On a violently cold Friday morning in early 2023, I stood at a bus stop in Norwich city centre, waiting for the X44 to Sheringham.
It wasn’t a bad deal, really. The stately 90-minute procession up to the picturesque little town at the top of the Norfolk coast would set me back £2. As the trilby-clad driver cheerfully affirmed after a theatrical beat of deliberation, that was nothing, “if not a decent little experiment, for however long it’s here for”.
Up until the end of March, it’s possible to board almost any bus in England outside of London and pay the same flat fare for a single ticket. This follows the introduction of similar caps in Manchester, Liverpool and West Yorkshire. It doesn’t matter how long the journey is, or where it goes, two quid will get you there.
More than 130 bus operators are committed to a scheme subsidised by £60 million of central government money, provided under its Help for Households programme. All the big boys and girls are here, from Stagecoach to National Express, down to the diddiest of local firms. It’s a good idea, as almost all agree. Here’s a mild dose of relief during strained economic times, one that also encourages people back on to public transport after the ravages and plummeting passenger numbers of the pandemic years.
It’s heartening to see how enthusiasm for the scheme has extended beyond the obvious practical benefits, with a cluster of broadsheet pieces helpfully collating the most scenic routes on offer in North Yorkshire or Cumbria, Sussex or Dorset. The scheme even has its own slightly campy name: Get Around For £2.
But there are broader questions. Why did it take so long to do something, anything, about the country’s increasingly dysfunctional and expensive buses? And what exactly is going to happen when the plaster is abruptly ripped off in the early spring?
The common consensus holds that England’s buses really started to go to shit from the mid-1980s.
Despite the protestations of the first Thatcherite believers and their heirs, it came to pass that the full-scale deregulation ushered in by the 1985 Transport Act didn’t, shockingly enough, herald a golden era of super-streamlined efficiency and abundance across the nation’s bus network. Private operators replaced local authorities in planning and maintenance; prices began their steep climb upwards; and “unviable” (read: rural and/or unprofitable) routes suffered wave after wave of cuts – or disappeared entirely.
London got off a bit lighter. Though the capital’s buses were privatised, too, they were left under public regulation. They’ve improved colossally over the past two decades, beginning with Ken Livingstone’s first stint as London Mayor at the turn of the millennium. Meanwhile, investment in stock and routes (proposed recent cuts notwithstanding) have dwarfed those in the rest of the country. This may or may not have had something to do with, as Owen Hatherly wrote in 2020’s Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London, a “favouritism based on the simple principle that civil servants in London sometimes used London buses”.
It’s perhaps appropriate, then, that outside London, until 31st March at least, the bus is fully where it’s at.
The sun came out almost as soon as we’d escaped Norwich’s suburban extremities, with its rows of neat houses and needy, deserted main road car dealerships. The top deck was quiet for the entirety of the journey, save for a couple of vaguely avuncular-looking elderly men and a woman in her late 20s, who spent a quarter of an hour arguing volubly about nursery fees via her phone’s loudspeaker.
As the city gave way to woodland and apparently endless Norfolk farmland, I contented myself with staring out the window and enjoying the sense of easy unfamiliarity. In the pretty little market town of Aylsham, our spectacularly behatted driver took the first of several languorous smoke breaks. It was hard to ignore the creeping sense of a morning drifting by in a haze of having nowhere to be and nothing much to do. This was not entirely unpleasant.
England is a rail-obsessed nation. No one ever lost money betting on the apparently insatiable cultural appetite for trains, as expressed through the relentless churn of books and documentary series, or post-irony internet sensations on our screens: the lucrative industrial-nostalgia complex meets the Michael Portillo-to-Francis Bourgeois pipeline.
Certainly, it would be difficult to find a more reliably heated and familiar debating point. Which rail user – casual, regular or otherwise – hasn’t been confronted with the reality of late trains, cancelled trains, absurdist prices, godforsaken franchises and spectacular private sector ineptitude? And who in 2023 doesn’t have a strident, immediately deployable opinion on nationalisation, or the continued exploits of Mick Lynch?
Buses just don’t seem to engender the same passions. Maybe it’s because they’re too slow. Or perhaps it has something to do with a perceived lack of glamour.
It was Thatcher who almost certainly apocryphally suggested that any man over the age of 26 who found himself a passenger on a bus could “count himself a failure in life” (it’s said she stole the line from a duchess, as you do). To date, no would-be bus influencer has yet burst into the national consciousness, while The 50 Greatest National Express Journeys in Britain languishes unmade on the great development slate in the sky (Channel 5, are you reading?).
This absence doesn’t reflect anything about their critical importance. The week after my return from Norfolk, I spoke with Alice Ridley, Head of Media and Communications at the Campaign for Better Transport.
She was keen to outline, whatever the popular imagination might hold, that it is buses, not trains, which are by far the most used mode of public transport across England. Often, it isn’t a matter of choice. “For millions of people [in] a lot of areas in this country, they really are the only form of transport.”
Our conversation soon alighted on “transport deserts”: the tag given to areas of the country particularly badly afflicted by crumbling services and vanished routes. Take much of Eastern England, for example, though areas of the South West or North East could equally illustrate the point. These are places where the car is the only consistently reliable means of getting to school or work, or even hospital appointments. Places that need buses.
In North Norfolk, where I’d taken my picturesque £2 journey, it was recently reported that many local young people were spending upwards of £1000 a year travelling the 22 miles between Norwich and Cromer to access skills training.
According to another survey by countryside charity CPRE, 86 per cent of 18 – 25 year-olds in rural areas were considering leaving their communities, citing the desperate state of transport as a key reason. It’s the kind of needless, bullshit predicament that makes a mockery of the vague and constantly deferred talk of equalising the nation’s glaring regional disparities.
The arrival of the temporary £2 bus scheme is supposed to mark the beginning of a more coherent body of work, which looks to at least partially reverse the last few decades of damage and neglect.
In March 2021, the Department for Transport published the long-awaited national bus strategy for England. The nonsensically-titled Bus Back Better (a sort-of pun on the government’s growth programme Build Back Better) carries a boosterish foreword from Boris Johnson, cast in the unconvincing role of public transport evangelist. The 84-page report contains many fine-sounding commitments, including “a green bus revolution”, integrated ticket systems and lower, simpler fares. Not to mention the mandatory mention of the apparently crucial role buses will play in the quasi-mythical Levelling Up to come.
Alice Ridley strikes an optimistic note. “To be fair, the government seems to recognise that the buses are suffering. Five years ago, it was like: ‘Well, this isn’t too important.’ But there’s a recognition now about their crucial economic impact.”
To date, though, that ambitious national strategy hasn’t exactly been the wildest of successes.
Though £3 billion in funding was promised for improvements, the true figure has amounted to less than half of that, according to a leaked letter sent to the Local Transport Authority, with a significant chunk going out as emergency funding to keep the lights on for struggling operators during the worst of the pandemic. In fact, local authorities’ requests for funding have since hit around £9 billion.
In other words, the government, as ever, has drastically underfunded something while boasting about how much they’ve spent.
And the long-term numbers tell a bleak enough story. For all the justified noise about rail ticket rises (there are few things as good as a hastily screenshotted Trainline receipt if you want to provoke a bout of blind, moral, online outrage), it is bus prices that have seen the sharpest spike over the last decade-and-a-half.
Since March 2005 fares across England have risen by 80 per cent, to an average £2.80 for a single (in better-invested London, a single bus journey costs £1.65). On some rural routes, it’s around double that. The even longer-term trends are just as grim. According to the Office for National Statistics, bus and coach fares are six times higher than they were in 1987, two years after wholesale privatisation was embarked on. Over the same period, train tickets have become around four-and-a-half times pricier.
I spoke to a range of people for this piece, from care workers in the countryside to young urban professionals. The response was the same, give or take a few hyperlocal regional specificities. Though we were talking buses, their answers could have applied to housing or food or any other daily necessity that has snaked its way to becoming a financial impossibility.
The consensus: it’s a pisstake how much you end up spending, let alone in comparison to the rubbish you so often get in return.
Hope Gilligan, 28, is a bartender and student in Manchester. Before the temporary cap, she regularly paid around £5.60 for a day pass, a price that amounted to “extortion” in her eyes. Though now in receipt of a student bus pass, there are other issues that go beyond fare, not least overcrowding.
“It’s a [struggle] to get on [the bus] in the morning, especially if I’m in uni at 9am. I have to get two buses and the second one is never, ever on time”. The sporadic night bus service also means that there have been times when she’s been forced to book a surcharged Uber at the end of her shift, or else walk across the city in the early hours of the morning.
And not everyone is thrilled about the £2 scheme. For some, there was the slightly wearying feeling that they’d heard it all before. Graham Biggs is the longstanding Chief Executive of the Rural Services network.
“It’s absolutely no benefit at all if there are no buses”, he said with a sigh over the phone from his home in Shropshire. “That’s the main issue here. And what’s going to be demonstrated in a three-month period? I doubt it will tempt many people to leave the car behind. One has to be a bit sceptical.”
Would the scheme entice him onto his local buses? The answer arrived before the question ended.
“No. It’s as simple as that.” In truth, he explained that he’d never really been a regular user, even before the pandemic. “Maybe I’d [go to] Shrewsbury or Ludlow. But I want the flexibility of being able to make the journey when I want to make it, to a time and destination that suits me.”
In late January, on another unpleasantly bracing winter morning, I took the train from London to Brighton.
Down on the Sussex coast, the city centre was filling up with a thin stream of commuters, striding purposefully against the cold. I made my way to Imperial Arcade, Stop K, and waited for the 12X. It would take me on the hour-and-a-half journey along to Eastbourne, one of southern England’s coastal retirement meccas. The Guardian had listed the journey as one of the most scenic of the £2 routes, a recommendation I wanted to appraise for myself.
A gaggle of excitable students filed on before me, flashing their cards at the contactless reader before making their way up the stairs. I took my seat and kept my eyes trained out the window, as the bus snaked across cliff tops and a run of pretty Sussex coastal towns. The students alighted in Newhaven and were duly replaced by a few elderly solo travellers, bunched up in scarves and heavy coats.
At the end of the line, I spoke briefly with our driver, Chris, a cheerful bloke in his mid-30s. He seemed a bit bemused by my questions, though perhaps that had something to do with needing to grab a comfort break before making the return journey. Had he noticed any difference in passenger numbers or anything else with the introduction of this £2 business?
“No, not much really,” he replied. “It’s easier on the drivers. But when it comes to an end, it’s going to be chaos, isn’t it? [Trying to] get people back onto public transport is a good thing. But it’s all been the same faces so far.”
It’s tough to say with any honesty what will happen when Get Around for £2 terminates at the end of March. But it doesn’t seem as if it will be anything particularly good. Representatives from the bus industry itself have continued to complain about the ongoing toxic cocktail of ballooning fuel costs and declining passenger numbers. Without further funding, they argue, further route closures and cuts will be an inevitability.
It’s the same old tale of decline and perpetual crisis management, after a brief, tantalising window of something approaching calm.