Department of Transport figures published this week showed 44.4 million bus journeys were made in the city in 2014/15 – a drop of around 3% on the previous year – which needs putting into context.
A slowdown in the growth of passenger numbers was not unique for the city but what was unique was the number of major road schemes in the city affecting bus routes in a single year.
Naturally it was disappointing, despite all efforts by ourselves in increasing service levels, and the council in delivering new bus lanes and priorities, the operational challenges – notably the North Street roadworks and prolonged problems with real-time boards during upgrade work – did hold back passenger numbers in the second half of the year.
However, we are now seeing a turnaround. The good work being done to invest in reliability and continuing to work in partnership with the council is already producing results – we are witnessing a recovery in passenger numbers. With good progress in our programme of actions to improve customer experience and with lessons learnt, we have a positive outlook for our customers for the year ahead and beyond.
I have been asked whether ticket prices had an impact on passenger journeys, but last April we adjusted very few prices and froze all fares paid to the driver. We froze family and scholars prices and introduced new discounts like our ‘Sibling Saver’ to help families with travel costs. More discounts have been introduced since then for people starting work and free travel to assist the street homeless to access health, housing and training appointments. So no, the very modest level of increases on those fares that did increase is not part of the passenger numbers issue – which can very clearly be seen to have kicked in at the time the major roadworks schemes began to overlap, so before we even touched the fares.
There is a call to change our single fare – a fare which you can’t change buses on. There may be something in this and we are actively testing out the concept. It has long been the case you can’t change buses on a single fare all over the country, and we do offer tickets with unlimited changes of bus without a financial penalty. We have our multi-operator smart card system which we have made possible for the city. This will be extended in the year ahead helping more people to make journeys using several buses – and bus companies – all day at no extra charge. But we are trying out the switching concept on single fares in the evenings with our new QUATTRO ticket for groups of people travelling together. It allows switching of buses within one hour. If this goes well we will look at extending the idea.
It should go without saying, we are always focused on improving our service for customers to attract more customers, and I am passionate about our need to speed up the rate of bringing through improvements. I published 15 Commitments to improve service to customers when we marked the end of the North Street roadworks and gave away free travel to just over 7,500 customers. Here’s a flavour of some plans that are underway:
- The nearly finished real-time system upgrade will deliver much improved information at the bus stop, at more stops, and we will use its new features to keep passengers in the buses better informed too. Together with the council, we are now making significant progress with the supplier addressing many of the issues that have dogged the work in recent months.
- We will be buying state of the art double door buses for service 1 to combat increasing delays as our roads get slower and increasing the frequency on the service. I would see more routes converting to double doors in the years ahead to reduce hold ups at the bus stops for passengers.
- At the next opportunity, we will be restructuring some fares to make them easier and faster to also help reduce delays, and encouraging more of the remaining 20% of passengers who pay cash to switch to mobile tickets or smartcards by making it easier to buy and top up at newsagents and with self-service machines.
- Our accessibility improvement programme will continue to advance, with initiatives to help more vulnerable bus users to add to our Helping Hand card scheme and the taxi back-up guarantee we provide for passengers using wheelchairs.
- We will add to what we do at Brighton Station and Churchill Square with more dedicated people on the ground to help people, especially when there are diversions and delays, and will extend and improve the service offered by our customer unit.
- There will be more engagement with customers to improve services just as we have done in Woodingdean where the 2 and 22 have been heavily invested in and are seeing growing passenger numbers after many years of services to the area suffering issues with unreliability.
- And as our city evolves, with new attractions like i360 and the Marina development, our services will continue to be augmented provide the connectivity the city needs.
We are already seeing passenger numbers rise again on many routes. I am absolutely certain bus user numbers in the city will continue to grow and the city will stay at the top of DfT’s league table for bus use across the country, outside of the capital.
The statistics are not the issue. Our customers are the focus of our efforts to improve and we remain firm in our commitment to deliver these improvements. With the continuing positive support that the council has given the bus service over many years, there is no reason why we should not go on growing the service and its value to the economic and social life of the city.
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