In my latest piece for Passenger Transport I take a trip across Wales by bus to see how public sector innovation has already led to big increases in patronage – providing a template for how the future of buses could look under public control.
As you’ve probably noticed, it’s all happening in Wales. Of the four nations of the UK, Wales is taking by far the most progressive and coherent approach to transport. Making pretty speeches about climate is easy. Taking bold action at scale is what real leadership looks like. So when you hear transport organisations talk green it’s always good to check the annex of their documents to find out what they are actually spending their money on. Often those annexes are full of sprawl distributing road schemes. Not in Wales. Not anymore. And whilst some back off when the going gets tough Wales has stuck with its plan for a default 20mph speed limit – keeping its eyes firmly on the prize of cutting the carnage hidden in plain sight that fast moving cars and lorries can cause.
But, if you are going to tackle car dependency you need a public transport network that people see as a serious proposition. So as well as pledging a planned and integrated bus network (of which more later), Wales is taking a rail network that had languished for years in do-minimum Pacer purgatory and is giving it a comprehensive upgrade. The Valleys will have a modern electrified rail service whilst a new fleet of smart and comfortable Class 197 diesel units will give longer distance routes a shot in the arm. In a story that says a lot about the change that’s afoot, when one of the new trains pulled in at a Valley line station for the first time passengers stepped back because they thought it couldn’t be their train as it was too good for them.
There’s always a but though and this ‘but’ is that Wales is facing a financial crisis. The Welsh Government’s annual budget is £20bn – and more than half of this goes on health and social care. This overall budget (which is set by the UK government) hasn’t kept pace with inflationary pressures. This problem got far worse when the UK spring budget lopped a further £900m off its value in real terms. Transport (to keep the rail network going) and health were the only two budget heads to escape cuts in the resulting emergency budget in October. But with so little wriggle room on budgets rail poses an ongoing conundrum.
Anything to do with rail is rarely cheap. To cut costs on rail on the revenue side it’s hard to make really significant savings without dramatically shrinking networks and getting rid of associated infrastructure costs altogether. And on the capital side we are in the middle of a network overhaul with all its attendant day to day operational problems (TfW has tumbled to the foot of the GB rail passenger satisfaction league) as well as the risks of cost overruns.
It’s in this context that Welsh Government support for bus services has been feeling the squeeze. No doubt at this point many of the dwindling number of deregulation fans will be besides themselves with excitement that this shows why franchising is too risky when public authorities can be subject to periodic funding scares and alarms. But they say that because they never acknowledge one of the key arguments for bus franchising which is that it’s a mechanism for ensuring more efficient use of whatever public funding there is. One way (not the only way) it can do this is by turning ‘plate of spaghetti’ networks, which reflect the competing ambitions and interests of different operators, into more coherent networks. In other words: same number of vehicles, same budget, enhanced networks, simpler to understand, more passengers.
It’s important to rattle round on the actual buses themselves rather than just do the meetings and read the papers about them, so I went to see this for myself as part of a north-south traverse of Wales by bus from Bangor to Carmarthen. A trip that took me to Snowdonia on a misty October day where its mountain path access points and honeypot attractions were still busy with walkers and with more sedentary tourists having a ride out. Although it was busy it was nothing like as bad as it can get at its peak with police called in to tow cars and enforce some kind of order on out of control roadside parking.
All of which helped in rallying support for the revamped Snowdon Sherpa network which I used to get out and about in the National Park as well as to meet some TfW colleagues who had helped make it all happen. Sitting in a cafe in lovely Beddgelert they explained how the network had been redesigned based on a systematic analysis of the journeys people were making. The end result was taking a complex and uninspiring network of three tenders for nine routes (where services duplicated and didn’t connect) and turning it into a simplified five-route network through a single tender, where services do connect and do run at regular headways. It’s worked. Patronage has gone up by a third between ‘21/22 and ‘22/23.
Travelling on it you can see why. This isn’t a typical rural bus service – where you feel like you are on your own to contend with a ghost of a service – more symbolic and residual than a realistic proposition for anyone other than stubborn diehards like me. This was a confident and assertive network doing a job well – giving locals access to opportunity and visitors a green way to get into the mountains as well as to the visitor attractions. A similar rigorous process is taking place to shape the future of bus networks across Wales: it is looking at how the resources which are currently employed on local bus services could be more efficiently used to create better integrated, simplified and more attractive bus networks.
Given the bus reform legislation will take time to go through the Senedd this is being implemented (as far as it can be within a deregulated environment) with local authorities via a ‘bridge to franchising’ approach in North Wales – where the vast majority of services are franchised on a route basis anyway. All of this will help pave the way for comprehensive roll out of the approach elsewhere in Wales when the powers are enacted.
After my Sherpa side mission I was back on the TrawsCymru network to get to Carmarthen. When combined with the rail network, the TrawsCymru network creates innumerable options and connections criss crossing the country (there just isn’t an equivalent in, admittedly, much larger England, though there is in Northern Ireland and to some extent in Scotland). But good as the TrawsCymru network coverage is – some of the fleet that provides it is overdue replacement. The high-spec, all electric, TfW-liveried T1 (Aberystwyth to Carmarthen) shows the level of ambition. Compared with the other buses at a drizzly Aberystwyth bus station it looked like a spaceship had landed.
There’s deep rural and then there’s some of the parts of Ceredigion and Carmarthen that the T1 passes through. In many parts of GB this kind of territory would be lucky to have much of a bus service at all. But here the launch of the new T1 bus fleet was accompanied by a rethought and enhanced timetable and fares offer as well as ongoing promotion and marketing. The result: nearly 40% more passengers in April to September 2023 compared with the corresponding period in 2022. Alongside Sherpa it’s another example of how public sector innovation can do what can often seem impossible: grow bus patronage dramatically in rural areas. All based on coming up with a well thought through service that passengers have confidence in.
There’s a long and arduous journey ahead to give Wales the modern, integrated and accountable public transport it needs. The going has got tough. But Sherpa and T1 show what this future looks like. I couldn’t be more on board for it.
This article was first published in Passenger Transport magazine and a pdf of the illustrated version can be found here: https://jonathan-bray.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/November-23.pdf