Aisha Iqbal: The phantom menace of vanishing Leeds buses

PIC: James HardistyPIC: James Hardisty
PIC: James Hardisty
I had an odd and quite rare experience at Leeds Civic Hall this week, where I was confronted with a panel full of transport bods being all contrite and honest about the failings in Leeds's bus network.

It disconcerted me a little bit, and at the same time filled me with hope.

It’s election time, but none of the people who were talking in these terms were up for election, so vote winning wasn’t behind it.

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I guess there just comes a time when we realise collectively that to address our failings, we have to listen to what other people say. If only this could be applied to other things in life, and in politics. But I digress.

Regular readers of this column will know that buses in Leeds annoy me. Boy, do they annoy me.

And I speak as someone who has, on several occasions, abandoned my car deliberately in an attempt to start using public transport. But I always go back to my motor, and here’s why.

On more occasions than I care to list, I have been waiting at a bus stop in the city centre, rain drizzling down, but heartened by the fact that the next number ‘1’ service is 4 minutes away according to the ‘real time’ display. Just to double check, I’ll send a text message to the SMS information service, and yes, all is good.

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But four minutes later, it hasn’t turned up. Not to worry, I think, probably just a slight delay.

But then, the dramatic denouement to my bus drama...we are in some kind of weird wormhole or reverse time loop, and the next bus is now 30 minutes away!

It’s happened far too many times for it to be put down to just a few bad days.

So it was good to see the ‘phantom buses’ issue - and the seeming epidemic of unreliable, delayed and disappearing services in Leeds – become a central talking point this week.

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Leeds City Council’s internal watchdog, its investment and infrastructure panel (previously known as City Development) has been holding regular sessions on Leeds’s bus provision for the past two years.

And I’ve religiously attended and covered these sessions, because, if I haven’t said already, Leeds buses annoy me. And I know they annoy - but are essential to - so many other people in Leeds.

But this is the first time I have seen such honest, (mostly) jargon free, self-critiquing conversation on the issue at a public meeting.

It’s no great or newly insightful point to make when I say that a reliable, efficient and cheap bus service is absolutely vital to the city’s future prosperity, and the opportunities that people in the city can have access to when they have means to get to them.

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But even more vital is the need to connect our communities to each other.

If I want to get from the south of the city to the north, I have to take two buses. So I’ll more than likely take the car.

But my woes are miniscule compared to those people who don’t own cars - and need to get to hospital and GP appointments or job interviews or indeed jobs - and have to take three or even four buses to get there. As one observer noted quite rightly, “until we have greater connectivity within communities, we are going to fail all ends up”.

Ultimately it has a lot to do with giving people a reason to leave the car at home.

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Less cars means less congestion, and less congestion will mean faster, more reliable buses.

But interestingly, a survey by this very paper revealed that a third of households in Leeds don’t even own cars.

And the city’s biggest firm, First, admits that more than half of its passengers have no other means of transport.

We HAVE to get our bus network right.

I was glad to hear some genuine and honest admissions this week that Leeds’s services are not up to scratch, and there are just too many late and unreliable services.

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Faults in the technology behind the ‘real time’ displays were cited as a factor in the ‘phantom’ buses issue. I think that means the buses never existed in the first place? If that is the case, that is totally unacceptable. Might it even be false advertising?

A pledge was made to make the network “more robust” (ok, I’ll let them have that one bit of jargon) and to “invest more time in the schedule”, as well as to pump money into a better spare fleet which can “jump in” when needed.

The meeting was also told that the operators “measure every lost mile” - and will later this year be publishing detailed figures on missed services. They say they want to be “transparent” and willingly be “held to account” - hallelujah to that.

But while all of this is great, I’m somewhat at a loss as to why it’s taken up to now to deal with these frankly appalling issues.

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Admissions were also made at this meeting, by the way, that drivers’ shifts as they currently operate are not ideal, and are being reviewed. The ever present bugbear of citywide congestion was also apportioned much of the blame for the wider issues, but it’s obvious that many of the problems are with the operations side of things.

As I said, it’s all rather disconcertingly, disarmingly honest, but I genuinely hope it will lead to results.

Here’s the crux of the whole matter though.

It was also revealed that the number of bus passengers in West Yorkshire has absolutely plunged over the last decade, with West Yorkshire the region with the worst decline. People are voting with their feet and that surely has to be a major wake-up call for operators and politicians alike.

Admittedly the other English regions also saw a drop. Only London saw its bus patronage improve in the same period. And what does London have that we don’t? A franchised bus network and a Mayor. Is it a coincidence?

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While our region continues to toddle along in a ‘will they won’t they’ One Yorkshire devolution haze, and the (currently) toothless role of Transport for the North - the absolutely vital factor of public transport improvements is also somewhat stalled,

Interestingly, one of the bods at the meeting suggested that radical improvements were “deliverable with the current deregulated environment”. Not sure if this was over-optimism on his part, or just desperation. After all, no private operator is going to welcome re-regulation.

This paper has reported extensively in recent years about fleets of shiny new, clean-and-green buses being launched, as well as new investments on key corridors designed to reduce congestion, that other major player in the effective running of the bus network.

But it’s quite clear that above all, trust and confidence are key to getting people back on the buses.

And honesty is always a good starting point in building and rebuilding trust.

If you build that trust - and then make sure your service does what it says on the tin - they WILL come.