Transport Matters: Plotting to get passengers on board

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Government has belatedly woken up to the need to reduce traffic, and is exhorting people to use public transport where possible.

The trouble is that it is often no longer possible because the funds to subsidise public travel are no longer available.

The provision of public transport services is dependent on several ingredients.

First, the infrastructure, the roads and railways. Secondly, the hardware, the buses and trains. Thirdly, the software, which is the services provided, and which can only be done by people, the operators.

When these things are all put together, the vital last ingredient is the people who use them. These are known as passengers in this context, and without them everything else is pointless.

But what makes somebody decide to become a passenger?

Some think it’s having a smart new train or bus – but beware! Enticements advertised for new trains such as ‘more seats’ generally means less room per seat. One trick played recently is not only to make the seats smaller, but thinner, so as one passenger, having experienced a new train, put it: “Remember to take your own cushion.” Another enticement is lower fares, but these are usually restricted in some way, such as only being valid on a particular train, or at least at restricted times.

On buses, young people are sometimes carried free of charge, but this concession has often been introduced to give them little or no excuse to assault the staff, which experience has shown they are liable to do when travelling home from school.

One disadvantage of public transport has been that fares are charged per person, whereas you can take the whole family in the car for the same cost as for just the driver.

The railway has countered this by its family railcard. In some situations it is now being suggested that passengers should be able to travel on buses free of charge.

Whatever the marketeers believe to be the key to getting more passengers, the thing that really does bring them in is frequency.

The Southern learned this years ago when it electrified lines. In some cases the steam trains operated to the new electric timetables for a time before the electric ones started running, and that was when the greatest increase in the number of passengers took place. Nevertheless, the passengers themselves believed that it was the new trains which had attracted them.

It has been the case for many years that the basic frequency of bus services in rural areas has been two-hourly, but operators discover that there is often a huge leap in the number of customers when they double the frequency to hourly.

It is a curious fact that passengers really appreciate an increase in frequency to hourly, but if the frequency is doubled again to half-hourly, they tend to complain that “the buses only run every half hour”.

In urban situations the ideal frequency is every 10 minutes, but schedulers love a frequency of five buses per hour, for some reason. This results in a bus every 12 minutes, which the passengers do not love. They seem to react better to every quarter of an hour, because it is easier to remember.

· John Wylde is author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ This book is priced at £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also, ‘Experiments in Public Transport Operation’ at £11.95. Order through the author’s website – www.john-wylde.co.uk – or from Grieves on the corner of Church Street, Berwick.