It could be described as the most significant step forward in public transport since the introduction in 1897 of England’s first motor omnibus.
With the DfT’s guidance now published last week, free travel for elderly & disabled people on buses in England moves from reverie to reality. Like it or not, it’ll be on the streets from April 2006 and that’s less than four months away. Take out Christmas and all parties will need to move quickly.
Free travel will be nationwide but sadly it’s not a national scheme. Is this a missed opportunity? Even though it’ll be confined only to individual groups of districts (e.g. in county schemes), it still removes a significant barrier to travel – fares – and is set to have a profound and even revolutionary effect on the lives of many thousands of elderly and disabled people.
But what will be the likely impact of free travel? The DfT’s guidance suggests four broad reimbursement models. Operators and councils can (and probably will!) argue the toss over generation factors and reimbursement rates till 30th March and probably be no wiser at the schemes’ introduction. That’s the nature of the beast.
Getting to the point where an operator is "no better or worse off" (as the law demands) is not an exact science. Operators will be squeamish of a scheme that threatens their ability to grow their businesses, especially if direct in-the-hand farebox revenue falls. But ultimately, they have no choice but to comply. Protecting the public purse will be uppermost in the minds of council financial controllers. Is compromise the order of the day?
There are as yet many unanswered questions. Here are just some of them:
- Reimbursement - with less revenue through the fare box, will operators be happy with the reimbursement offered by their local councils? Will they break even?
- Fares policies - are some of the recent fares increases the result of companies' own fares policies being made ready for free travel? Will free travel dominate operators’ fares in the future?
- Capacity - how will free travel shape companies' vehicle procurement? Will the typical single deck low floor 30-40 seater be able to cope? Will frequencies need to be strengthened? Will specific journeys become overloaded? What about capacity on the last "daylight" trips home, especially from so-called "honeypot" destinations such as Bournemouth & Poole?
- Loyalty - will passengers continue to prefer company Y to company W when travel becomes free? Where fares, frequency and service were once important, will passengers express any significant preference in future?
Other questions revolve around peak periods, commercialisation, competition & new services. What of elderly people’s expectations? How will other farepayers react? And what of the effect on the local corner shop, a traditional haunt of elderly people?