Going down the Partnership route ...?

posted 10 May 2016, 04:47 by Roy McDonald   [ updated 10 May 2016, 04:53 ]

10th May 2016

With the ever tightening squeeze on Local Authority budgets, support for public transport services is coming under more and more pressure and we have seen many LTA’s proposing bus service withdrawals – and even the complete removal of financial support for bus services.

Under this cloud, I think we need to reassess where the bus fits within the fabric of our communities. With this in mind, perhaps it is time that we reconsidered the potential of Community Bus Partnerships (CBPs), as originally championed by, amongst others,  Prof. Paul Salveson.

The concept of Community Partnerships in the rail sector now has some history and is even embraced in some of the new franchise awards.

However, I think the development of a Community Partnership for bus is different and would present some specific challenges.

Railway lines and stations, and the trains which serve them, have a place in the hearts of many communities and readily find enthusiastic volunteers to champion their cause – especially if faced with the threat of closure. Unfortunately, the humble bus is often seen as the “Cinderella” and finds it much more difficult to engender affection.

In addition, the railway has tangible structures – stations – as part of the service provision which act as a focus for community involvement.  A bus stop pole and plate – even with a passenger waiting shelter – on the public highway is much more difficult for the community to get excited about.

In short, rail possesses a romance and a permanence, which bus just cannot hope to emulate.

The principle of a Community Bus Partnership needs to focus on involvement with a single, clearly defined, bus service, (although a service can be made up of several route variants).

In looking to develop CBPs, the objectives need to be clearly established at the outset. 

  • What would a CBP hope to achieve? 
  • What role would the “Community” play?

The answers to these questions lie, largely, in whether the bus service is commercial or supported. In general, bus operators are inherently conservative in their approach to commercial operation. Participation in a partnership with “the community” could be regarded by some with suspicion and at odds with their commercial freedoms. Others may be willing to embrace the opportunity to interact with their potential customer base.

Where bus services are supported, the potential of a CBP to increase patronage should be encouraged. Here, much is likely to depend on the basis upon which the service is contracted.

For example, if the service is contracted  on a cost reimbursement (minimum cost) basis, the contracting Local Transport Authority ( takes the revenue risk, and the operator is paid the same amount, regardless of whether he carries full loads or travels empty. In this case, the operator is less interested in growing the demand for the service – unless there is some profit sharing agreement in place. Thus, there would be little benefit, financially, to the operator of participation in a CBP.

Under a net subsidy contract, the operator takes the revenue risk, having made an assessment of the expected revenue from all sources in calculating his bid price for the contract. In simple terms, the greater the patronage and revenue, the more profit the operator stands to make. In such cases, the ability of a CBP to help to grow the market and increase patronage and revenue is in the operator’s interest – as well as in the long-term interest of the funding authority.

Returning to the objectives of CBPs, the Partnership would clearly have a major role in ensuring that awareness of the route, fares and journey opportunities are disseminated throughout the community. Service promotion is something which neither the majority of bus operators nor most LTAs are particularly good at.

Going further, the CBP can generate feedback from the communities to the Operators and LTA concerning routeing and timetabling issues.  A number of LTAs have developed Community “Champions”  - local volunteers through which information and publicity about local bus services can be channelled. Some have also encouraged “adoption” schemes for route infrastructure – bus stops, shelters and timetable display cases. A CBP could develop and build on such activities.

To be most  effective, it would be important that CBP properly represents the community it serves. Far too often Transport Consultation Fora are dominated by middle aged, middle class, male “enthusiasts” with little direct experience of the transport and travel issues of other sectors of the community. For example, any Partnership must recognise the interests of young people, shift workers and the unemployed.

It is most likely that the development of a CBP would be driven by a Local Transport Authority lead. However, most LTA Public Transport teams are under extreme stress balancing the budgets, “firefighting” service changes, dealing with concessionary travel funding issues, home to school and SEN transport issues, producing, issuing and maintaining publicity and dealing with passenger complaints. Having the staff time to devote to establishing and servicing Community Partnerships is a luxury which most do not have. A lucky few authorities do have a Community Rail Officer and, perhaps, their role could be expanded – and even shared between neighbouring authorities - to develop some pilot CBPs?

Community Bus Partnerships may be best envisaged in shire counties where there are discrete bus routes linking rural communities to Market towns. However, I think the concept could also be applied to bus services in urban areas. In the early post-deregulation years I specified and tendered a number of new bus services, taking advantage of the minibus “boom” to serve areas which previously had never had a bus service. Many of these “Happy Buses” continue to this day and are highly valued by the communities they serve.  There are many similar examples across the country.

Perhaps, some future Access and Growth Fund proposals could include funding to trial Community Bus Partnership schemes, to assess the benefits of the Partnership route?