Category Archives: Public Transport

Enjoy Royal Ascot but don’t get caught short!

The final day of this year’s Royal Ascot race meeting is tomorrow. If you are planning to travel there by train from Guildford via Aldershot there is something you might want to know about:

South West Trains have replaced the usual rolling stock with sub-standard, old, worn-out carriages with no toilets! Private Train Operating Company, SWT say they recognise the need for toilet facilities on the 62 minute journey but they haven’t invested in new trains fast enough.

Travellers in Surrey are used to being forced to settle for second best, on the roads, rails and cycle routes, but this move is degrading for passengers. People tell me they work hard for a living and a trip to the races on Saturday is a small treat that they deserve. Now, the journey home could ruin the whole day. I won’t spell out what the lack of toilet facilities could mean in terms of discomfort and embarrassment.

Come on, South West Trains, if you don’t want to be known as Sub Standard Trains, give us our usual trains back!


Positive Politics – Labour’s Transport Policies for the South of England

The 2015 parliamentary campaign in the Guildford constituency is already well under way. Almost every day there is some sort of local Labour Party event. Yesterday I took time out to visit Westminster and attend the Labour Southern Group of MPs. Its chairman, Ben Bradshaw, invited Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) from the South East, South West and Eastern regions to attend.

I had already met some of the other PPCs there and it was great to swap campaigning tips and meet the hardworking MPs. I was sitting beside Mike Le-Surf and Chris Vince.

The guest speaker at the meeting was Mary Creagh MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary.

Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Transport Secretary

Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Transport Secretary

This was brilliant news because transport issues are so important in Guildford and Surrey generally, as well as in the South East. Also, I’m particularly interested because I have worked in the transport industry for the last 14 years as an airline pilot.

The Department of Transport (DfT) has an annual budget of around £13 billion, spread over a huge range of activities and including many executive agencies like the Highways Agency. Mary was completely on top of all the detail for every part of the brief. It was great to listen to how each part of the transport portfolio meshes with the others and joins up with key policies in other departments, such as housing and the environment.

What really struck me was how positive Labour’s positions on transport are. There is great scope to improve how the transport budget is spent and sustainable transportation, planned properly, could have a massive benefit to a huge number of people.

I had travelled to Westminster by train and tube after parking my car at the station car park. The preceding five days saw me fly 14 flights in and out of Heathrow, spending nights in Munich, Zurich and Newcastle. I hadn’t used boat transport recently, but I felt I understood some of the challenges we were discussing anyway!

In Guildford, we have been campaigning for a cap in the rise of rail fares. This petition has received a great response from local commuters. A big part of the discussion with Mary was “How do we get a better rail network for commuters?”. This is rightly a priority because commuters have been ripped off since 2010 and the service is inadequate. We need a “3rd way on the railways” I think. The private Train Operating Companies seem concerned only with short term profits. I was interested to hear about how they neglect the recruitment and training of new drivers. A high proportion of drivers were trained (very thoroughly) by British Rail. Where will the next generation of skilled drivers come from if the TOCs don’t take responsibility for this?

Bus deregulation has failed many communities including in Surrey. Mary spoke about how communities will have greater say in how their bus services are re-regulated. The centre of Guildford gets gridlocked frequently and only proper local transport planning can alleviate this. Sadly, for residents and businesses, Surrey County Council is not up to the task. I agree that national government should have “last resort” powers to intervene. We saw during the Christmas floods that poor transport planning and traffic gridlock actually endangered lives and property because emergency supplies could not be moved by road around Guildford.

I asked Mary about runway capacity in the South East. Many constituents depend on Heathrow or Gatwick directly or indirectly and those of us who work there are very proud of the contribution we make to the economy of the whole country and continent. David Cameron has been incredibly weak by instructing the Davies Commission not to report its findings until after the 2015 election. Hopefully there will be some progress, such as ruling out Boris Island, before then.

While HS2 has not come up on the doorsteps of Guildford yet, it is a critical issue elsewhere. Instinctively I’m in favour but we need to ensure public money is well-spent too. This is an example of the interconnectedness of transport policy. Rail connections to northern cities are vital to mitigate the overcrowding and housing problems in London and the South East. Without HS2 I don’t see a solution.

We covered so many other issues in a fast-moving stimulating discussion: cycling, transport access to hospitals, home to school transport, bio fuels in aviation, concessionary bus fares for young people to go to college, level crossings, ports and freight transport.

The key message I took was that transport policy needs to be taken by the scruff of the neck, not left to wander wherever the market takes it. It is really pleasing that Mary Creagh is so enthusiastic about what could be achieved and so positive about how we will do it after 2015.


Rail Fares Petition

Rail Price Hikes Petition To Launch in the SE – news from Labour.

Labour’s parliamentary candidates and councillors will launch a petition on Monday 6th January calling for a tough cap on rail fare rises on all routes.

Across the region in Berkshire, Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, West Sussex, Surrey, East Sussex and Kent, Labour’s General Election candidates and campaigners will take the petition to railway stations.

Under David Cameron there have been four years of inflation busting rail-fare hikes with ticket prices up 20% since 2010.
This year train tickets will increase by an average of 3.1% outside of Greater London, in Reading tickets to London will increase by 3.2% while in Deal and Dover passengers will have to pay £5,012 a year, up from £4,864.

Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Mary Creagh, will be in Dover and Deal on Monday to meet commuters and to hear their concerns.

Gordon Marsden, Labour’s Shadow Transport Minister, will be in Crawley with Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate Chris Oxlade to meet commuters during the morning rush hour at Three Bridges station.

Mary Creagh said:”David Cameron’s cost-of-living crisis continues as fares rise this week by up to five per cent, while season tickets have gone up by twenty per cent under this Government, costing hard-working commuters hundreds of pounds.

“Over the last three years David Cameron has failed to stand up for working people, allowing train companies to hit passengers with inflation-busting fare rises of up to nine per cent.”

Some of the campaign activity in your area on Monday 6 January:

Dover PrioryStation, Dover, at 7.30am.
Labour’s parliamentary candidate Clair Hawkins and campaigners will be on hand with their petition.
Deal Station, Deal, at 1.15pm.
Mary Creagh and Clair Hawkins will meet passengers after holding an HS1 Lobby event.
Chatham Train Station, Chatham, ME4 6PN, from 07.00am.
Cancelled and likely to be at Rochester now.

West Sussex:
Three Bridges Station, Crawley, West Sussex, from 8am – 11am.
Chris Oxlade and Gordon Marsden will be meeting commuters.

East Sussex:
In Brighton & Hove the local teams will launch the petition at:
Falmer Station, Station Approach, BN1 9PU, 9 to 10am
Preston Park Station, Clermont Road, BN1 6SG, 7:30 to 9am
At the Clermont Road/Station Road entrance.
Hove Station, Goldstone Villas, Hove, from 8 to 9am

Guildford Station, Guildford from 08.30am.
Labour’s parliamentary candidate Richard Wilson will be gathering signatures with some of the local Labour team.

Milton Keynes Central Station and Bletchley Station, from 7.30am
Andrew Pakes and the local campaigners will be on hand to meet commuters.

Tilehurst Station, Reading, from 07.15am.
Victoria Groulef and councillors will be at the station asking commuters to sign the petition.

Southampton Central Station, Southampton, during the rush hour.
Rowenna Davis and John Denham MP will be at the station with the petition.

The 500 Bus: Full Disclosure

I’ve had a lot of interesting information from Surrey County Council about bus services and the number 500 bus service in particular. I thought it would be useful to publish it all for passengers and bus enthusiasts to read. I’m going to editorialise as little as possible as an experiment.

Most recently, I asked about unexpected service cancellations and I can’t really disagree with:

Further to your recent query, all bus companies do have occasion when a journey fails to operate, usually for circumstances beyond their control, such as compound delays caused by traffic congestion or a road traffic accident. Occasionally, a failure may be down to a mechanical problem with the vehicle and rarer still, lack of a driver. This represents a very small percentage out of total mileage operated.

I also asked how people can find out whether the bus they are waiting for is delayed or cancelled:

Advising people that a journey is not running, whilst they are waiting at stops, is obviously a challenge. A few stops in Surrey Heath, for example, do have Real Time Information electronic screens and if used effectively by a bus company, they could show a message. As such technology becomes cheaper and more robust we do aim to increase the number of such screens, but it is a slower than ideal process, governed by funding availability; the locations have to be strictly prioritised.

Encouraging people to use public transport is vital and this Real Time Information system must be rolled out everywhere as soon as possible. Inevitably, funding pressures are mentioned but, as I suggested before, there may be ways round this.

What about the 500 bus at the moment? What should passengers do?:

The number of occasions when a route 500 journey is cancelled is extremely small. Usually, it is caused by compound delays due to unforeseen congestion in the A30 corridor – a small incident can have prolonged knock-on effect. Mr Dickson usually telephones our office to advise of the situation and any likely impact on the service, in case customers phone the Council for information, but in general instructs the drivers to cover the journey, however late they have become. The impression received is that the general reliability of the 500 is very good and negligible adverse comment is received.

A while ago I made a Freedom of Information request to find out some basic facts about the 500 bus service. Here is what SCC told me about the cost of the contract (I asked if any other council part-funds the service):

Dickson Travel only receives support from Surrey County Council. The contract is “package-priced ” with another service – the 48 from Frimley to Woking. The annual contract payment for routes 48 (one bus) and 500 (two buses) in 2012/13 is £197,854. A copy of the contract specification as issued to bidders when last tendered is attached, together with the generic Conditions of Contract applicable to all our contracted bus services.

The “Service Specification” is here.

The contract is here.


I asked about the passenger numbers on each day of the week and at different times of day:

The total number of passenger journeys made on the 500 for 2011/12 was in the region of 50,000. Disaggregated data may be obtainable from Mr Dickson. The vehicles have 25 – 27 seats.

I asked about the fares and who pays them:

The number of passenger journeys made by holders of Senior Citizen/Disabled Person passes is part of a dataset that is regarded as commercially confidential and likely to be exempt under FOI Act 2000. The amount of revenue collected may be available from Mr Dickson, if he chooses to share it, although he may well also regard that as commercially sensitive. Such information can also be exempt under FOI 2000. Free travel is received by holders of Over 60s/Disabled Persons permits and students under 16 years who are statutorily-eligible for free home to school transport. Discounted travel is received by children under 16, students aged 16-19 in full time education and resident in Surrey if they apply for and purchase a Student Fare Card and those who may purchase a period ticket from the operator.

Of course, the “Service Specification” above estimates that £300pw is received in fares.

I asked if they had ever considered making the service free:

No study has been carried out regarding making this service or any other, free to all. Universal free travel is simply unaffordable as the Council would be unable to find the additional subsidy to recompense for revenue forgone.

They provided some additional information:

Bus service 500 is not a commercially-viable proposition to any bus company. For that reason, Windlesham’s buses are specified, contracted and funded by Surrey County Council, as a socially necessary service. The service is procured by competitive tender, with the successful bidder being effectively subsidised for the difference between the cost of provision and the revenue generated. The operator retains the on-bus fares revenue and the Concessionary Fare re-imbursement.

Interestingly, they acknowledged that the closure of Windlesham branch GP surgery makes public transport more important:

The Council is always keen to promote further usage of any bus service. It currently has plans to raise awareness of, for example, the link by 500 bus to Sunningdale station, where car parking is now expensive and limited by capacity. It is also aware of and is considering the more recent requirement to travel to Lightwater for the surgery. However, the cost to the Council of adding, say, one additional bus on a service like the 500, to make it more frequent, could be in the region of £90,000 – £110,000 per year, as the likelihood of recouping the cost from extra revenue is slim. The Council is keen to explore the enhancement of services, but this must be affordable within a significantly reducing budget and must represent reasonable value for money to the taxpayer. To put this into context, a three year Bus Review has just concluded, with a requirement to reduce annual bus support expenditure countywide by £4m.

I’m glad that they are keen to enhance bus services. Hopefully with new energy and initiative at SCC we can achieve this. Next election here: 2 May 2013.

The Wheels on the Bus

The only real solution to the growing traffic and housing problems in the southeast of England is sustainable transport. This means getting as many people as possible out of their cars and onto public transport, bikes or Shanks’s pony. A vital step to achieving this is having a usable bus system.

For most of Windlesham the only bus service which connects us to the outside world is the number 500 bus. I use it from time to time and it can be quite a lonely experience. It only runs every couple of hours, hardly at all on Saturdays and never on a Sunday. The timetable is here.

Sometimes I am the only passenger who is actually paying a fare on board. The fares are high and when travelling from my house to Sunningdale railway station, if there are three passengers, it is actually cheaper to phone for a taxi. The fare structure is here.

Of all the neighbouring villages, Windlesham is the worst served by public transport. This makes the closure of the doctors’ surgery and the scrapping of the mobile library even more galling.

I put in a Freedom of Information Act request to get some facts and figures about the 500 bus. There are about 50,000 individual passenger journeys on the bus each year. So about 1,000 per week and 170 per day. About 90% of the fares are paid for by various concessions e.g. Senior Citizen passes. The actual amount of cash received each week is about £300, from the roughly 100 passengers who pay the fares.

On top of the roughly £3,000 per week which the operator receives from fares (including the concessions which are publicly refunded to the operator), they also get about £120,000 per year in subsidy from Surrey County Council to run the service. This is what is costs to make the service attractive to commercial operators.

Obviously, many of the passengers do not begin or end their journeys in Windlesham. The bus runs from Staines to Frimley Park Hospital.

The problem is that the bus is underused in an area where greater use of public transport would be of great benefit to everyone. Sooner or later radical measures will be needed to get people out of their cars. This will involve the carrot and the stick, inevitably. One such measure would be to make the 500 bus universally free to all passengers. This would encourage many more people to use it as the other options, like driving, become more expensive.

It already costs about £260,000 per year of public money and £15,000 of passengers’ money. If the operator was paid the extra £15,000 by someone else, I’m sure they would be happy to do away with collecting fares and carrying cash around all day then to the bank. In fact, they might not need all of the £15,000 because they would save on cash handling and improved punctuality if they didn’t need to collect fares. Also, if more people used the buses they would get more money for advertising space too.

So where would this £15,000 per year, or £300 per week, come from? To answer this we need to look at who will benefit. The businesses along the route could see an increase in trade and their staff could commute more easily too. There is one Waitrose store in Sunningdale and another planned for Bagshot. Perhaps they could contribute £100 per week each. For example, Frimley Park Hospital and the Lightwater GP Surgery could contribute to the cost as their patients could use it and avoid driving. South West Trains would benefit if people could reach Sunningdale railway station more easily. Windlesham Parish Council could even contribute since it would save local residents money if the bus was free.

This may be an idea whose time has not yet come but with the increasing demands on our local roads and the threat of catastrophic climate change, we need to think of radical solutions. If public transport was free, would you get out of your car?

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