Leeds transport bosses vow to end ‘phantom’ buses epidemic and reverse plunging passenger numbers

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Transport bosses have today vowed to end the problem of “phantom” buses failing to turn up, as part of a wider drive to radically improve Leeds and the wider region’s bus services and reverse plunging passenger numbers.

Representatives of regional supercouncil the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) - which oversees public transport services - and bus operators made the renewed joint commitment at a meeting at Leeds Civic Hall, where they were reporting back to a long running inquiry into improving bus services provision in the city.

The meeting yesterday heard that in the 13 years from 2004/2005 to 2016/17, the number of individual annual bus journeys in West Yorkshire went DOWN from 195.7 million to 150.8 million, the worst decline of any of the English regions. Only London saw its bus patronage improve in the same period.

Councillor Paul Truswell, chair of the Infrastructure and Investment Scrutiny Panel, said the “significant” and “alarming” decline” was a blow for the wider aspiration to double passenger numbers in Leeds over the next 10 years, and increase it by 25 per cent across West Yorkshire.

He added the fact that passenger numbers had “nose dived” and West Yorkshire was “at the bottom of the pile” regionally suggested “people are voting with their feet”.

The meeting heard that a number of factors - including widespread congestion - contributed to the decline in usage, but a lack of confidence and trust in bus services were factors.

Coun Truswell said: “Congestion clearly has an impact on all our journeys - including for bus passengers.

“But what really miffs [people] is not how late buses are but the fact that they don’t turn up at all.

“That is the killer fact... I am sure that’s an experience that’s shared throughout the city.

“We read about ‘real time information’ but is that ever going to get to grips with the phantom bus that travels along the real time information until it doesn’t appear at all? It’s those kinds of things that are really bugging current passengers, let alone the people we want to attract back onto the system.”

Councillor Paul Wadsworth also noted that the problem of “phantom buses” in the city centre was “prevalent”.

“There is a big black hole that they all disappear into,” he said. “They go to four, three, two minutes, and then they disappear.”

The meeting was told it was time for all those involved in running public transport services to “stop the blame game” and just get on with improving buses - and upping passenger numbers.

Martin Hirst, commercial director at First, acknowledged technology issues were a “regular bugbear” for many, including himself.

“I don’t think the ‘real time’ does what it says on the tin at all,” he admitted.

The meeting was told huge efforts were being made to both “restore the confidence of existing passengers” and win over new passengers, with changes to driver hours and other ideas being discussed.

Dave Pearson, director of Transport Services at West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said: “We are very attuned to the fact that we need a bus service that meets the needs of the many.

“And we need people to see the network as a single bus network, as something which they understand and can readily use.”

Alex Hornby, CEO of TransDev, told the panel: “This is not something we are going to give up on. We want people to get on the buses and love them so they get other people to use them.”

The YEP reported earlier that Leeds City Council is planning to put new bus priority measures and improved infrastructure in place on three key transport corridors.

The work is to be funded by some of the £173.5m left over after the collapse of Leeds’s trolleybus project and is part of the Connecting Leeds masterplan to increase bus usage.

Last year, the region’s three biggest bus operators - First West Yorkshire, Arriva Yorkshire and Transdev Blazefield - joined forces with WYCA to launch a partnership called Bus 18.

Joint work so far has included the approval of £1m worth of funding for work designed to ease congestion at 28 bus ‘hotspots’; improvements to information displays that are being rolled out across 14,000 bus stops and the launch of a new MCard android app which lets passengers make payments directly onto travel smart cards.

Keith Wakefield, WYCA’s transport chair, said earlier: “Bus 18 is where the authorities and commercial bus operators work together to encourage people out of their cars onto cleaner buses.”

First West Yorkshire introduced the contactless technology on its buses in January in a bid to reduce boarding times.

Bosses at the firm also previously announced that 34 new ultra-low emission buses will be running on the number 1 and 6 routes in the Headingley area by the start of this month.