Information is lacking

Almost all candidates in the recent general election expressed their intention of pressing for better public transport in their constituency.

Sunday, 18th June 2017, 11:55 am
Interchange between buses at a meeting point in the Scottish Borders. The pattern of connections involves four routes and takes two forms, each of which happens reliably every two hours.

Some of them may even have been serious in their intention, but experience suggests that, once in office, they find that public transport improvements are very difficult to achieve.

In government, Secretaries of State rarely last long enough to achieve anything significant because the post is used as a stepping-stone on the way up, or a penitentiary on the way down. There have been one or two major exceptions.

Some people have the impression that public transport is worse than it actually is because information about it is sometimes not very good. London has been mentioned in this column frequently as an exemplar of good practice, and this is particularly true of the provision of information.

One difficulty is that the provision of information is an identifiable cost, which yields an unidentifiable revenue, so it is one the first things to suffer from budgetary constraints.

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The famous London Underground map was devised by Harry Beck, an engineer who based it on electrical wiring diagrams, and had the greatest difficulty in persuading the management to accept it, but it has been used as an inspiration by public transport operators all over the world.

The fundamental difference between London Transport and many public transport operators has been that London works up to a standard, while most others work down to a price.

There are some, like Edinburgh, who make a good attempt at copying London’s standards, but others who seem to make no attempt at all. One small cathedral city in England refused to issue timetables for its bus services because the manager said “everybody knows when our buses run”. It was obviously assumed that none of the many visitors to the city would want to use them.

Bus services in many small rural market towns are really vulnerable because they are almost always provided down to a price, rather than up to the local needs. It is a vicious downward spiral as local authority support has become necessary and the funds have diminished.

The timetable for one such route includes so many off-putting notes of the sort which have been described as ‘runs on Shrove Tuesday and Sausage Fridays only’ that even the local residents have given up on it. Similarly, running a town service every two hours is ridiculous because nobody will use it.

Better planning of these services, and particularly much better information about them, would make a world of difference to their viability.

The bus services that really do work are the longer-distance routes, which link towns and villages on a reliable frequency. It does not actually seem to matter much what the frequency is, so long as it is recognisable and reliable. Every two hours in a rural area works as well as every half hour, or even every quarter of an hour in more populated areas. The actual frequency will depend on the size of the settlements it links.

Attention has been drawn to the comfort of buses. In recent years the seating has improved enormously so there is little to complain about in this respect.

In cities, buses have little opportunity to work up high speeds, but rural areas are a different matter. Passengers have been observed hanging on to grab-rails and adjacent seats because they were in severe discomfort due to the speed at which their bus was being driven.

Many passengers are elderly, and drivers need to be aware of their needs.

One bus company manager sent his drivers out to ride as passengers on their buses, and he equipped them with dark glasses, ear-plugs and weighted arms and legs so that they would better understand what is like to be old.