What are Socially Necessary bus services?

In a previous article, I explained how much taxpayers are funding bus services which are deemed as “socially necessary”, based on the buses that Transport for West Midlands paid for to start in 2017, and which was the most expensive one, per passenger, to subsidise per passenger journey. In this article, we discuss what is a socially necessary bus service.

In the West Midlands area, Transport for West Midlands subsidise around 9.5% of bus services – in which they were paying operators more than £8million in 2014 to run services which was deemed as not being considered commercially viable (the remaining 90.5% of bus services, ones which operators operate and pay for themselves), but socially necessary, such as at weekends, early mornings or late evenings.

Now, you are probably thinking, why don’t TfWM run them instead and it is quite simple. The law in the United Kingdom states that any local authority cannot legally operate any of these socially necessary services directly, but they must put it out to competitive tenders, which have bids put in to operate them by bus operators who are registered to do so.

To do this, they must calculate the cost of running the service, using a vehicle that runs to the latest emissions standards, along with the cost of fuel and paying the drivers who will be operating the service.

Now some councils, such as Reading and Nottingham, run their own bus companies, but one of the effects of bus deregulation, back in 1986, meant that any local authority operators must operate at an arm’s length, meaning that the council cannot have any sway over the business decisions. One side effect of this is that the Freedom of Information Act, which I will be discussing in a future article, means that they must supply information which the public have a right to know, or provide a good reason why they are not providing the information.

Anyway, getting back on topic, in the West Midlands, the maximum desirable walking distance to bus services in continuously built-up residential areas is 400 metres between the hours of 7am and 7pm Monday to Saturday (two journeys per hour), and 700 metres at other times (one journey per hour).

Where possible, it has been decided that bus services should link to local centres and interchange with the wider public transport network. These distances are reduced in areas of steep sloping streets or where a high number of elderly people or people with mobility difficulties live.

In less densely populated built-up areas the maximum desirable walking distance always is 700 metres, and in rural areas 1.5km (one journey per hour).

In the image, I show how there is adequate bus services in the 400m radius for the service to be commercially operated, yet at the same time, a tendered bus service operates as a supplement to the commercial number 7. (Click to enlarge)

It is for these reasons that Transport for West Midlands subsidise bus services, to ensure that that urban estates relate to the localities, allowing for disabled and elderly people to have a bus service close to their areas.
In some cases, though, the route of a subsidised service follows an existing commercially operated bus service. One example is outside Centro House, the head office for the West Midlands Combined Authority.

Service 424, which operates Birmingham to Perry Beeches via Aston and Hamstead, follows the route of the service 7 along Summer Lane, which Centro House is on, meaning that the road is adequately supported within the TfWM guidelines.

However, the service links several interchanges with roads that are outside the 400m direct radius, therefore it is irrelevant in this case that the route duplicates a commercially operated service.

Either way, these socially necessary bus services are operated on a use it or lose it basis, so if you don’t want to lose it, please use it!

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