Commons Gate

Bus Services across the UK (HC 1317-i)

Transport Committee 21 Jun 2006

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Evidence given by Mr Brian Smith, Deputy Chief Executive, Cambridgeshire County Council; Mr Dick Helling, Public Transport Officer, Oxfordshire County Council; Mr Bill Woolley, Director of City Strategy, York City Council; Mr Paul Crowther, Public Transport Manager, Brighton and Hove City Council, Mr Tony Cross, Head of Transport Services, Lincolnshire County Council; and Mr John Hodgkins, Chairman, Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers (ATCO),Mr Roy Wicks, Director General, South Yorkshire PTE, Mr Geoff Inskip, Acting Director General, Greater Manchester PTA, Mr Douglas Ferguson, Operations Director, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, Mr Robert Smith, Services Director, PTE (Centro), Mr Mike Parker, Director General, Tyne & Wear PTE (Nexus), and Mr Mark Dowd, Chairman of Mersey Travel, Ms Clare Kavanagh, Director of Performance, Transport for London, Mr Keith Moffatt, Translink (Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company), Mr Roger Sealey, Transport Sector Researcher, Transport & General Workers' Union, Mr Gerry Docherty, General Secretary, Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, and Mr Joe Lynch, Senior Officer, Bus Users UK.

Q16 Mr. Eric Martlew: This is addressed to those of you that have two-tier local government in your area really. Talking to my local bus company they get deeply frustrated by the fact that the district council normally runs the concessionary fare and puts the money into the county council to do other things. There is great confusion there. What are your views? Is the two-tier system holding back quality contracts and improvement in the bus services in those areas?

Mr Cross: I do not think it is holding us back. I do think it would be better if the county councils in two-tier areas were responsible for concessionary fares as the local transport authorities because the district councils are clearly trying to get the best deal they can for the amount of money they have got. If operators do not receive enough revenue through that means they will seek to address that through other ways, either raising fares or dropping services which will then come back to the county council. It would be better if it was in one place.

Q17 Mr. Eric Martlew: Do you get the frustration from bus companies as well?

Mr Cross: I do not think it is the biggest issue for us.

Mr Hodgkins: I think there is a danger of treating concessionary fares and the management of concessionary fare schemes as another subsidy for the public transport industry. It is not intended that way clearly. Concessionary travel schemes are intended to reimburse operators for revenue that they would otherwise have taken through the fare box, no more and no less, but undoubtedly it is the one area of spend in support of public transport delivery that is not in the hands of the local transport authorities other than in the unitary authority areas. In that sense, one can see from examples around the country that when there was a financial pressure on the concessionary travel authority it is very easy to see that that can have a knock-on effect on the funding that is available for public transport in the round. Where there are two-tier authorities that immediate tension does not exist. It does not mean to say that the operators are necessarily comfortable with the level of reimbursement they receive but that same tension does not exist in two-tier areas as it can do in some unitary authorities.


Q46 Mr. Eric Martlew: Just following on from that - you may just have touched on it - do you think those of you sitting there are representative of the industry throughout the UK or are you sitting there because you run good authorities? If I look at the figures, bus usage is going down and yet you all have a good story to tell. I think Mr Hodgkins is probably the one for that. There seems to be a contradiction there, gentlemen.

Mr Hodgkins: If I may try and venture a fairly independent perspective on that. I suspect in many ways the cities that we have heard about are not representative of the country as a whole. From my own experience what I would say is that even in those areas where there is not total generic growth in the market, it is possible to stimulate growth in individual routes or in individual parts of the network with the strength of commitment on the part of both the bus company and the local authority to deliver that growth. It is not impossible in any stretch of the word, even in a relatively small market town of 50,000/60,000 population, to deliver 25 or 30 per cent growth on an individual route by a concentrated effort to promote and improve the quality of that service. That growth, if you are on top of the game, will continue year on year at a lower rate. It will continue at perhaps five, six, seven per cent per year thereafter provided you contain and maintain the impetus of the quality standards and the marketing and promotion of that service. That can sit, as it does in my authority, with a handful, a dozen or so routes around a network of 100 routes which overall is still showing signs of decline at two or three per cent per annum, and only in the sense of the joint commitment to investment has that been turned round on a county-wide basis to an overall picture of very slight growth year on year. However, it is growth in parts and it is decline in many of the other traditional areas which have not received that same level of investment.

Q47 Chairman: Mind you, if, as Mr Helling says, you are sending out the rural ones so the elderly cannot get in and the disabled find the facilities unusable, it is not going to be available for a lot of people, is it?

Mr Hodgkins: Indeed.


Q130 Mr. Eric Martlew: On concessionary fares, you have mentioned pensioners and many of us represent rural areas where there are a great deal of problems with young people who wish to come into the city, they are living in the villages and get a bus but cannot afford that bus. Are you saying we should be expanding the concessionary system to those groups?

Mr Parker: I am, Chairman. I think we should be able to provide cheaper fares for students, anyone in full-time education and jobseekers. If one of your objectives on transport is social exclusion then a crucial thing is the price of that transport journey. One of the frustrations that Passenger Transport Executives and local councils have had over the years is they have no control over that price. They used to, they have that control in London, but we have no control over the price and that is crucial. One answer might be to give those sorts of powers to allow us to be able to give concessions to those disadvantaged groups.

Q131 Chairman: Mr Inskip on this.

Mr Inskip: Madam Chairman, there is just one point I want to make as well. It is great giving people free travel but they have to have the buses and the services there to use them. If there are no services it is no good having free travel.

Q132 Mr Clelland: I accept that last point, but on this question of giving concessions to young people, it is possible to give concessions to students in full-time education under 18.

Mr Parker: Under 18 it is but not over 18. Over 18 it has to be a commercial decision of the bus operator, not allowed to put public subsidy in.


Q154 Chairman: Do you have formal training standards for bus drivers in your areas that you insist on from the companies?

Mr Wicks: We have done two things. One is on the voluntary quality partnerships and on the statutory quality partnerships we have asked for driver training up to NVQ standards.

Q155 Chairman: Is it accepted?

Mr Wicks: Yes. We have also opened a transport academy where we provide free training for drivers because it was such an issue in the consultation we did a year ago that we now provide customer care training and other training. Stagecoach have been very good at supporting that and First are supporting it. It does not cost them anything, we get funding from the LSC and all they have to do is provide the time.

Q156 Mr. Eric Martlew: Surely they should be paying towards this because it is to their benefit.

Mr Wicks: There are lots of things that PTEs provide that are to the benefit of the bus companies that only seem to happen if we provide them.


Q164 Mr. Eric Martlew: Can we go on a little to the recruitment and retention of bus drivers. Is that a problem?

Mr Sealey: It is a problem. It is more of a problem now outside London than in London. Transport for London have bitten the bullet there and through its contracts have allowed wages to increase in London. Although they make the comment that there is no shortage of bus drivers in London, I do not necessarily agree with that, there are still shortages but nowhere near the shortages there were in 2000 when we were getting a turnover of maybe 60 per cent in some of the garages in London. Outside of London we have still got high levels of labour turnover and retention. There is also a cost to the industry. It costs about £6,000 to recruit and train a bus driver and if they are going out as fast at the other end that is a massive cost to the industry that it is losing. We ought to be looking at how we can stabilise that and maybe transfer those costs into wages to stabilise the workforce.

Q165 Mr. Eric Martlew: Following on from that, the days of driving a bus when it was very heavy have gone, I presume they have all got power steering, but I see very few women drivers and, in fact, very few women have given evidence today, although I am glad to see this session is the exception. Why is that?

Mr Moffatt: We are putting a lot of effort into that. We have over 2,000 drivers and we have got 160 women now, that is 25 per cent more than a year ago. We have introduced new flexible rotas, part-time and term-time working, to enable more women to come in, which I think is very important. Retention is absolutely critical in the industry. I do not think there is any secret, it is about good planning and providing good opportunities and getting the wage structure right. In the past the bus industry suffered from a low wage, heavy overtime dependency type of culture and we are trying to get away from that now by improving basic conditions and improving the image of the job and that is having a positive effect.

Q166 Mr. Eric Martlew: Can I ask if the unions are proactive in this? In their evidence the T&G made reference to the average wage of a bus driver being 57 per cent of a male's wage in this country. Are the unions being proactive?

Mr Sealey: We have been and we have been successful in regard to that, but that has not been at no cost to the public. We have had to take on very hard-nosed business people who are driven by cost centres. Recently we had a dispute in Eastbourne, which is the first time I can remember bus drivers there have stopped working, and we are seeing increasing militancy across the industry and it is the only way our members see they will be able to get the level of remuneration that the job requires.

Mr Docherty: I think we would concur with what Mr Sealey has said. The whole of the transport industry is not attractive - I talking at the coal face end - and by and large does not attract female participation, it has not done for a long time. It is getting better and, to be fair, the companies are trying to do that. We have to deal with some of the social consequences of people working on their own, which a bus driver does, which someone working in a rural train station does, they are on their own and there are difficulties, assaults on staff are increasing, and we have been dealing with the British Transport Police and the rail industry to try and deal with that, but what are really needed to make the gender balance a lot better than it is are family friendly policies because, whether we like it or not, in this country the domestic burden falls on females by and large. Until companies adopt family friendly policies to take account of that then we will fail in the transport industry to rebalance that gender balance, in my view.

Q167 Mr. Eric Martlew: There has been reference made to the fact that it costs £6,000 to train a bus driver. One presumes that is to get him or her through the test. What about customer care? We have heard the bus driver is the point of contact for the company. Should there be formal training in this area and, if not, why not?

Mr Sealey: To be fair, there is in certain companies, and quite specifically Transport for London, where it is a requirement that drivers go through customer care training. We have had discussions with the Department for Transport and personally I sat on a committee for a number of months looking at this whole area of customer care but it seemed to run into the sand because one of the problems at that time was because there was such a shortage of bus drivers, as soon as the company got the driver trained they wanted them out on the road and the whole thing about customer care, route familiarisation and things like that, were, in a sense, the last thing on the agenda. There are possibilities with the certificate of professional competence coming in for building that in where drivers will have to have required training every five years, but with a £6,000 initial cost unless the company is convinced they are going to keep that person they are not going to invest more money in customer care in the short-term.

Ms Kavanagh: Training is hugely important in this issue. It is not just about driving skills, it is about customer care. As Roger Sealey has said, in London it is now compulsory that all drivers go through what is essentially an additional 40 hours of customer care, disability awareness training and so on. We had a situation prior to the introduction of the training, for example, where we had powered wheelchair ramps on all our buses but the drivers were not necessarily trained to use them. It is a vital component of customer care and also a vital component of retention because you have to make the drivers feel worthwhile, that they have a career progression, have an interest in developing their skills. We see additional training as vital.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB