Making bus fares fair

Published on Monday, 04 March 2013 15:42
Written by David Sidebottom

From September 2011 to September 2012, bus fares in England increased on average by six per cent – way above the rate of inflation (2.6 per cent)

Passengers do not pay average fares, and no record of all individual fare rises is available centrally. It can prove very difficult to find basic bus fares at all in some parts of the country.

However, our 2012 Bus Passenger Survey tells us that, on average, only just over half of passengers (56 per cent) think they are getting value for money.

The bus industry is facing a number of economic pressures, including the overall decline in journeys made by bus in many parts of the country, and a cut to the fuel tax rebate.

Part of the problem is that regular passengers waiting at the bus stop may know what fare to expect to pay, but new passengers may find discovering the fare in advance quite hard in some places.

We tried to compile a list of sample bus fares for a dozen areas in England, but much of time we had to telephone each bus operator as single and return fares are rarely shown online. On one occasion after several 'wrong numbers' we were put through to a bus depot, where a helpful inspector questioned off-duty drivers in the rest room and got us the answer.

Most companies show their weekly, monthly and longer season tickets and some of their 'Rover'-type fares online, but not singles and returns.  It is not a matter of commercial confidentiality if you can wait for the next bus and ask the driver – so why the reluctance of so many operators to share this basic information online?

If the reason is to do with the vast number of fares on offer, that's even more reason to publicise them. The absence of fares information is inexcusable in areas where the exact fare has to be tendered as drivers do not give change.

The need for advance information on fares will become even more important as smart technology is rolled out across the country. Currently only in a small number of areas, it seems inevitable that the Oyster-style smartcard will replace the inefficient cash payment system.

A word of caution though – smartcards are not the entire solution. Visitors to an area need a way to access transport when travel offices are shut. If different operators have different technology, they may not be valid right across an area. And simplifying the fare structure to allow for smartcard payment can see fares go up.  Passengers will not appreciate being charged higher fares to achieve 'simplification' and they would have every right to be indignant.

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