Tuesday, 3 September 2013

What The Papers (Sadly) Say

Politicians call it “The Silly Season”. Those lazy hazy days of summer where no one seems to do much and newspaper journalists scramble around for anything to fill their pages.
Public transport, of course, has long been a haven for such hacks to whip their readers into a ready-made frenzy. Never on time, always dirty, full of strange people. Never mind the facts, just feast on the odd perception.
This summer, they haven’t let us down.
High Speed Rail is a ready-made saga the journos can continue to reheat for many years to come, but how about this double-paged screaming headline from Midlands paper The Sunday Mercury – “The Ghost Bus Routes Which Cost MILLIONS” (their capitalisation, not mine).
Ploughing through the “investigation”, which refers to some tendered bus services in the West Midlands reveals....well....nothing really. There is also reference to concessionary pass use – “a whopping £58.5 MILLION a year” (again, their capitalisation)
We are then taken through 2 pages of facts and figures, including information such as 473,000 people are eligible for the concessionary pass in the West Midlands, and a list of what local taxi companies might charge for a similar journey – seemingly to provoke a discussion about how it might be cheaper to send a taxi to users of the bus services in question, rather than the bus itself – but this excellently debunked by Centro, which points out that “in the real world, it would be difficult – if not impossible – for all the passengers to synchronise their arrangements and travel in pairs” – the only way the paper could get it’s taxi argument to possibly carry water. Even then, Centro proves how it is still more cost-effective to subsidise a bus service than pay for taxis.
The whole “investigation” appears to have been sparked by “a bemused reader”. Listen to this printed statement:
“Until recently, I had never heard of the 288, let alone been on it. But it had been re-routed down our quiet little road and I have been able to see how many passengers are on board: hardly any or none in many cases. I have never seen a passenger get off in my road – and I have only ever seen one passenger get on. The majority of passengers seem to be travelling into Stourbridge Town Centre to go shopping....The bus service seems like a dreadful waste of money”.
Clearly someone with too much time on their hands and not a clear grasp of the facts.
In the article Centro do a good job of defending their role in subsidising their tendered services. But why take a 2-page spread with a headline that doesn’t reflect the facts?
Despite the story petering out into a nothing article, the paper’s comment column can’t help having another pop at the subsidised services.
“The cost to the taxpayer of free bus travel in the West Midlands will come as a shock to many today. The bill for concessionary travel adds up to a whopping £58.5m a year, with some passengers subsidised by up to £3.27 per journey. Clearly the cost of such services needs to be looked at to see if savings can be made. We are not against free bus passes for the elderly and disabled, and we realise the importance of propping up lesser-used rural routes. But their must come a point where we stop paying for empty buses trundling along empty roads”.
Not against free passes for the elderly and disabled? Sounds like it! “Rural routes”? In the heart of the West Midlands conurbation? Learn your geography guys!
And underlying all of this, to me, is something far less palatable.
It is, at its heart, a dislike of the social aspect bus services bring to our community.
Thatcher may have brought private, commercial bus operation. Brown may have introduced “free” travel for all pensioners and disabled people. Those issues can be argued until the cows return to the cow shed. But public transport, in all its forms, will never be 100% commercial. It needs “topping up” with public subsidy outside of the times when people go to work or shopping. It needs to be there for people who don’t live on main arteries into towns. It needs to be there for people who can’t drive a car. Or choose not to. It needs to be there to encourage people who do drive cars to try alternative methods of travel, in order to tackle the real problems our crowded roads face – congestion and pollution.
And when those “socially necessary” services are identified and procured with public money by the likes of Centro, the framework in which they operate has to be robust and cost-effective. Which Centro repeatedly demonstrates.
We don’t expect Hovis to give away free loaves of bread because it makes a profit from people who buy their product, so why do think bus operators should run unprofitable buses? And where there is a social need for a bus service, public money rightly tops up the network. It is that public money which is under severe threat at present, as councils are squeezed, then squeezed again. We should be arguing for the retention or ring-fencing of public bus subsidy cash, not listening to a curtain-twitcher who sees an empty bus go by and rings the paper up.
And why isn’t the paper looking at the comments of one Eric Pickles MP, the Communities Secretary, whose comments in recent weeks regarding parking on double yellow lines “for 15 minutes” and making town centres more car-friendly, will have the effect of even more gridlock in our built up areas. Buses deliver more people to the High Street than cars do. But that uncomfortable-to-many fact is too often ignored.
The other article that sent my blood pressure rising was in The Metro. The paper of the public transport user (it is everywhere on the network) starting rabbiting on about “real time” recording of train arrivals and departures again last week. The perfect topic for commuters to get hot under the collar about as they make their way to work.
I’ve ranted about this before (!) but I’ll recap.
Local rail services are deemed “on time” if they arrive at their destination within 5 minutes of the advertised time. 10 minutes for long distance services. I might work in the rail industry, and this might be un-PC, but what’s wrong with that?
The ACTUAL to the second information may well be interesting to those of us within the industry, to see where the issues are and look at ways to improve the service, but what purpose does it serve the travelling public?
If I get in my car in Stourbridge and decide to drive to Manchester, do I expect to arrive at my destination within a minute of a proposed time? Of course I don’t. I’ll build in a rough estimate, allowing for congestion and other unexpected issues. What is the issue with doing that by rail?
Do trains not break down? Not have mechanical issues? Do people not take ill on trains? Do objects not get thrown onto the tracks? Do people not trespass onto them? Do some people not feel life is too much they decide to end their life, tragically, on railways?
There are all sorts of reasons why road users can face delays on their journey. And the same goes for rail travellers. So why do some people feel the need to continually beat the rail industry over the head with real-time train information?
Of course we need to improve. The rail industry universally accepts that. Putting it into practice is altogether more difficult. But people – often led by poor journalism – have got to relinquish this juvenile idea that public transport operators are somehow the devil incarnate and get some warped pleasure out of delaying journeys. Often delays are for reasons of safety, and the public transport industry, touch wood, has an excellent record in recent times.
Much is made of “public money” going into public transport. The Sunday Mercury article infers as much. In rail, the Network Rail debt mountain is often scowled at. Of course we need to look at how every penny is spent, but, make no mistake, public investment in public transport has always been here, and always will be. And so it should. In London, plaudits galore. An excellent system it is too. But it is handsomely rewarded by the public purse. And now there are howls from some London Assembly members as it is suggested that Transport for London’s budget is cut.
London may be unique, but it shows just how much people rely on its transport network, and, in turn, its public subsidy to keep it at the level it operates at.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever see the end of bored journalists picking on public transport to get their readers huffing and puffing. But how about some more intelligent insight into how our public transport networks provide the backbone of our economy?
I’ll live in hope....


  1. West Midlands Campaign for Better Transport5 September 2013 at 11:12

    The Sunday Mercury article is a pretty poor attempt at journalism, but that is not to say that Centro or the bus operators should evade scrutiny where public money is involved. A far more effective piece would to have actually posed the question to Centro about how reliable and punctual the subsidised services are, how they are monitored and to ask for some figures under FOI - I believe if the reporter had asked for that they would have had a substantive story, rather than the rant of a reader (who interestingly is anonymous).

    Another question to pose is the situation since deregulation where you have routes where several operators compete. One operator usually carries most of the custom, and others who carry next to nothing other than concessionary pass holders (who are allowed to use any bus where the company is in the concessionary pass scheme - and the operator get subsidy from the transport authority and BSOG for the journey.) That is hardly a good use of resources - at least the socially necessary routes are providing useful links that the commercial bus operators with their 20% profit margins have declined to offer. But asking the question as to why the polticians of all sides have perpetuated a system of some routes experiencing excess competition, others effectively being a monopoly controlled by one operator, and some areas only having bus services at all through subsidy does not sell very many papers, does it?

  2. Well, Centro do a pretty decent job of debunking the "theory" expressed in the article!
    You pose an interesting slant with your comments about operators (some of whom I guess could only dream of something like a 20% profit margin!) - are you suggesting that any operator should run loss-making services just because they run some profit-making ones? I don't see many businesses in other fields operating such a strategy.
    The alternative of course is a Quality Contract. An interesting concept, but only if it has the guarantee of sufficient public funding and non-meddling local councillors. I have my doubts with either.