One of the odd things about having a fairly long career in public transport is that you occasionally forget about some of the things you did, until you see a random file or photo, or something else happens in the world to jog your memory.

By complete coincidence I deleted some old files at the end of last week; then this week we get Bus Back Better, the government’s big plan to improve bus services.

Let’s leave aside for the moment that it was a Conservative government that deregulated bus services outside London in 1986, or that the Boris Bus is no longer in production, having been proven to be not all that good in practice…

The wheels on the bus…

Around 12 years ago, roughly, West Yorkshire PTE/PTA wanted to introduce Statutory Quality Bus Contracts (video). These were allowed for in the relevant legislation, the Transport Act 2000. It would provide for competition for the market rather than competition in the market. If you look at Leeds for example, there’s competition in the form of two national bus operators along Dewsbury Road and York Road but a monopoly on Otley Road and practically everywhere else. So much for competition.

Other aspects of the scheme included changing the lights at busy junctions when a bus approached. This could be done with road side balises, although it soon became possible to do that through ticket machines which combined the function of transmitting the vehicle’s location for the new-fangled real-time bus tracking system with issuing tickets. Clever.

There would be much more emphasis on multi-operator tickets rather than operator-specific ones. Catch the first bus that turns up, don’t only wait for the First Bus.

And so we did some consultation, with the councils and with the public. I myself ended up on the concourse at Leeds Bus Station and hidden away somewhere in the Ridings Centre in Wakefield, with a couple of colleagues, handing out leaflets and answering questions. You’d be surprised at the number of bus drivers who thought that it was a good idea.

Our MPs were in favour. The Councils were in favour. Popular opinion was with us. And we never got Quality Bus Contracts. We didn’t even get the lesser Quality Bus Partnership.

…go round, and round, and round…

Now, we reach Bus Back Better. A document that says we should have bus franchising (i.e. Quality Contracts) or Partnerships as a fall-back.

Now: I’m not saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat its failures. The two reasons we failed were, firstly, that the PTE/PTA would have had to take on the financial risk, in case an operator failed to deliver. We also had to get the scheme through the Quality Contract Scheme Board, as prescribed in the Transport Act 2000, which wasn’t easy and open to objection from the bus operators who had most to lose. The first attempt to do that was by Nexus in the north east… in 2015.

Perhaps the mechanism will be easier this time round, but I won’t be holding my breath. Everyone wants cheaper fares, even in the Peoples Republic of South Yorkshire where fares are considerably lower than in West Yorkshire or Greater Manchester (and have been since the 1980s).

Unlike travelling in your own car, travelling by bus means travelling with up to 70 strangers, with their leaky iPods, muddy feet on seats and who knows what else. As I often said: the problem with public transport was, in general, not the transport. Or you could take your life in your hands and cycle. I know many who do.

But we also shouldn’t delude ourselves that we’re going to reach those halycon days of 35 years ago, when bus patronage in West Yorkshire was 350m journey per annum. I haven’t seen any figures for a few years, but five years ago they were hovering around the 100m mark. If people travel less for work those numbers aren’t going to increase; Leeds has a “15 minutes from everything” policy so that people can walk to work, walk to the shops, walk to health & leisure facilties and not drive anywhere. If they don’t need to drive, they don’t need to take a bus either…