We need to re-regulate bus services in National Parks

19 March 2018

Bus services to and around National Parks in the UK are woefully inadequate. Fares are extortionate, especially for families. Services are infrequent, and non-existent on Sundays and in the evenings. There is little if any attempt to coordinate bus timetables with trains. Buses are old and polluting, and they are hardly ever – or possibly never – wheelchair accessible. Bus stops are frequently daubed with graffiti, and if there is a timetable on display, the odds are that it will be either illegible or out-of-date, and frequently both.

Where National Parks fund bus services aimed at visitors, like the Puffin Shuttle in Pembrokeshire, they can be better. But with limited resources, these services typically only run during the peak holiday season. I can’t be the only person to have been caught out by a timetable of brain-defeating complexity, discovering too late that my bus didn’t exist because I was one Thursday too early in the year and I hadn’t studied the small print closely enough. Most people, of course, give up on rural public transport much sooner and don’t even get that far – and who can blame them?

Contrast that with the experience of holidaying in Switzerland, Austria or the northern part of the Dolomites (the Suedtirol) in Italy. In all those areas, my experience has been the same. Frequent services, which run seven days a week, right through into the late evening; services every hour or so up and down remote side-valleys, connecting impeccably with services running along the main valley; new clean non-polluting buses; timetables that are stable from one year to the next, and published a whole year ahead; real-time information at smart bus stops just a few paces from the train platform, and up-to-date clearly legible timetables at invariably well-maintained bus stops elsewhere. Fares are low – or even zero if you are in an area where the visitor levy (typically about €1.50 per night) entitles you to use buses for free.

Unsurprisingly, these buses are packed with cheery walkers, both locals and visitors, rucksacks and walking poles in hand, looking forward to a days’ hike from the top of the mountain pass up to the nearest mountain refuge, followed by several beers and a slap-up meal. Incidentally, the thousands of superbly-comfortable mountain refuges (Huetten in German-speaking countries, and rifugi in Italy) are invariably owned and run by local people, so all the money spent by bus-borne walkers is retained within the local economy. The scale of the mountain refuge economy could not be sustained if all those hikers started their day by parking at the road-head – there would not be enough space for their cars. The hikers are universally smartly turned-out, with all the latest kit. These are tourists with money to spend, and they choose places with a decent public transport service because it makes for a better holiday.

An ÖBB Postbus arriving at the train station at Imst, Austria, timed to connect with the train that arrives a few moments later.

By comparison, our offering is embarrassingly shabby and third-rate. For far too long, we have wrung our hands in the UK, bemoaned the fact that we can’t get it together like the continentals, concluded that they are just somehow more efficient than us, and given up.

But the reason these areas have better bus services is nothing to do with national character. The difference is that in all these areas, bus services are regulated by a regional transport body. Instead of our deregulated free-for-all, with commercial operators cherry-picking individual routes (the profitable ones) and ignoring the others unless the local council pays them, the rest of Europe recognises that you need to plan a bus network as a whole so that it works in the public interest. Most of these areas run their superb bus services as municipally-owned operations, although some may contract out certain services to small private bus operators – again, supporting the local economy by preferentially letting contracts to local firms. Where this is done, the privately-operated services are indistinguishable from the municipal ones – they are all part of the same coordinated, integrated network.

Regional transport bodies are also decently funded. This is hugely helped by the ability to raise funds through local taxation. In tourist areas, this commonly includes a modest daily levy on overnight visitors, collected by accommodation providers, which provides funding not just for local bus services but also for path maintenance and all the other services that visitors expect.

Now, at last, after 30 years of political vandalism that has been wrought on our public transport services by bus deregulation, the recent Bus Services Act means that it is possible for some local authorities* in England to re-regulate their bus services – although, appallingly, the Act explicitly prevents local authorities emulating European best practice by setting up their own (‘municipal’) bus companies. But even the lesser option of regulating the bus network, and offering contracts (‘franchises’) to local bus companies to provide services defined by the local transport authority, would enable a significant enhancement of bus services in our National Parks.

At this point, bus operators (even the better ones) are probably jumping up and down and ranting about the dead hand of local authority bureaucracy. So let’s also acknowledge that it’s true that over the last 30 years our government has systematically starved local authorities of funding, refused them the ability to raise income for high quality public services through local taxation (unlike the French, Germans, Austrians, Swiss and Italians), and generally done everything it can, whether by incompetence or design, to deskill and demotivate local government. So there is also work to do to build up the capacity of local authorities to be able to deliver the world-class public transport services that we so clearly need.

But there is really no other option. With Brexit making the UK feel rather less welcome to continental visitors, we are going to have to massively up our game if we want a thriving tourism economy for our National Parks. We need National Parks to come together now to campaign for the ability to raise funds through a local visitor levy, and to demand that the government supports them in re-regulating their bus services – and fast.

All the creativity, determination and dedication shown by National Park Authorities to try to improve sustainable transport is fantastic – but without vision and action to tackle these fundamental issues, National Parks can only make a difference at the margins.

By Lynn Sloman, Transport for Quality for Life

 

*The Act allows combined authorities with elected mayors to re-regulate their buses, and Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Cambridgeshire and some other areas are currently considering this option. Other local transport authorities can make a special application to the Secretary of State to allow them to do so – although since none of them have so far tried, it’s unclear how far they might get.