Where the Roads Run Red: The Future of London’s Buses (Part 1)


Earlier this year the London Assembly Transport Committee decided to investigate both the current state of and future prospects for London’s bus network. Their investigation process involved two public meetings at City Hall, an online survey inviting bus passengers to share their views, submissions from interested parties and some specific investigations by Committee members into known problem areas. The Transport Committee issued their report on Monday 28 October 2013. It sets out a number of recommendations for the Mayor and TfL to consider and to respond to.

There’s been a bit of a gap since London Reconnections last looked at London Buses, so this seems an opportune moment to look at the transport mode that actually carries the most people in London on a daily basis. In this series of articles we will look at some of the recent history for London’s bus network, the concerns raised during the investigation process and TfL’s immediate response. We’ll also cover the recommendations the Transport Committee have set out for the Mayor and TfL to consider.

Where have we come from?

London’s bus services have a long history, with many developments and changes over the years. The bus network and its operation have always been influenced by external parties such as the Metropolitan Police and in more recent times by politicians and lobby groups. You could spend many column inches discussing whether these influences have been good or bad for the bus passenger but ultimately that is not the purpose of this article. It is, however, worth taking the time to look at the last 10-12 years of Mayoral control of London’s buses via Transport for London’s management of the network.

It is worth stating that London’s bus services are unique in mainland Britain in being subject to public control and for being fully contracted. London escaped the policy of bus deregulation which Nicholas Ridley, then Secretary of State for Transport, imposed on England, Scotland and Wales via the 1985 Transport Act. Outside London private bus companies decide what services they wish to operate and are free to compete with each other. Local authorities are left to decide if they wish to fund socially necessary services which the market does not provide. They also fund concessionary fares for older people and the disabled in accordance with the requirements of the applicable National Concessionary Travel Scheme. In London the Boroughs fund the Freedom Pass scheme. Other concessions such as Veterans Passes or free child fares, provided under Mayoral direction, are typically funded from TfL’s budget.

In London TfL are responsible for specifying the bus network with each route being specified in terms of frequency, hours of operation and vehicle type. TfL tenders the operation of its entire network and private operators run the services. The former LT Buses operation was privatised in the 1990s hence all operators are in the private sector. The short lived publicly owned “operator of last resort” East Thames Buses, established to operate services previously run by Harris Bus, was sold to London General in October 2009 during Boris Johnson’s first term as Mayor.

A well-known success

It is widely acknowledged that London’s bus network is a success story given many years of network development, solid and sustained levels of patronage growth, good all round service levels and affordable fares with convenient ticketing arrangements (primarily the Oyster Card). Many local authorities outside London look on enviously at London’s arrangements and despair of their own lack of control.

With the election of the first Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in 2000 there was a deliberate policy decision to boost the bus network in the short term to provide additional capacity and create new journey opportunities. The wider policy context was recognition that capacity on the Underground and Rail networks could not be increased quickly given the need for significant infrastructure upgrades and procurement of new trains. It was also seen as a way to provide capacity in advance of and alongside the introduction of the Congestion Charging Zone.

TfL also introduced more accessible buses on the network and changed the contracting regime to drive up service quality and performance levels. The Mayor also froze bus fares for several years in his term, although fares did rise considerably in his second term from 2004-2008.

Some highlights on patronage levels, the annual subsidy cost and bus fares during Mayor Livingstone’s tenure are shown in the table below.


Taken from the TfL business plans and TfL response to Parliamentary Question

If the bus network had helped contribute to the success of Livingstone’s first term, some changes to routes in his second term were to prove a factor in his 2008 electoral defeat. These were the phased withdrawal of Routemaster buses and replacement with one person operated vehicles. On the very busiest routes articulated single decker buses, the so called “bendy buses,” were introduced with open boarding, cashless operations. These changes proved to be controversial and formed part of a tough election campaign in which the Conservative candidate for Mayor, Boris Johnson, pledged to remove the bendy buses and restore a “new Routemaster” vehicle with open rear platform to London’s streets. In May 2008 Boris Johnson was duly elected with these commitments as part of his manifesto. It is not our intention to explore the rights or wrongs of these choices here – it is perhaps fair to say that the internet and media have hardly been silent on both topics!

Meet the new boss…

In many respects Mayor Johnson continued his predecessor’s policies, although there was perhaps less coherence in the transport policy framework – there were commitments to remove part of the congestion charge zone in West London, to improve traffic flow for motorists and to reduce TfL’s expenditure. Apart from removing bendy buses and creating what became the “New Bus for London” (NBfL) there were few headline bus policies. The most overt was a pledge to create orbital express bus routes but this foundered after a trial of “better orbital bus services” with route X26 which runs from West Croydon to Heathrow Airport via Sutton and Kingston. While the X26 trial of improved frequencies generated considerable extra patronage, this was insufficient to offset the considerable extra costs and the scheme did not pass TfL’s business case criteria. While the improved service on the X26 has been retained no further creation of express services has happened. This is because such routes are likely to require considerable levels of subsidy which cannot be afforded. The clamour for such routes from passengers and politicians, however, has not abated.

The Subsidy falls

Mayor Johnson’s tenure has seen a considerable reduction in the bus subsidy – the money that “tops up” that taken from direct fares in order that the necessary bus services can be delivered. It has also seen a policy of annual above inflation fare increases, but also continued growth in patronage on the bus network. The scale of service expansion has slowed considerably although services in some areas of London have continued to see some improvements. The other major area of development has been a progressive increase in the number of hybrid buses which have lower emissions thus helping the effort to improve air quality. The original intention was that all buses purchased after 2012 would be hybrids but this commitment was quietly dropped as the cost of hybrid buses did not fall as quickly as expected. The policy is now split between buying the New Bus for London, hybrids and euro6 specification buses. In addition, some of the older euro3 spec buses are being upgraded to euro5 standard to further improve the environmental performance of the bus fleet.

Some highlights on patronage levels, the annual subsidy cost and bus fares during Mayor Johnson’s terms are shown in the table below. We will know soon what the numbers are for 2013/14.


Taken from the TfL business plan and TfL response to Parliamentary Question.

In order to achieve the reduction in bus subsidy TfL have had to balance fares revenue against the cost of running the network. The huge increase in subsidy in Ken Livingstone’s era was driven by several factors – capping fares levels, boosting service levels, increasing bus staff pay to improve recruitment and retention, buying accessible buses and expanding the network. There were also extra contract costs following the introduction of Quality Incentive Contracts which incentivised operators to provide good service performance in return for bonus payments. What was clear was that initially operators earned good levels of bonuses as performance targets were relatively easy to meet and their bids included extra resource to deliver the service quality.

In the Boris Johnson era TfL have tightened performance levels to make them more “stretching” and have negotiated down the numbers of buses needed to deliver the contracted performance level. This has reduced contract costs. The competitive element of the tendering process has also been used to lower contract costs while the option for 2 year extensions (based on previous good performance) has also seen some service improvements squeezed out of operators in return for the longer contract term. The less obvious element has been the removal of any large scale service improvements and a progressive trimming of peak service levels where this has not been readily noticeable. This means several trunk services in the central area have seen peak frequencies reduced in order to save money which has funded increases to suburban services in the Outer Boroughs. Some of the early conversions from bendy bus operation to double deckers saw very generous numbers of buses provided and this over provision has been pulled back once patronage levels became clearer post conversion. The few areas of more marked bus service improvement, for example at Stratford City / Olympic Park or Chiswick Business Park, have been funded by Section 106 payments from developers. TfL itself has not been able to fund these changes.

Beginning to look forward

All of this recent history will obviously play a part in what comes next – something we will begin to look at in the next article. It should also be remembered that all these bus policies took place against an important backdrop, one that remains largely true still today – growth in London’s population and relatively buoyant economic performance within the capital which has supported the continued growth in bus usage. This has meant that bus services are becoming busier, leading to overcrowding and a risk of longer wait times as full buses run past stops. London’s population is forecast to see continued growth thus increasing further the risk that the bus network fails to keep pace with demand, something that brings with it a potential for the unravelling of many years of positive performance.

Another relevant statistic to drawn upon is the relationship between population growth and use of each transport mode. The Travel in London report produced by TfL shows the highest ratio of trip generation to population growth is for buses. This means as London’s population expands, buses come under the most strain.


Travel in London report 2012

Ultimately, it is this overall background of rising demand and pressure to reduce costs that prompted the London Assembly Transport Committee to return to the subject of bus services and launch their investigation – and is to their report that we will turn in part 2.

Written by The Walthamstow Writer