Bus passengers continue to disappear in droves

Scotland leads decline with 5.8% drop

Bus demand in Great Britain fell once more in the quarter ended 31 March by 1.9 per cent, according to statistics published by the Department for Transport. The fall meant that the rolling year total went below 4.9 billion for the third quarter in a row – the lowest patronage for twelve years.

The fall was not unexpected, as the economy continued to be in the doldrums, with poor winter weather, continuing falls in high street footfall and faltering growth in the wider economy.

The DfT’s provisional seasonally adjusted estimates put total demand during the twelve weeks at 1,202 million passenger journeys, compared with 1,225 million in the same quarter in 2017, a fall of 1.9%. The figures show that demand fell by, 5.8% in Scotland, 3.7% in Wales, 2.9% in the English Shires, 1.2% in London but just 0.1% in the English PTE areas. The total for Great Britain outside London was 2.4% down on 649 million.

The longer term trends show a fall of 7.7% in the GB total for this quarter compared with five years earlier. Largest falls were in Scotland (a whopping 14.5%), Wales (10.8%), followed by London (9.0%), the English Shires (6.5%) and the English PTE areas (6.0%).

Rolling Year figures

The provisional figures for the whole year to 31 March show total demand for bus services in Great Britain at 4,852 million passenger journeys, 1.6% lower than the same figure in 2017. This is the lowest figure since March 2006, the year before free concessionary travel was extended to all areas of England.

Largest fall came in Scotland (3.5%), followed by Wales (3.3%), English Shires (2.3%), the PTE areas (2.0%) and London (0.6%).
Over the last five years, the numbers show an overall decline of 6.7% in the GB total. Wales led the downward spiral, with a fall of 10.1%, followed by the English PTE areas on 7.3%. The decline in London was 6.6% whilst the English Shires saw the smallest drop of 5.1%.

Fares

The latest fare indices, also published by DfT in December, show that in the year to September, bus fares rose by an average of 0.6% after taking account of inflation, compared with March 2017.

However, the average once again disguised some variations: the indices show fares in London continuing to fall by 2.2%, with rises of varying magnitude elsewhere. Fares rose by 2.6% in Scotland and the English Shires, 1.1% in Wales and 0.7% in the PTE areas.
Looking back over the last five years, fares in the capital have fallen by 2.7% - earlier rises under the previous Mayor are being offset by Sadiq Khan’s fares freeze and the introduction of the Hopper ticket. Elsewhere there have been real-term rises, including 10.4% in the English Shire areas, 9.0% in Scotland, 6.6% in the PTE areas and 3.4% in Wales.

Comment

The bus industry’s miserable run of patronage decline continues: the winter quarter was the fourteenth successive three-month period in which numbers declined, and one now has to go back to the summer of 2014 before there was even a glimmer of good news on this front.
Of course, the publication has led to the usual flurry of ‘something must be done’ cries, with the siren voices of the left calling for a greater degree of public control – as if the public sector was not to blame for a good deal of this in the first place, with the slashed support budgets leading to massive service reductions, cuts in BSOG and reduced concessionary reimbursement.

This is not going to change any time soon, of course. There are no spare resources from which to boost public spending on bus services – and whatever spare cash there might have been has been thrown at the NHS this week (not to mention all the cash that wasn’t spare – and indeed will have to be raised from increased taxes).

To quote Geoffrey Howe’s famous resignation speech, “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game.” Yeah, well bus company managers know all about that.

Then there’s the whole issue of congestion, and the consistent refusal to do anything which might just damage the interests of the motoring lobby. Again, this pervades the whole of the public sector. Governments of both parties have been frozen in the headlights of the fuel price rebellion since the turn of the century whilst local councillors gleefully take bus lanes out.

In truth, of course, there is a lot more going on here than public sector spending cuts or increasing congestion – a sluggish economy and a retail sector having the lifeblood sucked from it by the growth in online retail. According to the Office for National Statistics, online accounted for over 17% of all sales in the first quarter of 2018 – having exceeded 18% in the run up to Christmas. This compares with just 10% five years ago.

This is not just about travelling to go shopping, of course. Store closures such as those promised by House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer in recent weeks reduce town centre employment, and do so amongst those occupations and age groups who are most likely to use the bus to travel to and from work.

And then there’s Brexit, this fumbling and dysfunctional government, the railways (another fine advertisement for the public sector – witness Network Rail) and Trump and the Russians. Not exactly the time for any sort of feel good factor, is it?

Joking aside, I can see no reason on the horizon as to why the underlying decline should cease any time soon. The economy is not going to pick up quickly, retail sales will continue to move online and overall demand for travel will continue to fall.

My best advice for industry managers at the moment? Send Peter Shipp best wishes for a happy retirement… and follow him. As soon as possible.

An extended version of an article published in Passenger Transport magazine.

Bus Patronage in Great Britain by Area for the last ten years

Bus Patronage in GB for the last decade

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