John Trayner is managing director of Go-Ahead London, the capital’s biggest bus service operator. We met last Friday at the company’s Waterloo garage, the most centrally-located in the capital and currently home to an all-electric fleet. The outcome of Transport for London’s review of bus services, which proposes a seven per cent cut in network capacity, was published as we spoke.
Question: We don’t often hear from London’s bus operating companies, so why have you decided to do this interview?
Answer: I’m concerned that what’s happening to the bus service and TfL’s plans for changing it is going to damage things further, so I need to get our story out there. In fairness to TfL, they are aware that we’re doing this and I don’t want to seem too critical. But I don’t think our side is being heard and, even more importantly, the bus passenger’s voice isn’t being heard either. It’s almost as if the bus service has been too much of a success story in London and everyone’s forgotten that, and it’s now almost seen as OK to start cutting it. That will start to break up the network and inevitably make it less reliable, which will mean even less people use it.
Q: How do you see the way the bus service network has changed in recent years?
A: We went through a period, probably from about 2000 when the Mayors came in, when we had massive network growth and massive patronage growth right through till 2014. Then the agenda changed slightly. We had a roads modernisation programme and a cycling and walking agenda taking more priority. These are good things, but with hindsight Boris Johnson, who was the Mayor at that time, probably tried to do too much in too short a period of time – it was about leaving a legacy, as all politicians want to.
With lots of major schemes all being done at the same time in conjunction with cycle superhighways, and the economy starting to recover so you had more buildings going up – just look at the skyline, you can see cranes everywhere – plus internet deliveries increasing, it all caused more congestion than people were predicting.
From 2014 the reliability of the bus service deteriorated. We were going slower and slower. Traffic speeds across London are about nine or nine-and-a-half miles per hour. On some services, such as Route 11, which is one of our flagships – Liverpool Street to Fulham Broadway – it was at some times a day down below four miles per hour. You could almost walk quicker. That inevitably led to patronage starting to fall. Up to that point, whoever the Mayor was, we had built a bus network to cope with the last peak passenger journey – in other words, whoever that last person was, we would be there to carry them and I would put on additional buses in order to do that, which led to record passenger numbers – 2.4 billion passenger journeys a year.
And then it changed. We became less reliable and people started to think, do I really want to make that journey any more? There was also a lot of disruption on rail services and this started to change people’s travel patterns. They started wondering if they really needed to come in to work five days a week and began asking if they could work from home instead. Fridays are now almost our quietest day. Sundays are busier, weirdly.
The Department for Transport publish stats that show we’re down, nearly, to 2.2 billion passenger journeys a year in London. So we’ve lost two hundred million in the last three-and-a-half years. And the philosophy has changed from one of always being able to carry that last passenger at the stop to a service designed more to fit customer demand. It’s a subtle change, but it means that if less people use the service, I will put less buses on. People think the TfL review is going to bring bad news. Well, a lot of it has already happened. The amount of mileage we’re running this year compared with last year is eight and a half per cent smaller.
Q: That point you’ve just made about a shift from providing a service for every last passenger to one of more precisely fitting demand sounds a bit like a shift away from a public service and towards a market service.
A: Yes. That’s a reasonable summary. And that’s a difficult one for us in that if you have a service that inevitably will leave people at the bus stops at the peak because they can’t get on, that’s a concern. If passengers can’t get on that first bus and then can’t get on the second bus, they start asking themselves, shall I get an Uber, shall I get a bike, shall I walk or shall I actually not even bother travelling? The biggest complaint about buses today is that they don’t stop, but we’re only not stopping because the bus is already full up or because we can’t get on to the stop because there’s already five buses in front. We expect those complaints to rise. And our experience is that when you start to reduce networks or start to change them or withdraw routes altogether, inevitably passengers start looking somewhere else.
The big point that we’re trying to make is that buses are the only sustainable way to move all these people around London. Crossrail is now a year late, and once Crossrail comes there’s nothing else coming up from the capacity point of view, so how will the extra people get around? My fear is that once you start to break up bus networks and start changing them every year, inevitably you end up with people finding a different way to get around.
Q: Are your views shared generally by other bus operators?
Q: TfL say they’ve taken measures to help the bus service lately. Have those helped?
A: They’ve certainly helped in answering the question, how do we make these services as reliable as we can? What I don’t think they’ve helped with is making journeys faster, which is generally about how you get the bus to the front of the queue at the traffic lights, how you use signalling in a better way to make using a bus a more attractive proposition – which, actually, is good for everyone. From the air quality point of view, whether it’s a bus or a taxi or a lorry, we’re all better off it the traffic flows.
Q: You picked 2014 as the date things began to change. There had been pedestrianisation schemes and other changes lessening road space before then. Is it simply that it all started going too fast?
A: Yes. Too many schemes all happening at the same time. We’re in competition for that limited road space with everyone else. I get that. But my argument is that if I’m carrying 80 people on a double decker bus in a ten metre by three metre block, I must be the most efficient user of space. If someone else takes that road space, whether it’s a cycle superhighway or for pedestrian movement or taking out road space because you want to calm traffic, it makes a difference.
Q: There are ferocious arguments about the effects, short term and long term, of cycle lanes going in. The cycling lobby brandishes one set of figures, the bus lobby brandishes another. Now that a lot of those lanes are working – and there are more going in, of course – what difference do you think it has made?
A: It’s always an interesting debate. I take my hat of to the cyclists as a lobby. You challenge them at your peril. They are powerful and they will put a good argument together. If I try look at it dispassionately, in the peak travel periods – two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening – I get their argument. At those times it is like the Tour de France ten times over. All those lanes are being used. But if you go to one at 11:00 in the morning, it’s an empty space. I would argue that the design of them was wrong in the first place. If they’d been retractable that space could have been given back to other road-users at another time of day. Up the road from here, by Palestra where TfL is based, the cycle lane on Blackfriars Road is as wide as a bus lane in both directions. If you go there any time of day other than in those two hours in the morning and the evening, it’s empty. That for me is a waste of public network that could otherwise benefit more people.
The other challenge I have with the cycle lobby is that it’s not as inclusive as people think it is. Generally, it is white, male, middle-class, professional jobs, expensive bike. That’s not me being judgmental at all. But, I don’t think cycling is inclusive. I look at the people I carry on my buses, and I can definitely say that they are inclusive. And their voice isn’t being heard.
Q: During the last two years of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty I was certainly aware of tensions between, shall we say, City Hall and TfL bosses about the speed with which some changes were taking place. Cycle lanes were very much part of that. When that sort of friction exists between the regulatory body and the politicians, how does it affect someone like you going about running your business?
A: That was a tough two years on a number of levels. We have an industrial relations scenario where 80-90 per cent of our workforce is union recognised and there was a tough negotiation with them during that time. We couldn’t guarantee what time drivers would finish. Five or ten minutes over, if they are held up in traffic, bus drivers will see that as part and parcel of the job of us running the service. But the number of overtime dockets they filled in if they did that overtime doubled during that period. And we weren’t talking about ten minutes anymore, but 30, 40 or 50 minutes two, three or four times a week. That caused people to leave the job or get really hacked off. From a purely industrial relations point of view it gave all operators in London a tough time. And inevitably performance suffered.
Under our contracts you get a quality incentive bonus. If it’s bad, you will get a penalty. During that 18 month to two year period, our quality bonuses went to zero. Inevitably, that affected our ability to invest in pay rises and new vehicles etcetera. So that wasn’t a good period for running our businesses or the quality of the service we were providing. And that inevitably led to a sometimes challenging relationship with the regulator [Tfl]. I was saying to them, “I didn’t dig the roads up, I didn’t agree to these schemes or the phasing of them.”
To be fair to them, we were able to agree mitigating measures that meant we could maintain a five minute service by putting more and more buses on. But overall it was just a disaster. My guys were finishing late every night and I was getting more and more complaints. The relationship between our control staff and our drivers was becoming tense and people were leaving the job. I’ve worked in transport in London now for over 40 years and it is a family feel business. I’ve got a guy who works here who’s done 53 years as a bus driver. And those sorts of people were saying. “I’ve had enough”.
Thankfully, by mid-2016 it started to improve. TfL’s budget problems have meant they haven’t been able to do all the roadworks and infrastructure stuff they intended, and we’re now taking out those additional buses we’d had to put on. But my biggest challenge to TfL is that they’ve created a business plan that still says traffic speed will remain at 9.2 miles per hour – that’s their target for the next three years – and I’m saying to them, “You’re not being ambitious enough”. The only way they’re going to get people back on board buses is a combination of us becoming more and more reliable and getting people from A to B in an acceptable time. So we’re having a debate – a good, constructive debate – about how we actually do that. And, of course, TfL has gone through a lot of painful change and a lot of experienced people have left, so they are in a difficult position as well.
Q: People say that Will Norman as cycling commissioner is a much broader thinker than his predecessor, Andrew Gilligan – far more mindful of the implications of cycle infrastructure for other transport modes.
A: With Sadiq Khan, and at the back of Johnson’s time as well, it was all about cycling and walking. Public transport seemed almost forgotten. But now it is cycling walking and public transport and the Mayor wants 80 per cent of journeys in London to be by those means over the coming years. So at least we’re getting back on the agenda.
Q: You mentioned other causes of loss of road space, such as big construction projects and the explosion of private hire licensing – Uber and so on. But I’ve heard some people argue that the rise of Uber hasn’t really made all that much difference in the wider scheme of things.
A: Well, I know a few black cab drivers. There was a time when they could earn their £200 for the day, or whatever their target was, in three hours and play golf in the afternoon. They can’t do that any more, because Uber have taken so many passengers. Now, they’ve got to work eight or ten hours a day to make their money.
Q: Which means they are on the roads more?
A: Exactly. And Uber drivers are on the same course. I feel sorry for Uber drivers in a weird sort of way. Our buses are on fixed routes, we know where we’re going and the public that use it on a regular basis know that the 253s will go into Aldgate and so on. But with Uber, if the car doesn’t come to the door in five minutes, the driver gets cancelled and someone else takes the job.
Q: Uber’s operations boss here recently said the company will help to get rid of private car use in London. What do you think?
A: I think he makes a valid point that car sharing and aggregating trips can be a way forward. But buses are still the most efficient movers of people on the limited road space that we have.
Q: Someone with a lot of knowledge in this area told me recently that an under-recognised factor in congestion is deliveries to small food retail outlets that don’t have much storage space and need a lot of topping up during the day.
A: It’s definitely a factor. And in fairness to the freight trade, and logistics providers in the widest sense, and TfL, they are doing a lot of work to consolidate deliveries and so on. To be honest, the biggest challenge all of them have got – and I have it too because some of my buses start running at four o’clock in the morning – is noise restriction orders. If it’s, for example, a small Tesco in a residential area, you won’t be able to deliver before seven or eight o’clock. And we all want that healthy streets lifestyle that has the café that doesn’t run out of pastries or coffee or milk, yet there are certain times of day when you can’t actually deliver to them.
Q: If you were in charge and in an ideal world, how would you tackle the congestion problem?
A: It’s not a popular one, but ultimately we have to price other people off the roads. Whether that is through a wider congestion charge zone or, as might start to happen in a different way through an ultra low emission zone that ultimately reaches out to the north and south circulars and affect anything going into it that isn’t Euro 6 – car, van, bus or whatever – pays a premium. There needs to be some more regulation, including of the number of cabs and mini-cabs being out on the roads, maybe by limiting the number of licences and being much more restrictive in when you can use a car, if you’re going to have a city of ten million people.
Read the outcome of TfL’s bus service review here.