Promoting Coachway stations in a response to a Highways Agency consultation

In February the DfT announced a new consultation to ‘Cut red tape to support development near motorways and major ‘A’ roads.’ The press release seemed to focus on removing restrictions on construction near the strategic road network (with the risk of generating unsustainable levels of addition traffic). The consultation document itself was however to be more measured.

We therefore decided to use the opportunity to raise the subject of Coachways and the associated Coachway stations (we being Dr William Clayton and Dr Ben Clark of the Centre for Transport and Society at the University of the West of England, Dr Alan Storkey and myself, Peter Miller of ITO World Ltd).

Having edited the document in response to helpful comments from various parties we invited people to support our response and were very impressed with who did so. We have senior figures from the academic community and from some of the major transport operators. Do please read the response itself (26 meg download).

Subsequently we have also spoken to the Highways Agency today and they seem very open to these ideas, and indeed indicated that express coaches were definitely on their radar. They also told us that they were happy to accept updates to the document for the rest of this week.

As such, if you would like to add your name (and affiliation) as an additional ‘supporter’ on the response then please email me at ‘peter [dot] miller [at] itoworld [dot] com. It would be great to get additional support from all sectors, but especially from transport operators, local government, transport authorities, transport planners and academia.

Jam today, jam tomorrow

The Transport Parliamentary Select Committee recently published a report on road congestion titled “Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads” during which they took evidence from Mike Penning (roads minister) and Norman Baker (local transport) who seemed to present express coach as more of an irrelevant nuisance than as key tool in tackling congestion. They both implied that the fact that the M4 Bus Lane was used by express coaches rather than buses was an indication of it’s failure and was justification enough for its removal! Penning went on to explain that taxis should also not expect preferential treatment because they after all paid the same ‘road tax’ as private cars (road tax ended in 1937). They both claimed that the M4 bus lane wasn’t working even though their own research found that 21% of people coming into London made use it in a measly 7% of the vehicles. Penning ended by confirming that they had indeed been an unfair ‘war on the motorist’ and that motorists paid a lot of money for the privilege of driving and deserved better.

The tragedy of all this is that the approach they are proposing where low-occupancy vehicles have equal rights to inter-urban roads as high-occupancy vehicles is a certain recipe for jam tomorrow and for jam well into the future! What was encouraging however was that the committee didn’t seem to buy the argument. They questioned the ministers about coaches on a number of occasions and then recommended that “the Government publish early next year a detailed assessment of traffic flow on the M4 in the year since the bus lane was scrapped. If the evidence shows that the bus lane contributed to faster movement—taking account of all travellers—it should be reinstated.

Here are some key clips from their evidence.

Highways Agency publishes the M4 bus lane research

Some time ago I commented that various Freedom of Information requested that had been made relating to the M4 bus lane had not been responded to within the allotted time. I am pleased to be able to report that the Highways Agency has finally responded to their two requests.

The first request was for the earlier reports produced by the Transport Research Laboratory in 2000 and 2002, including the one year report, a three year report and an 8 page summary of the three year report. These very detailed and clear reports show in considerable detail the benefits to both bus lane users and also surprisingly for non-bus lane users. This graph from the 3 year report showing the huge benefit in reliability for bus lane users following the introduction of the lane. Reliability of journeys for public transport is very important. Where there is unreliability the operator and users of the services need to added more time added to the journey ‘just in case’. Remember that 21% of people traveling into London use the bus lane in only 7% of the vehicles so this is a big group of disadvantaged people.

M4 bus lane reliablity

In addition to reducing the variability, it did of course also reduced the journey times themselves which followed the green line before the lane opened and then dropped to a consistent and much lower level afterwards.

M4 bus lane journey times

The second request was for the research underpinning the decision to remove the lane. These have now been published on the Highways Agency website and consist of:

Do notice that the business case and various other relevant reports were published subsequent to the announcement on the 2 October of its removal. In one respect this appears an odd way round,  however it is not really so odd when one considers that this was a political decision rather than a technical one. In the same speech Philip Hammond pledged to ‘end the war on the motorist and it seems to me that this decision was a symbolic one. As a symbol it is not a promising one for this vision of a huge switch to express coach supported by new coachway interchanges.

A noticeable absence from these recent reports is any estimate as to the impact on the bus lane users which a cynic might think was because the information was not helpful to the decision that had been taken. I am, however, pleased to see that the ‘before and after monitor’ specification says: “Average journey times and the variability of journey times are key indicators in examining the impact of the removal of the M4 Bus Lane….  Additional pressure has recently been brought to bear on the TechMAC contractor to ensure that the MIDAS loops on the M4 eastbound corridor are functioning and providing data”.

This same government has of course also made very clear commitments to open up data and make government more accountable which is a huge step forward which is going to ensure that the the very near future politicians will be able to base their decisions on far more information.

And it is also trying to make huge saving in public expenditure. Personally I see a very interest debate taking place over the next year or so. In particular I look forward to seeing more recent versions of figures 10 and 14 for the periods immediately prior to and subsequent to the removal of the bus lane in due course.

A tilted playing field

Rail fares rise by an average of 6.2% but are still only covering half the cost of rail travel. The cost of an annual season ticket on the train from Oxford to London is £3880 (before the rise). By my calculaitons the government is providing a subsidy amounting to a further £3880 for this ticket.

Express coach is far cheaper and unlike trains gets very little subsidy. The cost of a season ticket on the same route is £1,200. Coach operators pay fuel tax (unlike buses) and receive no large subsidies (unlike trains) and indeed their taxes help support the rail system! The coach is slower – it is normally scheduled to take 2 hours as compared to 1 hour 10 minutes on the train due to having to compete with cars in congestion. They do however offer power sockets and free wifi increasing people’s options while traveling.

Congestion is a serious issue for express coach. This makes the removal of the M4 bus lane particularly troubling as the available official research documents show that the bus lane actually improved conditions for car drivers as well as for bus lane users. Unfortunately the FOI requests underpinning the removal of the bus lane have not been made available. The government is continuing to spend considerable sums building roads to create space for more vehicles even though it knows that this will fail to improve journey times without associated road user charging. Widening the M25 was compared to ‘digging a ditch in a bog’ by the project director of the Orbit report relating to the M25. He said: “Widening the M25 has been likened to digging a ditch in a bog – it fills up as fast as you dig” and that the widening should be accompanied by “area-wide road user charging in 2011”.

Motoring organisations  support general road user charging. The RAC Foundation says that road user charging is ‘inevitable’ as it “represents the only viable way of tackling congestion and curbing carbon emissions while also raising funds to maintain the road network”. It is therefore disappointing that the current government has pledged not to introduce any such charges in this parliament except for lorries.

Save Leicester Forest East services!

Leicester Forest East Services would make a excellent Coachway interchange for the nearby city of Leicester. There is however a serious problem which I will come to below.

The service station is on the M1 just to the west of the city of Leicester and has rear entrances on both sides of the motorway which would allow access to the service station by buses from the nearby A47 road. It also has a foot-bridge over the M1 to allow both sides to access bus services on one side if that was preferred.

Leicester currently has 22 coach services all of which use the centre of Leicester and some of which have multiple services each day. Destinations include Blackpool, Glasgow, Cornwall, Newcastle, Manchester and London. Moving these to the edge of the city would reduce congestion on the local roads and greatly improve journey times for people not wishing to stop in Leicester. There are further coach services that currently pass Leicester without stopping which could be temped to stop if the was a low penalty to their timings.

This first map shows the location of the service station, the rear access roads to the A47 and the nearby park and ride. To make this work a suitable bus service would need to be provided to the city centre. Possibly this could make use the existing park and ride bus service. It would also be useful to allow people to be collected by car. Bike and ‘car club’ hire would be a bonus. The layout of the service station would need to be adjusted to allow coaches to pick up and set down very close to the main building entrance.

Leicester Forest East services map

The map below shows coach services calling at Leicester and also ones that pass on the M1 without stopping. Notice that the ones that pass without stopping are much faster, but do not of course benefit the city.

Coach services colour coded by speed. purple is fast, green and yellow slow

The big problem is that the service station is scheduled for demolition if/when the M1 gets widened at this point and the junction with the M69 gets ‘improved’. Of course, our plans are to move enough people onto coaches that there is no need to widen the motorway. Here is a view from the Highways Agency website showing what the area would look like with a widened road and no service station!

Leicester forest removed!

Coach services from Leicester:

SB    Norwood Green (London) – Bradford City Centre
1    Wolverhampton – Gravesend Town Centre
SK1    Leicester – East Midlands Airport
3    Leicester – Gravesend Town Centre
4    Gravesend Town Centre – Leicester
5    Wolverhampton – Leicester
6    Leicester – Wolverhampton
7    Leicester – Norwood Green (London)
8    Norwood Green (London) – Leicester
230    Gatwick Airport – Mansfield (Notts)
308    Digbeth – Great Yarmouth (Norfolk)
310    Bradford City Centre – Poole (Dorset)
326    Cambridge (Cambs) – Newcastle upon Tyne
332    Digbeth – Newcastle upon Tyne
335    Poole (Dorset) – Halifax Town Centre
339    Westward Ho! – Grimsby
350    Liverpool – Clacton (on-Sea)
397    Leicester – Blackpool (Blackpool)
440    Victoria (London) – Manchester City Centre
537    Corby – Glasgow
661    Digbeth – Ingoldmells
767    Nottingham – Stansted Airport

Roads to prosperity?

In 1989 a White paper titled ‘Road for Prosperity‘ (frequently referred to incorrectly as ‘Road to prosperity’) discussed the problems of increasing transport demand and in particular increased demand from ‘road users’. It famously went on to outline the ‘biggest road building program since the Romans’ to alleviate the predicted congestion on our roads. This got both middle England and environmentalists up in arms by the mid 1990s with major road protests at Twyford Down and elsewhere with most of the remaining schemes being quietly canceled soon after.

This post is not about that period however, but there is a nugget of truth tucked away on page 2 of the introduction of the 1989 report which is worth discussing. It points out that: “The different scales of road and rail activity is also important. Road transport is responsible for twelve times more passenger travel and ten times more freight movement than rail. A 50 per cent increase in rail traffic would reduce road traffic by less than 5 per cent. Rail has an important contribution to make but it is not a panacea for congestion on inter-urban roads“. It turns out that by 2000 the situation had become even more skewed. By then distance traveled by road was now fourteen times more than passenger mileage by rail.

It is therefore a fact that to accommodate a 7% increase in passenger traffic though increased use of rail would need an expansion of rail capacity by a factor of two.

During the election all three political parties were pushing for rail expansion. In the spending review huge investment in rail was protected, including Crossrail and High Speed 2 with at £13.1 billion per year. How far is this going to get us?  High Speed rail is not attractive from a carbon perspective, it is hugely expensive, will take an age to get planned and built and there are signs that middle England is rising again. We even have the bizarre situation where those enemies, the Campaign for Better Transport and the Association of British Drivers seem to actually agree on something, ie that High Speed Rail is not a sensible project in a cost-constrained world.

The 1989 report was right that rail couldn’t deliver, its conclusion that we need a massive road’s program is of course not. We are recommending moving from cars on roads to coaches on roads. Every coach creates its own space on the road by taking cars off it. This means that we can almost use exactly the same infrastructure as that designed for use by private cars.

This will deliver big environmental, reduce congestion and increase productivity very quickly. It will benefit huge numbers of people travelling intermediate inter-urban distances all across the country, rather than focusing all the benefit on two or three major cities (London, Birmingham and possibly a few more). In this blog we will be both promoting the vision and also the infrastructure work required to deliver it. This infrastructure work is mainly about the creation of Coachway Interchanges which in some cases can be simple bus stops close to junctions, in other cases may be as fancy as the Milton Keynes Coachway.

Where is the M4 bus lane research?

Today saw the removal of the first section of the M4 bus lane between Heathrow Airport and central London as promised by the new government at the recent Conservative party conference. A ‘Whitehall Source’ said at the time that “The business case shows time savings for all current non-bus lane users during the morning peak period, with more savings during the evening peak. There is no significant change in journey times for existing bus lane users.” Sounds great.

M4 bus lane

However.. after the lane was created in 1999 the Transport Research Laboratory wrote two reports for the government (in 2000 and in 2003) which evidently found that the scheme had reduced rush hour journey times by 3.5 minutes for buses and even reduced times for cars. It also estimated that 21% of the people were able to benefit from the lane even though they were only using 7% of the vehicles.

Motorists loathed it! Jeremy Clarkson called it a ‘stupid pinko bus lane’. The Sun described it as ‘insane’. The AA described it as a ‘White Elephant’. When announcing its removal Philip Hammond, the Secretary of Sate for Transport said that ‘Nothing is more symbolic of Labour’s war on the motorist’ and  that motorists ‘sit sweltering in traffic queues watching an empty lane by the side of them with just the occasional vehicle going down it’.

Heavy stuff, so what is the truth? You may have noticed that I was careful in my description of the TRL report, I said that it ‘written for’ not ‘published by’ because it has never been published.

A total of 7 Freedom of Information requests wer made to various organisations on the same day as the announcement. They asked for the 2000 and 2003 research by TRL to be made available and also the more recent research underpinning the claims made about it’s removal. After 20 days the Highways Agency has asked for more time to respond due to ‘the complexity of the request’. The Department for Transport has not acknowledged receipt of the FOI request or responded. Transport for London responded saying that they had not been consulted on the recent decision and therefore couldn’t help.

I believe that the humble coach has a lot to offer the UK. It believe that the coach can build an intercity public transport service that rail can never deliver. It resolves congestion very effectively, it is energy efficient and it allows people to relax and work which traveling in a way that they can’t while driving.

However, we won’t get there without basing our transport decisions being based on what the data is telling us rather than what Mr Clarkson is telling us. The prime minister has spoken frequently about the importance of transparency and ‘open source planning‘. A great start would be getting the M4 bus lane research from 2000, 2003 and 2010 published as requested through FOI.

There are other sources of information. Taxi companies have of course be logging data GPS data from the route for years so that will be another route to truth. No doubt there are also many logs for coaches, motorbikes and normal cars. The bus lane is going to be out of action now for 18 month and will then be reinstated for the Olympics which will given us another opportunity to collect a load of data at which point we should be able to make an informed decision about the future of this very political bit of tarmac!


I am pleased to report that the Highways Agency published the requested information on 10 December 2010 which I have done a separate post about.

Why are statistics no longer collected for coach travel?

Wouldn’t it be useful to see what has happened to receipts from coach travel over the past few years. Unfortunately we can’t because the statistics are no longer collected.

This table is from the most recent set of data that I could find (in .xls format). but notice that there is no data for the last two entries for receipts in the ‘Other (non-local) services’ row (by which they mean coach). The associated note reads “Passenger receipts for non-local services are no longer collected”.

Why are they no longer collected? Is it because there is not enough official interest in coaches to make it worth collecting the data any more?

6.11 Bus and coach services: passenger receipts (Including concessionary fare reimbursement): 1998/99-2008/09

However… lets see what has been happening to coach receipts in the 9 year period for which receipts are available. Personally I am interested in the 36% growth in the period 1996-2001. Is the subsequent dip to do with the recession of the early 2000s or a long term trend. My senses tell me that it was a dip and that it has been going up since then. Megabus started in the UK in 2003 and Greyhound in 2009. National express announced a 2% growth in passenger numbers in 2008 so they don’t appear to be loosing out.

Coach receipts 1996-2004

Personally I think that a transport sector worth nearly £1.7billion per year, which operated 1.5 billion km vehicle miles in 2007/2008 and which pays its way, pays taxes and has grown by 24% in 6 years is worth keeping tabs on!

Read more about the recent growth in coach travel in the Wikipedia article ‘Coach transport in the United Kingdom‘ (which is well referenced and pretty accurate).