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Coach travel: why we need to get onboard

Mark Anslow

11th March, 2009

Mark Anslow explains why the Government’s bottom line is trumping our most efficient form of transport

A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure,’ goes the quote most often attributed to Margaret Thatcher. What she would have made of a man of the same age who found himself aboard a national coach service is a sentiment perhaps best kept to the Iron Lady herself.

It comes as something of an awkward surprise for most people to learn that the coach is, in fact, by far the most efficient form of surface transportation bar the bicycle. Emitting just 30g of CO2 per person per kilometre, the coach knocks the car (110g), the tram (70g) and even our beloved railways (60g) into a cocked hat.

The discovery is rarely greeted with an upswell of optimism. Rather, it tends to summon up memories of draughty, chewing-gum-mottled concourses, the acrid waft of diesel exhaust and views of stationary traffic through grimy, rain-streaked windows.

But the coach’s environmental credentials really are impeccable: not only does it have the lowest emissions on the road, but a full coach can remove up to a mile of car traffic from our motorways by simply transporting the same number of people more efficiently. This means less overall congestion, and less pollution. Add in the fact that coach transport is cheaper, safer and less resource-intensive than car use and ownership, and it becomes harder to ignore as a way of keeping us mobile in a low-carbon future.

One proposal for making our coach system faster and more appealing to travellers has been made by Dr Alan Storkey, an economist who has studied the UK transport system in detail. Storkey’s proposal, which has received enthusiastic endorsement from environmental journalist George Monbiot, has three key elements.

First, he proposes moving coach terminuses out of city centres, where they make for unbearably slow journeys through gridlocked traffic, and on to motorway junctions, where they would become hubs for interchanging services. Shuttle links – either tube, train or bus – would transfer customers from the motorway hubs into city centres.

Second, a huge increase in the frequency of coach services, from current levels of pre-booked, hourly slots to maybe once every 10 minutes, would make the service much more appealing. Such levels have been achieved by special services such as the London to Oxford ‘Oxford Tube’, but on most routes there simply isn’t the demand.

The third part of Storkey’s proposal is to give coaches priority on the roads. To start with this could simply mean that coaches would be allowed to use the hard shoulder of the motorway at around 30mph when the other three lanes had ground to a halt. When the system had grown sufficiently, dedicated coach lanes could be introduced on motorways. As car drivers began to see multiple coaches whizzing past them, the shift to coach transport would begin in earnest. Combined with road pricing, or a subsidy for the coach operators, the savings on offer could lead to a mass migration from private to public transport that would see emissions tumble. In Storkey’s own humble appraisal, ‘it’s not anything other than common sense, really’.

Storkey first proposed his plan in 1997. Today, 12 years later and notwithstanding George Monbiot’s support, we are no closer to seeing such a system. The answer to the question ‘why?’ paints a brutally honest picture of transport in the UK.

All aboard the bus network

Initially, Alan Storkey’s proposal met with a promising response. In 2000, the Government Office of the South East (GOSE) commissioned a team of consultants to look at what could be done to alleviate worsening congestion on London’s orbital motorway, the M25. Storkey, realising that an orbital coach network with a ‘necklace’ of stops coinciding with M25 junctions could be a perfect test-bed for his scheme, submitted his plan to the consultants. Unexpectedly, it was given a warm reception, and included almost wholesale alongside recommendations for road pricing and demand management in the final report, known as the ORBIT study.

ORBIT’s authors stressed: ‘We do not believe that the development of such a coach system should be left to the private sector. We consider that it should be very actively promoted by Government and that, for this purpose, a Strategic Authority could be established’.

The report went to local authorities in the South East and was generally welcomed, with recommendations that the coach proposal receive further study. A letter stating as much was sent to the Department for Transport (DfT), which responded with a resounding silence. Not to be dissuaded, Storkey phoned the department to find out what they thought of the proposal. ‘I must have contacted nearly everybody in the DfT to ask why they’ve done nothing with the proposal,’ Storkey says. ‘The only policy statement I’ve elicited from them is that they don’t believe people will want to transfer from one coach to another. They’ve got no evidence for that, and the fact that people do it all the time on the underground doesn’t count. They’re just not prepared to think about it.’

In fact, Storkey’s response was better than that given to Tim Collins, Tory MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who in 2003 dared to ask then-transport secretary Alistair Darling why he hadn’t acted on the recommendations of the ORBIT study. Darling was liberal with the sarcasm: ‘Given everything that the honourable gentleman said about bureaucracy, I am astonished that his one new policy announcement is that he wants a Strategic Authority for coaches. I should have thought that running buses and coaches was best left to existing organisations, rather than to a new quango set up to do it.’

This political knife-twist was the last time central government saw fit to engage with the issue. Fortunately, however, in 2003 GOSE and the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) decided to commission the in-depth study called for by the authors of ORBIT. The final report, published later that year, consulted with all the major coach operators and concluded that a ‘hub and spoke’ network (where hubs are interchanges and spokes the links between them) similar to Storkey’s was the best solution, combined with increased frequency of service, better-quality vehicles and stations, the introduction of a pricing system to encourage a switch to coaches and, most importantly, priority measures for coaches on the roads.

The bandwagon stalls

There were already precedents for such measures. In 1999, the Government opened a bus lane on the M4 approach to Heathrow airport that, despite being bitterly attacked by motorist lobby groups, did manage to reduce journey times for coaches and cars alike. But decisions to introduce bus and coach lanes on motorways rest with the Highways Agency, a subsidiary of the chronically disinterested DfT.

In 2004, Alistair Darling announced that the country’s first car-sharing lane would be opened by 2008 on the newly widened M1 motorway for eight miles between Luton and St Albans. This ‘high-occupancy vehicle’ (HOV) lane was to have been made available only to vehicles carrying one or more passengers. In March 2008 the scheme was quietly dropped.

The official reason given by the DfT was safety: put the HOV lane on the inside of the motorway, its consultants argued, and you risk drivers ‘undertaking’ slower-moving vehicles; put it on the outside and it blocks access to junctions. The Campaign for Better Transport points out that the schemes have worked perfectly well on the Continent and in the US, however, and its roads and climate campaigner, Richard George, believes that the Government simply ran out of cash – a theory confirmed by the announcement in January that £5 billion of motorway-widening schemes were to be shelved.

In its stead, the DfT now enthusiastically endorses (the considerably cheaper) ‘hard-shoulder running’ – opening up the hard shoulder of the motorway at 60mph during times of congestion. There’s no mention of making the hard shoulder available only to high-occupancy vehicles, except for a brief reference to an existing scheme on the junction between the M606 and the M62 near Bradford, where vehicles carrying more than one passenger can bypass the junction. There is talk of a trial to extend it on to the hard shoulder of the motorway proper, but no promises are made.

HOV lanes, and the dramatic improvement they could make for coach journeys, seem to be firmly on the back-burner.

One reason for this could be the strict econometric basis to the DfT’s strategies for relieving traffic congestion. The model it uses for its assessments, known as Transport Analysis Guidance, contains a vital fl aw: it puts a price on the wasted time of car drivers during their working day at £26.43 per hour, whereas the same amount of time wasted by a coach or bus passenger counts for only £20.22. The only non-tradesperson on the road with a lower value on his or her wasted time is the cyclist, with a value of £17. Worse still, the report from which these numbers are derived, published in 2003 by the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, computes the numbers on the basis of the drivers’ or passengers’ salaries: the wealthier you are, the more your time is worth and the more likely you are to be driving a car.

What these numbers signify, other than the crass bases of the Government’s cost-benefit analyses, is that unless environmental benefits are strongly argued for, measures to make life easier for car drivers will always win out in transport schemes. The ghost of Thatcher walks yet.

All is not lost for Alan Storkey’s coach system. Offi cials at SEERA are now pushing ahead with a coach hub at High Wycombe on the M40, which combines a ‘park & ride’ facility with a state-of-the-art coach station. Slated to open in 2012, the ‘coachway’ is hoped to encourage investment in coach road-priority schemes, but is part of what Andy Mak, planning manager at SEERA, describes as a ‘phased approach’ – policy-speak for ‘don’t hold your breath’.

What’s needed, suggests Stagecoach’s director of corporate communications, Steven Stewart, is some political pluck at a local level. ‘Many of these [road priority] decisions fall on local authorities,’ he says. ‘Politically, there’s a lot of nervousness around allocating road space to buses and coaches, and we need braver politicians to make these changes.’ And if bravery isn’t forthcoming?

‘There’s always the threat of re-election,’ says Stewart.

Mark Anslow is the Ecologist's News Editor

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

 

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