EA new Consultation conducted by Essex County Council
The Essex County Council (ECC) bus budget is very tight. Nevertheless, we are assured there are no plans to ditch the 0900 start time for concessionary travel Monday to Friday, half an hour before the nationally supported provision.
Around 85% of the 'Essex' bus network runs commercially with timetables and fares determined by the individual operators. ‘Essex’ here means the administrative county of Essex, which does not include Southend-on-Sea, Thurrock, or any of the London boroughs. The remaining 15% of Essex services are not commercially viable and receive support from the public purse. Community taxpayers shoulder an annual cost in excess of £8m, of which almost a quarter is allocated to Evening and Sunday services. Many shire counties spend considerably less, and ECC continues to look for savings - for example, we gather there is a continuing debate concerning the timing of annual bus contracts - should they be linked to the financial year, or the school year?
The pressure on operators is substantial, and a DHBUG committee member has suggested it will have two major consequences: (a) a perceptible lack of investment in newer vehicles, (b) an increase in ‘zero hours’ contracts, effectively giving drivers much greater independence in determining the user experience (already perceptible in irregular short-cuts and on-board music).
ECC has launched a public consultation to discover what local residents feel about some proposed policy changes that would curtail financial support for certain bus services currently operating weekday evenings and outside the main part of the day on Sundays. There is no mention of any of the Monday to Saturday daytime services commissioned by ECC, other than to affirm the £5 cost per passenger journey criterion that has for some time been regarded as the maximum viable level of public subsidy.
MMONDAY-SATURDAY - EVENINGG
ECC proposes a new policy whereby it would generally continue to fund existing journeys on services that depart before 22:00 on weeknights (Monday to Fridays) or 23:00 (on Saturdays).
Exceptionally, ECC would be prepared to consider funding specific additional journeys starting after these cut-off times, on sections of route where there is regular support from at least six passengers (subject to the necessary funding being available from the allocated local bus budget).
That means we could lose Monday-Friday service on the Dengie section of route 31 service leaving Chelmsford at 2210 (currently terminating in Burnham at 2324) since this journey might fail to meet the loading criterion - although Saturday operations would presumably continue.
Most Sunday services run every couple of hours, but some run hourly and a few run half hourly. ECC proposes a new policy whereby all supported Sunday services would be subject to a two-hourly frequency. Bus operators could then run fewer vehicles and still (hopefully!) meet people’s travel needs but at less cost to taxpayers. The consultation asks people if a two hourly frequency would be enough for them to make the Sunday journeys they need to.
Funding would be withdrawn from journeys starting before 0800 or ending after 1900. Exceptionally, ECC would be prepared to consider funding specific additional journeys in the early or later part of the day along sections of route where there is regular support from at least six passengers (subject to the necessary funding being available from the allocated local bus budget).
This has implications for route 33 (Sundays & Public Holidays) Broomfield Hospital - Chelmsford - Southminster, which has early and late journeys that might not meet the loading criterion insofar as the Dengie is concerned.
FFINDING THE RIGHT TYPE OF SERVICEE
The consultation also invites your comments on ECC moves to broaden the ways in which services are provided, such as using smaller vehicles, demand responsive transport or taxi-buses.
ECC currently specifies conventional timetabled local bus services and standard buses to provide most of the services it pays for. Given the need to provide transport as efficiently and effectively as possible, the council is required to consider carefully what type of service best meets the travel needs in a community or area, while remaining affordable in the longer term. Conventionally timetabled services may not always be the best way to address these needs. ECC is therefore considering making wider use of services requiring smaller vehicles and of demand responsive transport: transport that runs when it is needed. The overall aim is to have a policy that allows the authority to focus taxpayer funding on those services which are most well used, yet with the necessary flexibility to deal with exceptions, thereby facilitating support for as many journeys as possible.
The principle of devolution is that services are best commissioned and delivered as close as possible to the localities they service. It works on the assumption that local community stakeholders may be better placed than distant county officers when it comes to understanding what is needed and how it can best be delivered.
ECC says it is keen to hear your views on how it could help communities, parishes, districts and local groups to take more control over where, when, and how your bus services are run. How would you feel about giving such bodies the opportunity - and the funding - to take the lead in commissioning and delivering your journeys? What sort of organisation do you think would be best placed to reflect and support the various requirements of your community, supplying the necessary expertise to ensure you can still get around the Dengie by bus? District or Parish councils, bus user groups (such a DHBUG), community transport schemes, or other local community groups?
DHBUG committee notes that such a policy of devolution would be diametrically opposed to recent moves by ECC to consolidate contracts in order to achieve best value for taxpayers through centrally-negotiated bulk purchasing arrangements. None of your present committee members has had recent experience of tender adjudication, performance evaluation, or compliance monitoring of public transport services. Is this an appropriate task for volunteers, given the multifarious legal responsibilities that would stem from members of an unincorporated body taking upon themselves such a comprehensive duty of care?
MMAKE YOUR RESPONSEE
DHBUG Committee members urge you to respond to this consultation, even if you do not currently use any of the services now under threat. Your views are important, as no-one knows what further financial constraints may yet be in the pipeline. You can find more information and respond to the consultation at: www.essex.gov.uk/local-bus-consultation - paper versions are available from Essex County Council Libraries or on request by phoning 03457 430 430 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org - the consultation will run until 22 March 2019.
MLOOKING FURTHER AHEADE
ECC will collate and summarise all responses. The transport team will prepare a report with recommendations detailing the best way forward, which may include further changes to timetables and/or routes involved. The report will be made public in Autumn 2019 and a set of revised services will be put out to tender. During the course of the tender process, operators may be asked to bid for a variety of further options. A refreshed set of contracts will then take effect from March 28th 2020.
Growing numbers of bus passengers make active use of smartphones. Their experiences are varied. Some are well satisfied; others express frustration at the instability, ambiguity and unreliability of applications designed to display bus times. But these are early days: technology advances quickly, yet erratically. Users are advised to update their phones regularly, to maintain compatibility with the latest developments. The government is currently consulting on future options, to ensure maximum benefit from open data systems. An enthusiastic DHBUG committee member reckons the situation will improve dramatically over the next few years, though at some cost to the end user (such as accepting advertisements or paying a premium charge to a third-party provider of information).
DHBUG wants to see some kind of advance notification placed on buses and at stops as a matter of routine. If Essex Highways can put a notice by the roadside to alert vehicle drivers, surely they could place information at bus stops, too. If such information were passed to DHBUG we could e-mail our local members with the closure details and ask them to pass on the news.
DHBUG has offered to post notices at bus stops on request from operators or ECC. To date, no requests have been received. It would be good to see operators make better use of new ticket machines to broadcast appropriate reminder information to drivers and perhaps even trigger onboard announcements to customers. Better use could also be made of local radio (traffic & travel bulletins).
The Chair of DHBUG has written to operators and to representatives of the Council with a request that these matters be considered as a matter of urgency. We'll let you know the outcome in due course. In the meantime, please continue to report any problems you may experience, so that we can keep tabs on what's going on. Thank you for your support and encouragement!
ENHS treatment - who determines the "point of delivery"?
We're starting to pick up signs of anxiety from local residents called to attend outpatient clinics at Braintree Community Hospital. If their appointment is early in the day, bus users may need to leave Burnham around six or seven in the morning! It's not clear just how easy (or difficult) it is to negotiate an alternative location. Yet further complications may arise in situations where the NHS is indeed able to offer patients a significantly wider choice. Broadening the range of potential medical destinations may disperse passenger loadings in such a way as to provoke a dilution of scarce public transport resources. And if significant numbers of local residents want (for whatever reason) to look beyond their nearest surgery for NHS care, would they be justified in requesting additional bus services to support their freedom of medical choice? Do let us know your feelings on these matters.
ERIDE comes to an end1
RIDE was a project by Essex County Council and FutureGov, in conjunction with a similar venture led by Suffolk County Council. The aim was to explore - alongside local suppliers - new ways to help people get out and about in a more flexible and affordable way.
To view an ECC briefing (pdf file) on this project, click HERE
To view a briefing from DHBUG committee, Click HERE
The Essex part of RIDE came to an end on 31 October 2018. We're told that important experience has been gained and we look forward to receiving detailed analysis in due course. Meantime DHBUG officers intend to submit a report on members’ experiences of ‘RIDE’. This will be addressed directly to the Department of Transport.
EMaking Connections ~ some observations by a DHBUG member1
Public transport users prefer ‘through’ journeys wherever possible. There is a palpable mis-trust of itineraries involving connections, even within a single modality. Operators’ hands are largely tied by a range of external constraints such as infrastructure (single track railways with limited passing loops), compliance (bus drivers’ working time availability), and resource limitations (the sheer impossibility of securing coherent interactions at each and every node within a disparate network).
For a variety of reasons, it is arguable that bus times should be dependent upon rail times, although rail times can vary not only at short notice but also in the longer term: for example, an extended programme of engineering works means that Sunday services on the Crouch Valley Line are regularly provided by substitute bus services that do violence to bus/rail connections at Southminster.
Public transport users want to feel “looked
after” at every stage of the travel process. The 'product' they purchase is not
simply a conveyance from A to B; it is a multi-faceted experience, one that
demands a much larger envelope than many in the business seem able to grasp. Of
particular concern is the level of support given to customers whose journey has
more than one leg – too many bus stations & railway junctions currently offer
primitive or non-existent toilet facilities, and spartan waiting rooms that are
restricted in their times of opening. Supervisory staff seem to melt away into
the darkness, leading to a heightened sense of vulnerability. Consistently
helpful and relevant communications are needed at all times, to assure and to
inform, especially in the event of disruption or delay. Customers prefer to hear
a real-time announcement from an identifiable individual rather than being
subjected to a standardised apology or instruction read from a script, or a
recording broadcast at the push of a button.
EA selection of key issues currently riding high on the DHBUG agendas
1) DHBUG has traditionally enjoyed an extremely positive relationship with First Essex Buses. In recent months this has become rather less productive. First failed to field a representative at the recent DHBUG open meeting, and were roundly criticised for this and other recent absences, e.g. from a Maldon gathering organised by ECC for parish transport representatives. It is clear from recent reports to shareholders that the company is currently engaged in a round of significant cost reductions. These include network rationalisation, office centralisation, phasing out cash payments, replacing paper records with electronic accounting systems, plus various economies of scale. Investment is directed towards “regions that genuinely offer a partnership” and vehicles are dispersed accordingly.
2) Reduced availability of printed timetable leaflets/booklets, lack of information at bus stops, problems with display sheets overflowing or slipping within cases. DHBUG committee suspects that ECC officers sign off payments to contractors without independent evidence of fulfilment - presumably because it's cheaper to rely on complaints from (unpaid) members of the public rather than employ an army of (paid) inspectors. DHBUG attempts to rectify major omissions but ECC are understandably not keen on anyone else opening their display cases.
3) The protected area around bus bays is insufficient for long wheelbase vehicles to park parallel to the kerb. This creates problems for the less able-bodied, as does the inability of minibuses with outward opening doors to position themselves against raised curbs. DHBUG thinks that ECC contracts should include a requirement for operators to use vehicles that are able to serve DDA adapted bus stops as installed by Essex Highways.
4) Congestion arising from inconsiderate parking: more enforcement is needed – but by whom? This is persistent drag upon punctuality, particularly in in Maldon High Street but also in Southminster on the corner by the Post Office. A task force is needed to identify and remove a range of hiccoughs and glitches arising at known 'pinch points’, including inadequate signage and conflicting priorities, e.g. at Maldon Promenade Park gates.
5) Ongoing debate as to the best balance between fixed timetables and Demand Responsive Transport (DRT), with particular focus on how to facilitate multi-stage journeys embracing both methodologies. See our 'making connections' paragraph above.
6) How best to service the “first/last mile”. A parallel here with the telephone - it’s close at hand, and offers a common starting point for local, national, and international calls. Similarly, every house needs ready access to viable public transport for many types of journey: perhaps a trip to Burnham Market, or maybe the start of a voyage to the other side of the world. More ‘around town routes’ (such as D4 through Burnham’s Maple Way estate) are needed to reduce distance from nearest bus stops – if people cannot find a bus within a short distance of their home then there is a greatly increased likelihood that they will use private rather than public transport for their entire journey.
7) Ergonomics - improvements are needed to help boost the clarity and elegance of information displays (timetables, network diagrams, “next bus” displays, etc.,). DRT services present a particular challenge: given that journey-planning software requires a series of theoretical departure times linked to a set of notional pick-up points, it is easy to see how information displays can incorrectly give an impression that the service is operating to a fixed-interval timetable.
8) Miscellaneous complaints about driver behaviour - please help us to help you. We cannot make much progress without details such as date & time, location & direction of travel of bus. Even an approximation is better than vague generalisations!
EOther issues sitting on the back burner but not forgottenn
a) We continue to investigate the possibility of some Sunday bus journeys to serve Burnham, but this is tricky without specific and demonstrable proof of un-met demand, i.e. time of day, origin and destination, purpose of journey and regularity of intended use (every Sunday or just now and again?. Maybe some money could be found from the tourism budget? NB these would undoubtedly have to be journeys funded by Essex County Council and not commercial operations. ECC strategy appears to start with the rail network as a ‘given’ and provides a basic bus network to complement (but not duplicate) this. Travellers must therefore be prepared to use both rail and bus to complete their journey – but there is resistance on account of poor connection facilities, the lack of free travel by train, and a lack of ‘rover’ ticket inter-availability (NB the original ECC ‘Sunday Saver’ included branch line rail travel). A well-designed diagram (not a map!) could help promote awareness of public transport.
b) At Riverview Park (Althorne) we have seen a bus stop and shelter become unusable on account of private development. This raises the broader issue of how we protect access to bus stops located beyond the public highway (private estates, schools and hospitals, out-of-town shopping developments, etc.,).
c) We have looked more than once at evening 31B /X departures from Chelmsford. There is a long gap between the 1910 (operated commercially) and the 2215 (funded by ECC). When (2010? 2110?) should we bid for, and to whom? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the 1910 has shed most of its passengers before reaching Burnham. It has been suggested that the 2215 is not quite late enough for those wishing to go to the theatre or some other evening event in Chelmsford.
d) First Bus has given guidance to its drivers concerning the handling of any conflict between wheelchair users and those with baby buggies. This follows a legal challenge that reached the Supreme Court. Should a non-wheelchair user fail to vacate a wheelchair space without good reason, the driver is expected to take further action as appropriate, including rephrasing the request as a requirement. Yet the Court confirmed that drivers have no power to require anyone to get off the bus in order to make space for a wheelchair user. The issue is clearly complex and its ultimate resolution may depend upon a new generation of buses designed to take buggies, shopping trolleys, and wheelchairs, with intelligent system management to ensure minimal delay in supplying a relief vehicle in the event of capacity problems.
e) We continue to seek the involvement of younger people (students and young workers) to encourage more of them to use the bus and to share their technological savvy with the older generations. However, progress is slow – we need a young people’s champion!
f) One of our members hopes to deliver a prototype of “the intelligent bus stop” of the future – a demonstration will hopefully be available before too long!
g) The X10 Stansted airport service from Basildon & Wickford has attracted favourable comment from our members. In tandem with train from Wickford, this offers a viable evening return route to Burnham and Southminster from Chelmsford. Traffic levels are building but the service still needs more use if it is to survive. Remember that bus concessionary passes are valid for use on the X10 and the X30 airport links.
h) Essex County Council (Highways) says it will press for shelters, raised kerbs and telematic displays wherever there are lots of new homes, the cost to be met by the developer. Is this the best use of resources, given that some of these new sites may not generate a huge amount of bus use (particularly if there is no significant increase in available services within comfortable walking distance)? Detailed terms are set by District Councils and local policies vary from authority to authority. An officer of the County Council has suggested that arrangements work best when developers talk directly to operators and a fully commercial bus service is provided from the outset. DHBUG would like to see developer payments applied not only to the immediate environs of the new site but also to the facilities available to undergird return journeys from the nearest town. This should become easier as we move into the brave new world of CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) but the timescale for this remains unclear.
EOther snippets of news & announcementss
CONCESSIONARY PASSES - a reminder from DHBUG
Most people will already be aware of the national scheme to provide concessionary bus travel for seniors, but what you may not know is that similar help can be available for disabled persons and their carers.
Possible categories of disablement include the following: Visually Impaired / Hearing Impaired / Speech Impaired / Unable to walk / Loss of use of both arms / Learning impairment that has resulted in an arrested state of development before adulthood / Unable to drive for reasons of medical fitness.
A ‘companion pass’ may be issued to those who would not be able to regularly make a journey without requiring assistance from a travelling companion to get on or off the bus, or to find information about the journey (such as a route number or when their stop is). Companion travel may be restricted or disallowed beyond the borders of the administrative county of Essex.
Medical references may be required. Before starting the process of making an application it is recommended that you consult the expert advisers at Essex County Council - their contact number is 0345 200 0388 (charged as a local call from most landlines).
ECC has taken steps to simplify its consultations, which may explain why the focus appears to be on services in the locality where each respondent lives, as opposed to areas they might visit for work, leisure, or family reasons. Typically some 75% of responses come from the over-55s, but we're told that ECC officers do their best to take note of such information as they have concerning the needs and opinions of younger people.
GETTING AROUND IN ESSEX
Much has changed since the launch of ‘Getting Around in Essex', an important report that became official Essex County Council policy in the autumn of 2015. Three key objectives have been held in focus:
· to support growth in the network by improving services;
· to maximise the economic and social benefits of services; and, for ECC, to deliver good value for money and cost effectiveness for taxpayers.
The original report indentified eight significant themes:-
1. Working in partnership;
2. Customer quality commitment;
3. Better, well-used services;
4. Support for valuable, but not commercial, services;
5. Good customer information;
6. Tailored solutions;
8. Focused local planning.
Here are some of the areas where progress is being reported by ECC:-
· Joint ticketing and planning for possible additional services in the Colchester area, funded through Section 106 agreements or run commercially;
· The roll-out of real time bus information across the county (a technically complex project requiring significant commitment from all the partners involved);
· A new bus quality standard, with gold, silver and bronze awards;
· Continuing support for valuable, but not commercial services - NB (a) the Essex network is largely (around 85%) commercial, (b) ECC gives significantly more support to the local bus network than most other councils, (c) sudden withdrawals of commercial services continue to disrupt ECC financial balances;
· A new voluntary agreement whereby operators promise 90 days’ notice of significant changes including service withdrawals, thus providing more space for ECC to explore other possibilities such as alternative commercial providers or community transport (NB the statutory requirement is to REVIEW non-commercial services and not necessarily to SUPPORT any service deemed non-commercial);
A new ECC vision for ‘transport integration’ has emerged, leading to a vision statement within an outline Business Case designed to communicate the value of a transformed future state to stakeholders: the aim, we are told, is for ECC to have “a holistic, efficient, streamlined and integrated passenger transport system which supports communities to access a range of both public and private services at a reduced cost to the taxpayer”.
A successful outcome would result in a transport delivery model that:-
· is aligned to Essex Residents’ needs;
· is sustainable over the longer term;
· is informed by a single view of transport supply and demand;
· clearly articulates ECC’s requirement of the market;
· enables improved utilisation of available vehicle capacity.
Have these objectives been realised? "Broadly, yes" says ECC, "in that we have thoroughly reviewed the supported transport network, made significant financial savings without having to make commensurate services reductions and built up better working relationships with bus operators". DHBUG understands that a "strategy refresh" is currently (2018/2019) under way. Hopefully we will have more to report in due course.
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