‘Every village, every hour’ – a bus strategy we can believe in

After the disappointment of last week’s National Bus Strategy, transport campaigners will be delighted to see the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) launch a transformative new vision for buses.

‘Every village, every hour’ presents a complete solution to the rural bus crisis and a sure means of reversing the cuts to 3,000+ bus routes made over the last decade. It’s a fully-costed model of a Swiss-style transport network for England; providing guaranteed hourly services to every village from 6am to midnight, 7 days a week.

A Swiss-style model would be transformative for bus services, also ‘levelling up’ the economy, environment, health and community all over the country. And all of this could be achieved with just £2.7 billion diverted from the annual roads budget.

A universal basic right to transport

Underpinning CPRE’s strategy is the need for transport to be treated as a universal human right, with guaranteed minimum service levels enshrined in law. This should be backed up by permanent, ring-fenced funding that puts transport on an equal footing with health and education.

Thirty years of deregulation combined with austerity has meant a huge decline in the number of ‘socially necessary’ bus routes, with bus companies competing and duplicating services on the profitable routes instead. CPRE recommends further legislation for franchising powers to ensure comprehensive coverage; as well as lifting the ban on new municipal companies, which would allow councils to run services and reinvest profits in the network.

Public transport in the era of climate change

Transport is the UK’s biggest emitting sector, and it’s estimated that decarbonisation will require traffic levels to drop by 20-60% in the next ten years. This will only be possible through radical strategies for public transport.

Examples in Europe show the overwhelming success of cheap and free transport schemes. For example, free transport in Dunkirk has led to a doubling of bus journeys, with half of new users switching from cars. Research shows that real behaviour change only occurs over time, when there is an attractive public transport offer that passengers can trust will be there to support them.

The CPRE report provides full costings of these future visions for transport, which are completely achievable right now:

A bus strategy we can believe in

CPRE’s report brings home the weakness of the government’s plan for rural buses, which received little mention in the National Bus Strategy last week.  The only concrete suggestion was the piloting of more on-demand, Uber-style services; which will do little to increase ridership. By contrast, the Swiss model of comprehensive bus coverage boasts over six times the number of passenger journeys than the English average outside London.

The National Bus Strategy has taken little account of the problem of transport poverty; promising only to expand the definition of socially necessary services, without any clear commitment to strengthen the statutory requirement. This speed of change is vastly insufficient, and it’s long past time that bus services were taken seriously as an essential human right (as recommended by the UN in 2019.)

CPRE and Transport for Quality of Life should be applauded for their bold and transformative vision, which has been published at exactly at the time it’s most needed.

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Five Reasons the National Bus Strategy will FAIL to deliver… and what we can do about it

Grant Shapps finally unveiled the National Bus Strategy this week – and what a disappointment. Its call for action may sound good, but the National Bus Strategy is in fact laying out the red carpet for bus companies, through ‘Enhanced Partnerships’ with local authorities. After 30 years of failure, it’s shocking to see the government continue with the broken policy of bus deregulation, which will only hold back our progress towards an integrated and affordable transport system.

The National Bus Strategy is not just unambitious, it’s deeply flawed and illogical – here’s why:

  1. It’s based on failed legislation.

The Bus Services Act 2017 has preserved a huge imbalance of power between local government and private bus operators, resulting in just one Enhanced Partnership in the last four years. The process of bus franchising is even harder and has so far only been attempted in Greater Manchester – a lengthy and difficult process that Stagecoach is now challenging in court.

As the National Audit Office reported last year, the Bus Services Act has ‘made little difference’. In 2019, an extensive, UK-wide study by the Transport Select Committee concluded that franchising powers should be provided to all local authorities, as well as the option of setting up their own municipal bus company. However, this advice has been ignored, and the new National Bus Strategy will now go forward based on failed legislation.

2. It continues the failed policy of bus deregulation

The National Bus Strategy itself warns of the difficulties of the current legislation, noting that franchising could ‘take years’. Instead it points local authorities clearly in the direction of ‘Enhanced Partnerships’, which maintain the deregulated model and make it more difficult to introduce bus franchising at a later stage.

Enhanced Partnerships are a trade-off. In return for a small say in services, local authorities will give the private companies what they’re really looking for: bus priority measures. This is nothing but a continuation of the deregulated system, promising even bigger streams of profit for bus companies as they benefit from increased road space.

3. It keeps local government under-resourced and in a weak negotiating position

The decimation of local authority funding for bus services has been a major cause of the UK bus crisis; a 40% drop in council funding has led to over 3,000 routes being cut in the last ten years. There’s still no reliable ring-fenced funding to plug the gap, and transport planning departments are weak and under-resourced.

The crisis in rural buses is particularly bad, and bus deregulation in rural areas has even been called out by the UN as being ‘incompatible with human rights requirements’. However, the National Bus Strategy’s weak offer of more on-demand bus services shows little to no vision about fixing this. If a city with the powers and resources of Greater Manchester can’t franchise its buses without a major legal challenge, what chance do smaller local authorities have?

4. It fails taxpayers and local democracy by preventing public ownership

Failed legislation on buses has made the process of franchising difficult enough, despite the fact that it would return an estimated £340 million per year. Public ownership would return even more – an estimated £506 million – yet the Bus Services Act bans councils from setting up their own municipals.

The UK’s few municipally owned bus companies have been incredibly successful. Lothian Buses in Edinburgh returns £6 million in dividends to the city, Reading Buses £3 million and Nottingham City Transport £2 million per year. The National Bus Strategy acknowledges these examples and even says it will consult on the issue. Yet it is still going ahead without this option: depriving local authorities of a huge opportunity for wealth creation, and entrenching the £1.5 billion per decade in dividends currently paid to bus company shareholders.

5. It will fail to reduce fares and restore services

Bus fares have rocketed even faster than rail fares – an increase of 403% since 1987. It’s a huge cause of transport poverty, but the National Bus Strategy will do little to solve it because Enhanced Partnerships are defined by competition law. This means that local authorities will have no power to set fares; and though multi-operator ticketing schemes can be agreed among companies, single-operator tickets must remain competitive.

Enhanced Partnerships also fail to give the local authority any control over fare income, preventing the cross-subsidy so badly needed to restore lost services. Nor is the local authority allowed to lower bus fares through a direct subsidy. Competition and duplication on key routes and with other forms of transport are sure to remain, preventing an integrated transport system.

Let’s be under no illusions – public control is the only way to create a London-style transport system.

What can we do about it?

The race is on for public control. Local transport authorities must commit to a course of action by the end of June 2021, and it’s clear that the DfT expects the majority to opt for Enhanced Partnerships. Campaigners and passengers need to make their voices heard ASAP and push for public control (franchising) in their local area.

The National Bus Strategy includes a few opportunities for more significant change:

  • It recognises the strong examples of municipal bus companies and says it will consult on the issue.
  • It points out a loophole in the Bus Services Act, whereby councils can create a municipal by purchasing a pre-existing bus company.
  • It promises to expand the definition of socially necessary services to include economically necessary services, and says it may consider making these a statutory requirement.
  • It commits to reform and devolve the Bus Services Operators Grant.

Local transport authorities must commit to a course of action by the end of June, and publish a local Bus Service Improvement Plan by the end of October 2021, detailing how they propose to use their powers. Actual delivery of the ‘Enhanced Partnerships’ is expected by April 2022.

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EXCLUSIVE: Accessibility under threat due to increase in driver only trains and unstaffed stations

New research from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) indicates a significant withdrawal of rail accessibility since the beginning of lockdown in March. It compiles detailed information on 2556 stations to provide a complete staffing profile; demonstrating the impact of station destaffing and driver-only trains on accessibility.

The data shows that up to 54% of stations are completely unstaffed, with as few as 12% staffed at all times. Most shockingly of all, the ‘toxic combination’ of driver-only trains and unstaffed stations could now be preventing accessibility at up to 16.8% of Britain’s stations (up from 12.1% of stations in February.)

Reductions in assistance capability at stations, DPTAC May 2020 – DOWNLOAD HERE.

According to the data, Govia Thameslink Railway is by far the worst offender for the combination of driver only trains and unstaffed stations. In February, this prevented assistance capability at 126 locations. By May this figure had increased to 215 due to the removal of ontrain staff as well as ticket office closures/reductions.

According to May’s figures, train operators are running unstaffed trains through unstaffed stations at 430 locations: GTR (215), Southeastern (73), Greater Anglia (58), Great Western Railway (32), Chiltern (26), c2c (23), Heathrow Express (3), and Stobart Rail (1).

Our Freedom of Information request to DPTAC

This data was released to us after an FOI request to DPTAC, the Department for Transport’s statutory advisors on accessibility. DPTAC has consistently raised strong objections to the ‘toxic combination’ of driver only trains and unstaffed stations since the beginning of the Southern Rail guards dispute of 2016. The ‘urgent’ and ‘unmet’ need for detailed data on staffing was the headline demand of each of their submissions to the Williams Rail Review, so the release of this information is sure to be highly controversial within the Department for Transport.

In May, the Chair of DPTAC defended their data collection to Rupert Furness, Head of Active and Accessible Travel at the DfT. To view the email, click here.

Another email chain confirms that the Department for Transport has sought legal advice on driver-only trains and unstaffed stations, after warnings from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. To view the document, click here.

Urgent Action Now Required

DPTAC’s research shows that the staffing model on Britain’s railway is not fit for purpose. In particular, it demonstrates the discriminatory effect of driver-only trains and how rapidly they can affect accessibility when there are reductions to the already low levels of station staffing.

With Govia Thameslink Railway once again firmly in the frame for withdrawing assistance capability at stations, it is vital that the Go Ahead Group and the DfT’s Peter Wilkinson are asked to respond to this data at the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday. They were the architects of the removal of guards on GTR, and it’s now clear that this is having a regressive effect on equality of access.

With further cuts to railway staffing being rumoured, we will be calling on the Transport Select Committee and Office of Rail and Road to ensure that this data continues to be published regularly, as the best way to monitor what on-the-ground changes are being made to stafffing. Train operators must already provide this information under the ORR’s new Assisted Travel Policy, so it should require few resources to collate the information in a transparent and centralised manner. This has been a headline demand from DPTAC to the DfT for years, and they have made clear that accurate, up-to-date data is the only possible basis for a ‘whole system’ overview of railway accessibility.

For further information on DPTAC’s demands for data and accessibility see their January 2019 and May 2019 submissions to the Williams Rail Review.

For a background of our FOI requests to DPTAC, click here.

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CLUELESS: Chaos at the DfT as Shapps evades scrutiny on government plans for rail

As predicted in our last blog, it is now clear that the government has no idea what to do when the ‘Emergency Measures Agreements’ run out in September.

After news hit the press that train companies are seeking a 12-18 month extension to their bailout, Grant Shapps was able to bury the story at last week’s Transport Select Committee by ‘strongly hinting’ that the Williams Review will recommend a concession model later in the year.

But since the TSC session, anonymous ‘rail industry insiders’ have been going to the press in droves, claiming that the government is actually in contractual chaos over the ‘Emergency Measures Agreements’. The Railway Gazette had previously reported that there were concerns over a breach of competition law, and their latest article suggests the government is ‘stumbling their way’ towards a concession model, with multiple variations of the EMAs under discussion. It’s also now clear that the option of public ownership via the ‘Operator of Last Resort’ is on the table, with South Western Railway most likely to be next in line for renationalisation, and Transpennine Express and Transport for Wales also reportedly under discussion.

A failure of scrutiny from the Transport Select Committee

Last week, Grant Shapps managed to evade scrutiny on all these issues after a disappointing level of questioning from the Transport Select Committee, which failed to ask about the option of public ownership via the ‘Operator of Last Resort’. With the rail industry well-known to be in crisis over the EMAs, and multiple train companies facing financial collapse, the TSC should have asked about the preparedness of the government’s back up option.

The Transport Select Committee also missed their chance to challenge Shapps on his non-credible promise of the Williams Rail Review, especially his claim “had it not been for coronavirus we would have released a White Paper already.” In fact, the Williams Review was already at a stalemate directly before the lockdown in March. The Treasury had refused to agree funding for William’s plans, due to concerns that they would pose too big a risk to the taxpayer. No money for rail or fare reform had been included in the budget, and on March 14th, the Times reported: it is feared that any national reform of the system may now be years away.

This missed opportunity for scrutiny has allowed Grant Shapps to hide once again behind the promise of the ‘Williams Rail Review’ which he now ‘strongly hints’ will recommend a concession model. But the truth is that the review had long since hit the buffers. Now, rumours persist in the industry press that the Williams Review will never be released at all.

The future is uncertain – we need flexibility and accountability

As passengers, we fear an uncertain future under extended ‘Emergency Measures Agreements’, which lock us into a dysfunctional and fragmented structure for the long-term. Under EMAs, this dysfunction is likely to become even worse. New Parliamentary questions from Karen Buck MP indicate that the contracts will be riddled with perverse incentives – train companies are required to cut costs and raise revenue wherever they can, including rail fares.

If the EMAs stay in place, we’ll be sure to see an overly bureaucratic process, with no single point of accountability. Government and rail industry squabbling over contracts, finances and liability are sure to delay any serious rail reform for years. From the smallest commercial or operational issue to the UK’s ultimate transport policy, the railway will be riddled with arguments and perverse incentives of exactly the kind that had ruined passenger trust long before the corona pandemic.

As a case in point, we spent the first two months of the EMAs battling simply to get fair refunds for passengers, a promise made by Grant Shapps on which he later reneged. Controversy over the lack of a pro-rata refund for season ticket holders went on for two months before he was finally required to answer for his initial promise that ‘no passengers would be left out of pocket”. Though the Transport Select Committee highlighted there was only a ‘relatively small amount of money’ at stake, Shapps refused the request in May. He said: “changing the season ticket refund policy now to offer full pro-rata refunds or to allow passengers to pause their tickets would have significant additional cost implications for the rail industry.”

Public health and passenger trust are the first priorities

From 4th July, social distancing will be reduced to 1 metre. There is still no clarity on how this will apply to rail, but even under 1 metre social distancing, the intended full rail service would be limited to 21% to 35% capacity. A leaked briefing from the Department for Transport has warned there is ‘a significant risk that demand will outstrip capacity’.

It’s clear that this situation will require careful and agile management on an ongoing basis, and it’s vital that this is made as accountable as possible. Economic recovery will rely on a flexible, co-ordinated and integrated response to the changing needs of public health and passenger numbers. This needs to happen as part of an integrated transport policy run in the clear and overriding public interest. Accountability must be clearly located with the government and Public Health England/SAGE advice, and without the additional baggage of the train companies’ precarious finances.

The government continues to evade transparency just when action on our failed franchise system is so badly overdue. Meanwhile, the rail industry continues to lobby furiously for a reduction in social distancing, with their long-term future entirely dependent on how soon passenger numbers become profitable again. It’s no way to run a railway – especially at the time of a public health crisis.

A real opportunity to ‘build back better.’

There is one reason to take heart from Grant Shapps’ statements at the Transport Select Committee last week. He did commit to the fact that it is now much easier to begin the process of rail reform than before, stating: ‘There is now the opportunity to move things along a little bit faster.’ It’s vital that the government now acts decisively on the railway, which needs proper funding, structural reform, and an integrated long-term strategy fit for the twenty-first century.

Public ownership presents the best solution to rid the system of perverse incentives at a time when a clear, coherent transport policy is so urgently needed. It would not only save public money, it would also be the quickest way to create cost-efficiency in the system, in turn securing better commitments from the Treasury on railway funding. Making the government fully responsible for the railway would force them to finally take action on rail reform when they clearly have the means and opportunity to do so.

We have no more faith in the Williams Rail Review and believe that public ownership is the best way to expedite the ‘twenty first century railway’ we have so long been promised. Nearly twenty-thousand people have now emailed Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps urging them to take the railway back into public ownership, part of our campaign collaboration with Bring Back British Rail and We Own It.

To support the email campaign for public ownership, CLICK HERE.

Secret bailout talks exposed: Shapps and Sunak must bring the railway into public ownership

Last week, the government’s secret bailout talks were finally forced out into the open. Parliamentary questions revealed that at least £3.5 billion has been spent on ‘Emergency Measures Agreements’ since the beginning of the lockdown in mid-March.

It is now common knowledge that train companies are demanding a 12-18 month extension to the £900 million per month bailout. If the government signs up, this will lock passengers and taxpayers into the dysfunctional franchise system for the long-term.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is due to face the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday, so these discussions are about to become extremely high profile. A decision is expected at the end of this month.

To support public ownership, click here.

Around 75% of the public supports renationalisation, yet they’ve been excluded from discussions like this for years. That’s why Grant Shapps and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are now being flooded with thousands of emails, demanding they act decisively and bring the railway into public ownership instead.

CLICK HERE to support the email campaign for public ownership.

Supported by: Bring Back British Rail, We Own It, Association of British Commuters, Northern Resist and Norfolk for the Renationalisation of Rail.

Public Ownership is the only way forward

The ‘Operator of Last Resort’ is ready to go

The government has already prepared sufficient back up operators to take over every franchise in the country. They spent at least £20 million on the ‘Operator of Last Resort’ last year, and used it to renationalise Northern back in March. Directly before the lockdown, several other franchises were also on the verge of financial collapse, including South Western Railway, Transpennine Express, West Midlands Trains and Greater Anglia. The OLR had been ready to step in on these franchises too, which means it is currently better resourced than it has been in years.

Experts are now saying that most franchises would go bust on even 80% of the passenger numbers they had before the lockdown. So, extending the EMAs would lock us into a fragmented, wasteful and inefficient system for the long-term, with train companies demanding that the taxpayer guarantees their profits until passenger numbers become profitable again.

Public ownership via the Operator of Last Resort would immediately allow the flexibility and innovation needed to adjust services in response to the needs of public health and a sustainable economic recovery.  Then, the long-overdue work of building an integrated, efficient and accountable railway could finally begin.

The Williams Review has failed

The Williams Rail Review was supposed to fix the fragmentation that led to the chaos of the 2018 timetable collapse. However, despite 20 months work, it has failed to reach a conclusion. Disagreement between the Treasury and Department for Transport had reached a stalemate even before the lockdown. And since the EMAs came in, the Railway Gazette has reported there are fears that its recommendations would breach competition law. Earlier this month, the government stated that they are holding the Williams Rail Review back for ‘further work’.

It’s clear the government has been unable to find any acceptable commercial and legal model for the reform of privatised rail, and it’s now possible that the Williams Review will never be released at all. So, extending the EMAs for 12-18 months means the government will be treading water, with no idea what to do. It would lock us in to a dysfunctional and unworkable system for the long-term, delaying the systemic change that was urgently needed even before the corona pandemic.

On both sides of the argument, most agree that the railway needs to be ‘vertically integrated’ under a single, publicly accountable body at arms-length from government. However, the only successful attempt to theorise this has been under a public ownership model – see this Opposition White Paper on Rail published by the Labour party in April.

Passenger trust has never been so important

We are facing the biggest public health and economic crisis in a generation and the railways are undoubtedly an essential public service, now fully funded by the taxpayer. The government has no choice but to properly fund public transport if they want the economy to recover, and supporting rail services over the next 12-18 months will cost billions. It is vital that every penny of this is spent efficiently, with clear lines of accountability to ensure public health and sustainable economic recovery every step of the way.

Making the government fully responsible for the railway would immediately end the blame-shifting and contractual squabbling that have held back the railway for years. This bureacuracy, dysfunction and fragmentation would only get worse under an indefinite extension to the EMAs, or a system of management contracts.

Instead, the government should grasp this opportunity to act decisively and take the railway back into public ownership. The social, economic and climate challenges ahead require a properly integrated, accountable and cost-efficient system, run in the interests of the public, not profit.

CLICK HERE to support the email campaign for public ownership.

Supported by: Bring Back British Rail, We Own It, Association of British Commuters, Northern Resist and Norfolk for the Renationalisation of Rail.


Transparency Now: no more secret talks about the future of our railway

Secret talks between government and train companies have been underway for the past two weeks at the Department for Transport (DfT). There is a crisis over the future of the railway and big decisions will be taken imminently – including the question of public ownership.

The DfT had been hoping to convert the rail franchise agreements to long-term concession models; the rumoured conclusion of the Williams Rail Review. However, according to sources in the Railway Gazette, this option may now be off the table due to a potential breach of competition law. This leaves the government with an urgent dilemma – extend the ’emergency measures agreements’ (EMAs) indefinitely, or renationalise the franchises via the ‘Operator of Last Resort’ (OLR).

With some train companies reportedly asking for 18 month extensions, the government is now under huge pressure to make a decision on what will happen when the EMAs run out in September. And it’s possible that a decision could be made as soon as next month.

Panic in the corridors of Whitehall

At the beginning of 2020, the rail franchising system was already collapsing along legal and commercial lines. Several ‘zombie franchises’ were thought to be on the verge of financial failure, including West Midlands Trains, South Western Railway, TransPennine Express and Greater Anglia. And a major legal case about railway pensions had already cost tens – if not hundreds – of millions of taxpayers’ money. Details about the outcome of the Stagecoach court case remain shrouded in secrecy, but it was reported in March that the switch to EMAs means that the government may now be responsible for the entire £8 billion pension deficit.

The ’emergency measures agreements’ have led to an extremely precarious contractual situation, because any return to previous franchise agreements would see the train companies go bust within days. According to an industry source in the Railway Gazette, if only 85% of passengers returned to rail travel after the covid crisis, then most franchises would go bust on that basis alone.

The only alternative to EMAs is to bring some or all franchises into public ownership. The government has been quietly preparing for this ‘plan B’ since the beginning of April, setting up enough ‘Operators of Last Resort’ (OLRs) to take over every rail franchise in the country. At least £20 million was invested in OLRs last year, which was the solution used to renationalise Northern back in March.

Our urgent call for public scrutiny

The corona pandemic has pushed public transport into a long-term crisis in terms of patronage, with an instant drop of 95% in passenger numbers. And huge limits on capacity are now required for reasons of public health, with most of the network running at less than 20% capacity.

The railway costs about £14 billion per year, and the majority of this is paid for by passengers (£10.4 billion from ticket sales and £4.1 billion taxpayer subsidy in 2018-19). With ticket revenue now forecast to be just £2 billion per year, we are shifting rapidly to a railway where the vast majority of costs will be paid for by the taxpayer, the drop in passengers creating an £8 billion shortfall.

This completely upturns the balance of funding that had been increasingly weighted towards fare revenue for decades. In return we must see transparency and accountability from the government about transport policy, and the guarantee that we are getting the best possible value for money and social/economic benefits from the public transport system.

Help us demand transparency

In the era of corona virus and recovery, transport has become an essential public service and there is absolutely no excuse to allow decisions on transport policy to remain shrouded in this much secrecy. It is on the government to explain how their decisions are in the best interests of the public and every MP should be doing their job and demanding transparency on this issue before these decisions are made.

The Williams Review was supposed to restore ‘trust’ in the public and solve the strucural chaos that caused the 2018 timetable collapse. However, the review was never published and as a result we are two years overdue some government accountability and a solution that urgently restructures the railway. In the context of a global health pandemic these issues are now doubly important and conversations about 1) railway structure and 2) funding must be had urgently and with full public involvement and scrutiny. It is up to the government to explain and justify the policy they go forward with, and it’s every politician’s job to urgently demand this.

We’re sharing our concerns with the Transport Committee, Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office. We’ll also be calling on MPs and opposition parties to more actively scrutinise the government’s decisions on transport.

Please help by writing to your MP and submitting your concerns to the Transport Select Committee, who are requesting submissions from the public until Monday 29th June.

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Grant Shapps and the Season Ticket Refund Rip-Off

In a significant victory for our campaign, the Chair of the Transport Select Committee, Huw Merriman, has publicly supported our demand for pro-rata refunds on season tickets. In an interview with BBC South East, he called the current arrangements a “rip-off” and said he would be calling on the government and rail industry to give full refunds.

We welcome Huw Merriman’s statement and call on the Transport Minister Grant Shapps to act decisively and follow through on his promise to ensure that “no-one is unfairly out of pocket for doing the right thing.”

[Update: on 24th April, the Chair of the Transport Select Committee wrote to Grant Shapps urging him to ensure: 1. pro-rata refunds 2. the option of a ticket suspension and 3. a waiving of the £10 admin fee. A response is due on 30th April.]

Mixed messages from the government on season tickets:

Since the lockdown began, the government and rail industry have changed the refund arrangements several times, leading to widespread confusion among passengers. On 25th March, Grant Shapps assured the Transport Select Committee that he had arranged pro-rata refunds. In fact, the rail industry’s unfair refund system remains in place – and commuters have been losing out on hundreds of pounds.

shapps tweetThe Season Ticket Refund Rip-Off:

The government is bailing out train companies to the tune of £600 million per month. And yet, the rail industry has so far refused to give pro-rata refunds on season tickets; instead relying on a vastly unfair refund system. The whole process is shrouded in mystery for passengers, so we created a graph to show exactly how much people could be losing:

season ticket graph

The graph shows that the less time you had left on your season ticket at the time of the lockdown, the more value you’d lose. In this example, a Brighton to London commuter who had held their annual for 1 month would lose £83 compared to pro-rata. After 3 months, they’d lose £370; after 6 months they’d lose £744; and after 9 months, £1,118.

We’re demanding full refunds for all passengers:

It’s clear from our recent discussion on BBC Radio Four’s ‘You And Yours’ program that the rail industry will not budge on this issue – refusing to give pro-rata refunds OR the option of a season ticket suspension. But, under new corona virus legislation, the Transport Minister Grant Shapps is now in full control of the railways – and he has already promised pro-rata refunds. So, why won’t the train companies do what Grant Shapps told them to do? And who is really in charge here?

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Better Buses in Greater Manchester could help us fight injustice across the UK

The Greater Manchester bus consultation closes at midnight tonight, and we’re calling on friends and allies all over the country to join us in writing in before the deadline to urge Andy Burnham to re-regulate the city’s buses.

The consultation is open to those who visit the city as well as residents of GM, so if you care about Greater Manchester as much as we do, please join us in dropping a few lines ASAP: gmbusconsultation@ipsos-mori.com

The Fight for Greater Manchester’s Buses

In Spring 2019, we made a documentary about Better Buses for Greater Manchester, the campaign at the centre of a coalition of transport, anti-poverty and environmental activists calling for bus regulation in the city. In the process, we spoke to a range of passengers and campaigners, who argued that Manchester would benefit from a London-style bus system, including multi-modal ticketing and more local power and accountability over transport. Check out our 14-minute documentary for all the benefits bus regulation would bring, or read more on Better Buses for GM’s website.

Is the government’s bus legislation strong enough?

If Andy Burnham goes ahead with the decision to re-regulate, he will be the first Mayor to do so under powers in the 2017 Bus Services Act. But even getting this far into the process has been done with great difficulty and cost to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. So, why is the process so complex?

Currently, only the elected Mayors of Combined Authorities have the powers to regulate buses, and to do so they have to get through a process that includes a series of business cases, consultation with bus operators, an auditor’s report and, finally, a public consultation. For local authorities outside these areas, the path to bus franchising is even more complex and they must submit extensive reports and proposals to the Department for Transport before they can even access these powers. You can read more about the legal process here.

Local authorities need MUCH more power & resources

Buses are the most popular form of public transport, used by 59% of all passengers. They are also the passengers most severely affected by regional inequalities; through the combination of ten years of austerity and a completely deregulated bus market. Yet bus fares are rising at a faster rate than rail fares, and over 3,000 routes have been cut in the UK since 2010. The situation is so bad in rural areas especially that the deregulated bus market was directly called out in the UN report on poverty last year, arguing that “abandoning people to the private market is incompatible with human rights requirements.”

After a staggering 45% cut in their funding over the last ten years, it is therefore unrealistic and actually irresponsible of the government to expect local authorities – especially those outside the big metro areas – to undertake the difficult and expensive process required to introduce bus regulation in their areas. The social, regional, and environmental need for action is obvious and urgent, but the simple fact is that current legislation isn’t strong enough to be of any significant use in changing the power balance that lies between passengers and major international transport corporations.

Bus passengers urgently need a seat at the table

Bus passengers have been the hardest-hit by austerity and change cannot come quickly enough. But there is little chance of that under the government’s current legislation. Local authorities need much more power and resources to even have a chance of beginning the process, and it shouldn’t be left to bus passengers to raise that demand. Our view is that the Bus Services Act 2017 has failed to achieve what the government promised it would, and that the most important priority for all bus passengers right now is to come together on a national level and demand further powers and resources for local authorities.

Private transport companies should have no right to fill our public space with political messages, as happened earlier this year when Stagecoach ran adverts against regulation on the side of their buses in Manchester. Though early threats of legal action from Stagecoach over bus franchising seemed to pass, the anxiety among campaigners and local authorities is very real and we’ve noticed it throughout years of talking to passengers all over the country. It is now a matter of public interest that the private transport companies are brought in line across both rail and bus services, as there is no hope of seeing an integrated transport system without this.

We note that bus companies have already created obstacles to Transport for the North’s plans for smart-ticketing, as reported by the Yorkshire Post last year. It is clearly the case that metro areas in the North will not get the multi-modal ticketing system they deserve without bus regulation. The current deregulated bus market not only disincentivises companies to collaborate, it actually prevents an Oyster-style ticketing system under competition law!

ABC’s submission to the GM bus consultation

We have sent our comments to the bus consultation, and urge you to contribute before the deadline at midnight tonight. A few lines to gmbusconsultation@ipsos-mori.com will be enough, to help make a real change that could set a precedent for bus services all over the country.

In our submission to the Greater Manchester consultation, we have strongly supported Andy Burnham’s plans for a regulated bus network, which will be the start of meaningful change to the GM economy, society and environment, through the necessary infrastructure of an integrated transport system. We have asked him to speak up for other local authorities and bus campaigners facing the same process.

The example of Greater Manchester shows how hard passengers have to work to challenge and reform this country’s failing public transport policy, where the power balance between passengers and transport companies is all wrong and absolutely riddled with private interests.

Write to us at contact@abcommuters.com

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No More Rail Reviews: It’s time to declare a National Crisis in Public Transport

At a time when rail francising is clearly collapsing, today’s 2.7% fare rise is an outrage. It’s another sign that the government and industry will continue to treat us like a captive market, meaning that we’re continually paying more while constantly receiving less. Today, we’ll be joining with passengers around the country to demand a nationwide fares freeze, in recognition of the fact that UK public transport is now at the point of social, economic, and environmental crisis.

Protests begin at London Kings Cross at 8am and you can view the full schedule here.

A National Crisis in Public Transport

For the last ten years, rail fares have been rising at twice the speed of wages. For many commuters on a lower income, this is more than just a matter of yearly injustice – they are being priced off the railway altogether.

And for bus passengers, things are even worse. Bus fares are rising at an even higher rate than rail, according to government statistics published last month – a shocking 3.3%. Unlike rail fares, bus fares outside of London are completely unregulated, meaning that bus companies can put up fares as and when they choose and do not even have to give a warning to passengers. Alongside the withdrawal of local investment and routes, this is pricing thousands of people out of bus travel, if they even have a service left at all.

Transport is the UK’s biggest polluting sector and the modal shift from car to public transport is a matter of urgency; not just for climate change but for public health, social equality and regional development.

No faith in the Williams Rail Review

The Williams Review was launched by the government soon after the timetable collapse of 2018, promising a ‘rail revolution’ and an end to the failed and fragmented franchising system. The government used this promise to evade a response to their leading role in the catastrophe; meaning that – to this day – they have not answered for the 2018 timetable crisis.

The reality of the Rail Review was nowhere near the ‘rail revolution’ promised. It had a narrow, ideological remit that excluded public ownership from the very start, and was also required to be ‘fiscally neutral’. The Rail Review that had begun by promising to ‘scrap franchising’ gradually lost all credibility as the government continued to award franchises regardless – East Midlands Trains and the West Coast Partnership.

Since the launch of the review in September 2018, Keith Williams has failed to report back. It is therefore without any public scrutiny that he approved the West Coast Partnership award to FirstGroup as ‘Williams compliant’ back in August. First Group shareholders, meanwhile, have been assured in the financial press that their future in UK rail looks more lucrative, thanks to an arrangement that protects the company from risk. The Financial Times has said that this is ‘the first time in ten years that a rail company has had financial protection.’

In a further twist to the tale, the government is being taken to court early this year over the by three different train companies over its franchising practices: Stagecoach, Virgin and Arriva. If it doesn’t go the government’s way, the cost to the taxpayer could be tens of millions – so how can we possibly trust the government to make further changes to the franchising system in the meantime?

Finally, we are extremely concerned about the excessive influence of the rail industry lobby on the outcome of the rail review. The Rail Delivery Group is calling for a mix of management contracts, concession-style models, and competitive intercity franchising, along with the proposal of an organising body resembling the ‘Strategic Rail Authority’ that was abolished in 2006. With franchising failing, it stands to reason that private train companies will be seeking to keep franchising alive, and the example of the West Coast Partnership already does not bode well for the promised ‘rail revolution’.

Passengers and taxpayers are being denied a proper, democratic conversation about the future of our public transport system, which, in the era of Brexit, is now at the point of a national emergency if we are to build the equitable country we want to see now, and in the future.

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South Western Railway: passengers fight back on compensation

It is now Day Nine of the longest-running rail strike in UK history and South Western Railway passengers have been abandoned by the government. The guards dispute has been going on for almost four years across multiple UK rail franchises, and yet we are no closer to seeing a resolution. In fact, the situation is getting even worse, with passengers on SWR being expected to pay for the latest strike out of their own pockets.

If South Western Railway gets compensation for the strikes – why can’t passengers?

Season ticket holders are currently being denied compensation by SWR, despite the fact that its majority owner FirstGroup has been in negotiations with the Department for Transport for ‘strike amelioration’ compensation all year. Last week, the government again refused to clarify this amount, but the RMT union claims that SWR could be receiving as much as £86 million in strike compensation to date.

SWR out of our control

Any compensation for lost revenue paid to SWR by the government would be part of an agreement where industrial action is considered ‘outside of the train company’s control’ (force majeure):

SWR franchise agreement
From page 524 of the SWR franchise agreement, available to view here.

Any such arrangement would mean that SWR has been disincentivised to end the dispute and that the government is using taxpayers’ money to fund it. It would also suggest that passenger compensation has been treated as an afterthought by both rail industry and government- implying that nine days into the strike, they have not bothered to factor it into their negotiations.

The following tweets prove that SWR is sending mixed messages on compensation – even to the point of giving passengers false hope, and then retracting it a few days later:

SWR comparison tweets

Season ticket holders fight back!

Govia Thameslink Railway season ticket holders received a month’s compensation for industrial action in 2016, and again after GTR caused a major timetable crisis in 2018. There’s also a precedent on Northern, where season ticket holders were invited to claim compensation proportional to the daily price of their ticket during industrial action.

We urge SWR passengers not to accept the following excuse given out by the train company and would seriously question the validity of SWR’s advice on this issue:

SWR delay repay.PNG

Demand compensation under the Consumer Rights Act

  • Passengers are self-organising, with mass compensation claims to South Western Railway citing the Consumer Rights Act. There’s a template letter for season ticket holders here, and claims should be sent to customerrelations@swrailway.com. (Credit to @HSLcommuter for the template letter.)
  • If you bought your season ticket on a credit card, it is worth attempting to claim back a proportion of your season ticket using Section 75. Back in 2017, one of our members succeeded in doing this, and got a £2,400 refund on his season ticket through his Amex card. To find out more, check out Parts One, Two and Three of our guide, which is based on the method he used. The advice relates to Southern Rail, but the templates can be adapted to any train company.
  • If you’ve encountered additional expenses, such as taxis or hotel costs, be sure to make a claim to SWR under ‘consequential losses’. A Telegraph article from last week confirms that SWR will be considering these – despite the fact that the rail industry has been shown to be highly resistant to the idea of reimbursing passengers for their expenses in the past. Last year, it took an intervention from the consumer rights charity Which? to force the rail industry to include ‘consequential losses’ in the National Conditions of Carriage.
  • We hope to hear of many new consumer rights precedents being set in this area – please share your success stories via contact@abcommuters.com

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**Good luck to all passengers and please note the following disclaimer:

All sample letters provided by ABC are templates only. Any person using them does so at their own risk and is responsible for the content and the accuracy of the claim. ABC is not a party to any claim made in accordance with these guide or otherwise, and accepts no responsibility or liability for the content and/or the accuracy of any information included in any such claim. ABC does not guarantee the outcome of any claim and accepts no liability whatsoever in the event of a claim being unsuccessful.