Bus usage in decline, but rail thrives

Northumberland retains a core route pattern of local bus services and is better off than some counties.
Northumberland retains a core route pattern of local bus services and is better off than some counties.

In preparation for the General Election, there is a movement to secure commitments to retain the bus pass for the elderly and disabled, free of charge at the point of use.

When John Prescott was put in charge of transport in 1997, he undertook to increase the use of buses as a way of reducing car mileage. Bus use had been steadily declining so he lived dangerously and set targets for achieving this.

Previously, elderly women had used buses, but now used their cars. The targets were not met so it was thought that giving the elderly free travel on buses would cut the mustard.

In practice the chief effect has been to complicate the way in which bus operators receive much of their revenue, which now comes through local authorities rather than from passengers. The operators have been complaining that local authorities keep reducing the amount they pay. The councils complain that the Government does not give them enough money, while the Government insists that it does.

Bus use is still generally declining outside London, where it is booming, with buses now carrying twice as many people as the Underground.

Perhaps the dilemma would be solved, or at least reduced, if the bus pass were subject to a flat fare of £1. This would probably still be cheaper for three or four people to travel by bus rather than share a taxi.

The chaos at some London stations during the holiday period was due to over-running engineering works. In the past, this would have been lessened because of the alternative routes available. Some of the trains might have been diverted, but this sort of flexibility is no longer available.

Engineering works are inevitable, both for maintenance and improvements necessary because of the increasing demand for rail travel, not only from passengers, but also from freight operators, who are having difficulty in finding ‘paths’ for their trains.

The troubles we experience now are partly due to the policy 50 years ago of closing duplicate routes. Replacement buses, which passengers hate, would be unnecessary if trains could be diverted. The business case for re-opening lines is therefore not wholly dependant on the level of passengers expected, but also on their value as a freight route and diversionary route.

Fifty years ago the railway network was being heavily pruned. The process took a decade, which is undue haste when you are dealing with something the size of the British railway system.

Now the process is going the other way, with stations, lines and services rapidly being reinstated.

Local groups are active in building a case for many lines which have a viable future if the business case can be proved.

Closure happened with undue haste, but the case for restoration takes much longer. Perseverance pays, however, and our neighbours to the north are about to experience success.

The Borders Railway is to re-open between Edinburgh and Galashiels (Tweedbank) next September, and another station in the Borders, closed in 1964, is due to re-open in December 2016. Reston is being re-opened as part of a scheme to re-introduce local train services between Edinburgh and Berwick. Once they settle in, their extension to Newcastle would restore local services to Northumberland. Whether this happens will depend on whether the potential users of the stations in Northumberland press for it.

The re-opening of Belford station is already in the Northumberland Local Plan, as is the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line. These are local examples of pressures all over the country for similar schemes. There is a great deal happening on the railway, from HS2 right down to little individual stations.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp? (www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Herald office.