So, the big day has finally arrived as the great and the good assemble at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth the second conference centre in London to hear fo the most influential people shaping the bus and coach industry at the moment. Speakers include senior politicians and the leaders of the UK’s biggest bus groups as well as cutting edge consultants and industry experts.
The agenda was relevant and highly topical addressing the key issues including the role of the bus in reducing emissions, which is a massive .opportunity for the industry, but regretably in my opinion we have not yet lobbied hard enough with the great British public that we have a key part to play in aiding the worthy cause of reducing toxic fumes into the core routes of the UK resulting directly in the early loss of human life. One bus can carry 70 people or if we prefer that is 70 cars off the streets. The problem is that the public do not see the benefits they see I fear older dirty polluting buses. This is actually a false impression, there has been huge investments in greener and cleaner hybrid and electric vehicles operating across the length and breadth of the UK.
It was interesting to note that Sir Peter Hendy in his capacity as the Chair of Network Rail contributed to the debate along with Claire Haigh and David Brown the CEO of the Go Ahead group. The truth is that we need to be leading the charge about shaping public opinion, by promoting the health benefits of reducing emissions and persuading people to think about using the bus rather than the car. Interestingly, the launch of the excellent passenger Focus survey results of the views of young people aged 14 to 17 gave grounds for real optimism about todays modern generation embracing the value of the bus in improving air quality.
The second session of the day developed the theme further still,where the Forum examined the road map to zero emissions, the panel was as expected a class act with Giles Fearnley, MD UK Bus for Firstgroup as ever eleoquently expressing his aspirations for the use of technology in vehicle design to be leading the way for vehicles that no longer use fossil fuels. the truth is that these vehicles are out on the streets already, and with a recent report stating that people buying diesel cars have dropped by 25% maybe the message is starting to get through.
The third element of the day addressed the question of why buses are central to city economics. This was very much lead by the views of some of the more enlightened members of the elected councillors including the leader of Glasgow council, as well as the leader of Wolverhampton Council, along with senior representatives of TFL, Leeds City. This debate for me is all about the hidden economics that the bus brings to the communities that they serve. Clair Haigh from Greener Journeys and others have done excellent work in this field where the real economic benefits of the bus and even more important, the bus user who actually spend their hard earned income where they live, work, shop, and play.
A small but useful anecdote supporting this theory comes from days as a Depot Manager in Hereford for Midland Red West Bus Company. back in the late nineteen eighties. I did a deal with the Manager of a large Tesco superstore that had a bus station attached to it that no one used. Due to ever worsening congestion in the City, I realised that I could actually offer a much more reliable bus network by moving my fleet of 30 minibuses into the Tesco bus station.
Which I duly did much to the consternation of many in the City, had it failed it may well have cost me my job, but we kept the faith and overnight it was a great success with reliability and punctuality improved from day one. However, there were two interesting consequences, the first was that within one year, the Tesco store in Hereford became one of the most profitable what they call “one basket” shops in the UK. The reason being that folk came in, did their business/ shopping etc, and then popped into Tesco to do the food shopping. The other consequences was that other parts of the City centre that had previously had bus stops close by noticed a significant drop in trade, ironic really as these same traders all played hell when I originally moved the minibuses to the stops close to where their shops were.
So, as is often the case lessons can always be learned from studying history, and so it was that the good folk of both Glasgow and Wolverhampton having realised the slow strangulation that congestion was having on the key routes and even worse the ever unreliable bus networks that were being impacted as a result had resulted in some tough decision making. Giving buses priority has to be part of the solution, along with good robust partnerships to promote the overall passenger solutions. It is a tough one as local politics change so frequently it is sometimes hard to keep a consistent policy, but and this is the point, if action is not taken sooner rather than later the worrying decline in bus users across the UK will continue, and sadly the Forum’s that are organised will become a diary of decline rather than what they presently are, a call to action and reform for the better.