Sherman Rides Again: New Report Suggests Rail to Busway Conversions on Marginal Routes

Think-tank report states plan could cut fares by 40% – and guarantee seats for all

So, a seat for all passengers and a 40% cut in fares? If you’re a long-suffering rail passenger, these promises seem like welcome news. Chances are you may be jumping for joy at the prospect of extra carriages and fairer walk-on fares or season tickets.

There’s every chance you may be jumping to find your cheaper return fare and guaranteed seat wouldn’t emerge till 2020. Even more so when you find your bog-standard commuter train has pneumatic tyres and a single door at the front. Yes, folks, we are talking buses and coaches. Enviro400s and Volvo B9TLs instead of Pacers and Sprinters. Au revoir permanent way and platforms, bonjour tarmac.

In a nutshell, this sums up the 44-page report by Paul Withrington and Richard Wellings, written on behalf of the Institute of Economic Affairs. The report states how the balance has been firmly switched in favour of trains, instead of buses and express coaches. It is stated that HM Government’s £6billion annual subsidy benefits rail franchises rather than passengers. Furthermore, the paper favours greater liberalisation of transport undertakings. In other words, further deregulation where current trends are favouring the reverse.

Hmm, try telling that to the people of Stalybridge who have benefited from the modernisation of its station. How much of this wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of the Department for Transport, First/Keolis Transpennine Express (who manage Stalybridge railway station), and GMPTE (now TfGM, Transport for Greater Manchester)?

On reading the report, I noticed a sense of deja vu. Cast your mind back to the early 1980s: Sir Alfred Sherman. Remember this fellow? He was a key player in Sir Keith Joseph’s think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Back in 1983, he suggested the conversion of underused railways into roads. In place of a two-car DMU every hour, a 53-seater coach at similar frequencies. Other road traffic, as stated in the report, could be used, on payment of tolls or via metered usage. One Greater London commuter route would have been considered for conversion, with Marylebone railway station slated for closure.

Back to 2015. The summary on the IEA website states how “high levels of taxpayer subsidy are combined with poor levels of service” is dragging the network down. Many of you would be thinking of unglamorous routes, which in 1980s BR terms came under the Provincial Sector. In other words, the socially necessary services which need the subsidy, so that its residents could get to work, school, the shops or meet people. If their findings were taken as gospel, some passengers of Northern Rail’s services could see their Pacers replaced by Dennis Dart SLFs or Enviro200s. Which, if we were to use the Blackpool South to Colne route as example, would be inferior to the much derided Pacer units, let alone Sprinters!

It is also worth noting that the most successful franchise in terms of customer satisfaction, value for money and fares, is the soon-to-be-privatised East Coast franchise. Which, thanks to a Labour government, was taken into the public sector as a subsidiary of Directly Operated Railways.

It states that “commuter trains are often expensive and overcrowded”. That issue is due to a non-availability of suitable rolling stock in areas outside of London and South East England. One of the biggest railway mistakes, second only to the closure of the Woodhead line, was awarding Serco/NedRail its Northern franchise on a no-growth basis. From 2004, passenger numbers have more than doubled in the Merseyside and Greater Manchester areas alone. Hence levels of overcrowding too tight for sardines. Hence the inordinately long delays in getting a single carriage, let alone twelve over to Newton Heath depot – or electrification projects.

Though buses and coaches are the best modes of transport for responding to short term fluctuations in demand, it is rail and light rail’s ease in transporting up to 500 passengers every 10 minutes. How many buses would that require again, especially in the South East England commuter belt? If we were to use the stopping service from Manchester Victoria to Huddersfield as an example, that’s about five to six buses per hour, supposing one train had 2 x 2-car Class 156 DMUs, with the second being a 2-car Class 150 unit. And the traffic! There’s no way anyone can get from Ashton bus station to Ashton Moss in 10 minutes by road, let alone Manchester city centre!

The fact that “busways would facilitate fast and direct services into city centres from suburbs and villages not currently linked by rail” misses the point. We return to the Colne line for our example. If, for example the Blackpool South – Colne train/guided busway service has an extension to Barnoldswick or Earby, there may be issues to contend with between the franchisee and VOSA. Likewise with Transdev Burnley and Pendle for affecting its routes. Traffic issues on sections away from the guided busway would see greater delays.

In recent history, rail franchisees have arranged bus replacement transport via external partners. One exception to this has been FirstGroup’s small fleet of coaches for rail replacement buses.

It is naive to think that busways could create fast and direct routes into city centres. Using Manchester for example, a section off a guided busway could upset journey times at peak hours. This would also be especially true on match days, or on the same times as major live events.

It claims “that busway fares would be at least 40 per cent cheaper than current rail fares”. Where does that fit into the maelstrom of rail fares? Though pricey, one of the greatest advantages of our railways is a universal range of ‘capped’ fares and through-ticketing among franchises and open access operators. Alongside three standard ticketing types, franchisees are free to set special fares for its own trains (for example, a cheaper Manchester to Stockport fare is available if you only travel on Virgin West Coast services).

Busway fares are likely to eschew the standard system by the Rail Settlement Plan. Present busways in operation (Cambridgeshire) and under construction (Leigh, Lancashire) allow bus operators to use their usual fares. It is likely that the operator of bus routes along Leigh’s Guided Busway, First Greater Manchester, will have the same fares as its usual routes from Huddersfield to Warrington.

For some people, a guided busway is a second or third class alternative to a proper heavy rail route. One has to look at the anguish of passengers when they find part of their service includes a rail replacement bus. Furthermore, the people of Leigh who would have preferred a rail connection. Plus the benefits of travelling from Wigan North Western or Leigh to Whitstable without rebooking at each point of their journey.

And of course, the street furniture of a busway isn’t up to much: a glorified halt really. More people would drive to the railway station for a train, rather than change over to a bus (preferring to do the bus/train part by car).

The report states that “environmental gains could be substantial” and “more energy efficient than rail“. It states how “lower fares and a greater number of direct routes could also reduce car use.” What is forgotten are the other fringe benefits of train travel where bus and coach travel lack, such as:

  • Being able to enjoy a meal, drink or a snack en route;
  • (On long distance journeys) table seats;
  • Being able to stretch one’s legs along two or more carriages;
  • Decent toilet facilities;
  • Better disabled access;
  • (In some cases) space for bicycles and pushchairs.

There’s also another thing: some passengers genuinely dislike buses or coaches. Though modern day luxury coaches have comfort levels equalling today’s trains, there are some aspects where they are inferior, such as the bullet points detailed above. Instead of reducing car usage, areas around guided busways could see increased car usage.

On local services, there are few buses on the market (from my past experience as a bus user) which are likely to suffice on any newly created busways. The rattles of a typical Wright StreetLite would offer at best no discernible improvements on a Pacer. Furthermore, the ride quality would also depend on the surface.

Which brings us to another issue: winter operation. The spectre of black ice could stymie operations, which wouldn’t have been affected by heavy rail. Busways also need gritting vehicles: would Network Rail be able to provide them, or will this come under the local authority’s jurisdiction?

Its final point on the deregulation of infrastructure use “to liberalise the transport sector and reduce harmful government intervention” could be lifted from The 1985 Transport Act. Subsidies for socially necessary journeys – whether by bus, rail or demand responsive transport is a social good. The effects of abolishing the cross-subsidy of bus routes in Ridley’s Act can be felt in urban as well as rural areas. Whereas the 192s, 216s and 409s of this world prosper due to farebox revenues, the 197s, 217s and 419s miss out. Therefore, the network, left to a totally deregulated structure would see towns of up to 30,000 population devoid of key routes (see the loss of full time direct links to Manchester from Dukinfield).

The infrastructure of Britain’s road and rail network is too important for full-on deregulation. Planning for public transport and roads should be integrated along with shopping facilities, residential and leisure developments. Fares should be kept as affordable a level for its citizens with a greater degree of subsidy, and legislation outlawing the cross-subsidisation of bus routes should be reversed.

Getting from A to B free of traffic affordably, should be a right, and not a privilege. Heavy rail and light rail systems are by far the most effective way. Instead of converting permanent way to roadway, we should be looking at upgrading busways to heavy rail or light rail. I know of a prime candidate 10 minutes off the East Lancashire Road.

References:

  • Paving Over The Tracks: A Better Use of Britain’s Railways?: Paul Withrington and Richard Wellings (Institute of Economic Affairs, February 2015);
  • The Bell Tolls for the Brighton Line: New Scientist (04 August 1983).

S.V., 05 February 2015.

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