boards with greater professionalism, assist them in becoming financially stable through advice on bidding opportunities and bus operations. Redesign local bus service routes and timetables to dovetail with their other transport obligations eg dial a ride.
  4. Use smartcard datasets to identify which users of mainstream bus services also use costly specialist transport provision (taxis to hospital, special needs schools or day centres). Look at ways of amending the mainstream network to replace this expensive alternative provision, backed up by clever independent travel training tools and smart discounted ticketing.
  5. Redesign tendered service routes to incorporate car parks and park and ride sites – for connections not just to the City Centre but to other congested hot spots such as events, universities and hospitals. Truncate some services to feed high frequency bus and tram routes in the suburbs, making them free to use in order to avoid the interchange fare penalty.
  6. Bid for grant opportunities and invest in large scale integrated electronic information and ticketing schemes. Get an ongoing income stream from transport operators for the commercial use of these systems. Substantially improve passenger waiting facilities with capital grants, allowing increased bus station departure fees to be applied.
  7. Introduce bike hire from public transport interchange points to non-central employment sites, using external grant money, integrated or free with integrated ticket products. Aimed at sites where the majority of staff are mobile and young, this can be a way reducing bus capacity whilst providing more flexible provision in terms of operating times. Extend bike hire to replace inter-site college and works movements and to include electric bikes.
  8. Ensure developer funding opportunities to support bus services are pushed and promoted from an early stage in any potential development proposal. Lock these in with temporary discounted ticketing promotion, backed up with individual journey plans. Work very closely with planning and traffic management officers to embed the bus at the heart of these developments, rather than an afterthought. Ensure there is a paved walk link and safe crossing to the nearest bus stop, with a roadside staff entrance rather one only from the site’s car park
  9. Invest in smartcard and administrative ticketing systems to reduce fraud and running costs associated with discounted ticketing schemes. Use complex data analysis to determine local factors used in negotiations relating to operator payments. Spread costs of smartcard systems across other commercial ticketing schemes, through an integration of the retail network on offer.
  10. Continually design-in bus access to new road schemes, ensuring priority is given particularly in the City Centre and on major radials. Bid for capital funds for works which improve reliability and reduce bus journey times, backed up by on-street and bus lane CCTV enforcement. Use strong partnerships, land use planning, retail, leisure and parking policies to maintain City Centre vibrancy and the continued presence of commercially provided bus services. Not only has this reduced the need for more supported services it has even led to the commercialisation of previously supported airport and university services.

Two years on and over £2m per annum savings have been made. Nottingham is now half way to having a self-funded high quality, low emission tendered service network, maintaining levels of accessibility at 2010 levels.

The journey so far has been difficult, risky and reliant on continued support from key partners. However, compared with the alternative of a downward spiral of irreversible cuts, its been far more interesting and uplifting.