There is no doubt in my mind that the bus industry in the UK is under real threat at the moment. For some obscure reason it is being attacked at all levels. Increased congestion in our major towns and Cities has seen average journey times plummet. For example in Glasgow average journey times have increased by one minute a year for the last 15 years. In Birmingham services south of the City are operating significantly more slowly than ever. The inevitable consequence is that passenger numbers are falling.
Add into the mix, the implementation of Clean Air Zones, bus franchising, reduced subsidy for Local Authorities for rural bus services, the ongoing debacle with Community Transport, and it is enough to make any bus Manager reach for the Jack Daniels and ice bucket. Across England we are witnessing the closure of bus depots, and the rise of uber style urban transport, all of which chips away at the humble bus. I have been commenting on these woes for more years than I care to remember.
So, when recently I had the great honour of meeting a man whom I regard as a legend in the bus and coach world, and when he explained to me the incredible work that h has been achieving across Wales with Trans Cymru Bus network I was most insistent that this great story needed to be told. So, yesterday at the Bus and Coach Forum meeting that I chaired in London I invited Professor Stuart Cole, CBE, to give the assembled committee members a presentation on the amazing results that have been achieved since the implementation of the 9 routes that criss cross the Principality of Wales, and have quite simply transformed bus travel across Wales.
There is no doubt that prior to this project bus use in Wales had been declining for years, various reasons for it, but it had got into a dire state and something needed to be done. As the saying goes ” Cometh the Hour Cometh The Man” The Welsh Government turned to a man who has achieved a great deal in his distinguished career already. A renowned academic, a guru of transport policy, an advisor to governments around the world, an author, broadcaster, university lecturer, and fierce fan of Welsh rugby, Professor Stuart Cole was tasked by the Minister to create a network of routes to revive bus use across Wales.
And basically that is exactly what he has done, sensible networks and headways, with strong partnerships with local bus operators both big and small. Smart liveries that look like buses but are as comfortable as coaches, aided by fair and resonable ticketing systems and value for money fares have turned around the use of buses across Wales and got people back on the bus in large volumes. In addition, even more radically they have introduced free bus travel at weekends that has galvanised the leisure industry, and quite simply reversed the national trend. For me this innovation just illustrates what I have long since suspected. The bus is the cure it is not the problem.
What Stuart and his team have done with the excellent support of the Welsh Assembly and Local Authorities is just brilliant, and it just goes to show that if the intent is there then anything is possible. When I examine the UK bus landscape and the tide of woe that bus and community transport Companies are having to deal with right now. I take great heart from just what can be achieved if the political and public will is strong enough. And even better they have achieved all this at a fraction of the expected cost. When I think that the Mayor of Manchester has commissioned a survey at a cost of £11 million to assess the possibility of franchising the Manchester bus network my blood pressure goes soaring right up.
Indeed I will tell you what Mr Burnham why not give Professor Stuart Cole the £11 million quid and let him see what he can do for you. That would be money very well spent, the truth is that we can learn a lot iof good lessons from the Welsh valleys and the Land of My Fathers, it just takes a bit of political courage but clearly that remains firmly stuck in Cymru.