By Mike Cowley
Although rail has hogged most of the headlines in terms of building the transport infrastructure necessary to make the Northern powerhouse a reality, its less high-profile cousin – the ubiquitous bus – is likely to have just as big an impact.
The bus? Who travels by bus? A lot more people than those who haven’t boarded one for decades might imagine. After all, while TransPennine Express has been heralded as the UK’s fastest-growing rail operator and is now carrying 30 million passengers annually, First Bus – its sister company in the region – already provides more than 250 million customer journeys in the North each year.
There is the potential for plenty more as well, with the once-humble bus – often seen as irritatingly unreliable by those waiting in the rain for one to arrive, or by others stuck on a musty seat in a traffic jam – being transformed to meet the demands of today’s discerning traveller.
First Bus – part of FirstGroup, the largest transport operator in the UK and the US, where it owns arguably the most famous marque of the bus world, Greyhound – currently employs 2,600 people in the North of England and contributes its fair share to the £64 billion that buses generate for the UK economy.
To ensure that the bus becomes even more important in terms of overall connectivity, First Bus has invested £50 million over the past three years to ensure more people are tempted out of their cars. Increasingly, this is happening because of new technology. The 2,100-strong First Bus fleet across Yorkshire and Greater Manchester is now fitted with the Automatic Vehicle Location system, which links with GPS technology to provide real time, next bus information – and delivered not only at fixed locations but also via mobile phone apps.
Arguably the most important breakthrough, however, is the introduction of dedicated “bus tracks” – such as the guideways in place in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. Along with bus gates and traffic light priority, these help passengers by avoiding the congestion that so regularly inhibits a journey by car. The bus track system is already helping the move towards the holy grail of transport planning: connection of buses and trains into one seamless form of public transport.
People who say “I haven’t been on a bus for years” – and there are plenty of them – are in for a surprise when they board the latest models, as the recent investment has all been about customer comfort, convenience and lower emissions. Depending on the service you are on, the new buses are fitted with Wi-Fi, luxury seating, tables on the upper deck, USB charging points (where USB is, appropriately, the abbreviation for Universal Serial Bus), plus interior and exterior CCTV.
The green credentials of First Bus are also increasingly impeccable: hybrid diesel-electric vehicles are being introduced and the first fully electric bus routes in York now serve two of the city’s six Park and Ride sites – another important part of the equation, as bus operators know that to encourage someone out of their car is an impossible dream without a convenient bus stop close to home.
In partnership with City of York Council, First Bus provides one of the top Park and Ride services in the UK, with over 4 million customer journeys per year. Meanwhile, the Leeds site, opened in June 2014, is being extended to accommodate demand.
Today, Park and Ride services offered by First Bus with Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority have achieved a recommendation rating of more than 99 per cent. Partnerships such as these, and the introduction of partnership agreements in South Yorkshire, have helped deliver the right framework to attract customers.
“Research shows the single biggest focus for public transport is to provide reliable and punctual journeys,” says Brandon Jones, head of external relations at First UK Bus (Yorkshire and Greater Manchester). “We are achieving this in partnership with local authorities, targeting congestion hotspots with a range of tools to give bus customers a reliable journey and providing an alternative to the car.
“In partnership with our rail services in the North, we see this as making a major contribution to the Northern powerhouse concept and the devolution agenda by improving access to jobs, retail and leisure.”