Bus pass extension did not deliver on numbers

Image for  transport column
Image for transport column

A NEW year – a fresh start. With the general election now less than 18 months away, the politicians are beginning to think up which policies will win them most votes.

Pensioners are known to be the group which can be most relied on to vote, so the ‘grey vote’ is one to be pursued with particular vigour.

One benefit which the elderly have gained in recent years is the country-wide bus pass.

This was up-graded from the pass which allowed free travel on buses within and to and from the holder’s residential area.

Even the new pass has some anomalies, such as the residents of Berwick being able to use it to travel to Land’s End and The Lizard, but not northwards beyond Eyemouth.

Some people are under the mistaken impression that this benefit was granted from a sense of beneficence to pensioners, which would have made it an (apparently) altruistic gesture on the part of the Government.

In fact, it arose from the fact that when New Labour became the Government in 1997, John Prescott became responsible for transport policy, and he set targets, including one to increase the number of bus passengers substantially.

Although the number of passengers on trains was rising fast then, as it still is now, the number of passengers on buses remained virtually static overall.

In London, numbers rose, thereby indicating that outside London they were actually falling.

The targets were not only not being met, but they were failing to be met by an increasing margin.

The Government put on its thinking cap.

Who were the people with limited incomes, but plenty of time?

Of course, the pensioners, so give the pensioners free travel and they will flood onto the buses and the targets will be met. Right? Wrong!

People of whatever age will only use buses if they are useful to them, even if they are free to use, and as bus services have gradually been withdrawn, the number of passengers has continued to fall disproportionately.

There is a sharp division between ‘main-line’ bus routes and local services in sparsely populated areas, and from an economic point of view it is right that public funds should not be used to support services which people clearly do not want or need.

The solution to this is to revive the post bus, which was really useful until the Royal Mail and the local authorities could no longer agree the level of support required, and to introduce some form of taxi-card for the elderly in rural areas.

This needs to be combined with the revision of the taxation structure to make the provision of taxi-buses easier.

This was first made possible by the Transport Act 1985, but the few that were started then did not last long because of the VAT rules, whereby bus fares are zero-rated while taxi fares are subject to the full standard VAT rate.

One of the major disadvantages of buses compared with trains is that trains operate during the whole of the waking day, while many bus services operate only during the working day, if as much as that, so although you can still reach many places by bus, you often cannot get back the same day.

After the bus pass valid in local authority areas failed to fully achieve the object of hitting John Prescott’s targets, the Government’s next step was to widen the availability from local to national.

Surely that would do it? But no, not really. All that has happened is that when people are away from home they travel free instead of having to pay.

Any additional travel by pensioners is simply masking the fact that more and more younger people are travelling by bus less and less.

Bus drivers now often find that at the end of a really busy run, the amount of hard cash they have taken is hardly anything at all.

This is not an argument against the elderly having the bus pass.

It can be really useful for them to be able to use buses freely for all sorts of purposes – provided there are some buses for them to use, but it has been suggested that the cost should come out of the social budget rather than the transport budget.

The wealthy continue to use their cars and consider it somehow demeaning to use buses.

One really popular misconception is that the provision of the bus pass for the wealthier elderly is a misuse of Government funds. It isn’t, because the pass costs nothing until it is used.

It can still be cost effective to give passes to the wealthy in congested areas if they will use them because it helps to relieve traffic congestion and atmospheric pollution.

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 Herald readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Herald office.