22 April 2005
In just four years, the capital's bus network has got bigger, better and faster with millions more passenger journeys each year. David Harding reports on London Buses, the command and control team that is responsible for much of this success
It had to happen. You wait ages for a compliment about buses to come along and then they all arrive at once at least they have in London.
Mayor Ken Livingstone has described the transformation of the capital's bus service as a 'success story'. Plaudits queue up like commuters. And the last mayoral election was fought, in part, on the performance of the bus network, something which seems as improbable to write about as it is no doubt to read.
Just as incredibly, transport experts from around the globe are travelling to the UK to find out the secrets of London Buses' success. The last time Britain exported transport ideas to the rest of the world was possibly when the Queen before last was on the throne.
'We get a lot of people coming to see us all the time, which is good. We have had a lot of contact from European partners you name a city and they have been here,' says Clare Kavanagh, performance director with London Buses. 'Paris in fact we have people from Paris here at the moment Barcelona, Florence,' she says her voice trailing off into a list that goes beyond Europe and ends with Ghana.
That success also caught the eye of the judges of the Public Servants of the Year Awards. London Buses walked off with the local government Team of the Year Award and was joint winner of the Outstanding Team of the Year Award.
London Buses' headquarters are unlikely to win any design awards, located as they are in an anonymous corner of Victoria on the grandly named but rather dull Buckingham Palace Road. You have to look closely just to find them. But there, on the third floor of an unprepossessing building close to the sprawling Victoria Coach Station, is CentreComm 'you can tell we have modernised, we even have capital letters in the middle of words,' jokes Kavanagh.
The name might sound like something that would be more at home in Nasa or the headquarters of a military campaign but CentreComm is 'a 24/7 communication centre' dealing with emergency calls from bus drivers.
There is a buzz and energy in the room as CentreComm gives out vital traffic information to drivers, and acts as a back-up centre if they or their bus is attacked 'code red' calls in the jargon. It even tells them how to deal with Tube and train tickets when services are disrupted.
CentreComm monitors 650 traffic cameras right across the capital, relaying crystal clear pictures back to the Victoria base. From here, you can check the level of congestion in Oxford Street, the flow of traffic around Clapham Common and even the problems caused by faulty traffic lights in far-off Hounslow. The facilities are shared with the Metropolitan Police, looking out for travel problems of their own.
'We are actively managing congestion along the bus route,' says Tony Coolican, an assistant manager at CentreComm. He is a veteran of London Buses, having started work as a driver from Poplar garage in 1974.
On the walls are pictures of the old bus operational centres which show how far traffic management has developed. Coolican chuckles at the memories of the low-tech systems in place not too long ago, which involved little more than a two-way radio, a pen and a piece of paper to chart the movement of buses.
'It has changed dramatically. It is much more customer-orientated than it ever was,' he says. 'We are a lot more proactive. We are looking for the problems and sorting them out before they become major problems.'
And there is another essential ingredient teamwork. 'This place couldn't operate without it. We are getting the information out to the guys on the ground for the service we need,' Coolican says.
Looking at the screens showing jaunty new buses, with power steering and other mod cons, filing their way round London's roads, fellow veteran Fred Whelan recounts a story that shows how things have changed. On his first day at work as a bus driver in 1970, with a full load of passengers on board, he was unable to steer his heavy old vehicle round a bend. 'I wasn't strong enough,' he admits.
On one of the desks is a thank you card from a driver who was attacked but was able to contact CentreComm quickly. They informed the police and officers came to the rescue within minutes.
The organisation has come a long way in the past few years. London Buses is not, as the layman might expect, the company that drives the buses. That is left to various operators in the private sector, including Stagecoach East London and Arriva. Instead, it manages the service in the capital.
London Buses plans routes, specifies service levels and then monitors the quality of the service that is delivered. It is also responsible for bus stops, shelters and bus stations. This is clearly a massive task. Effectively, London Buses implements the mayor's transport policies on a day-to-day basis. The difficulties of operating a transport network effectively in London are legion and that applies as much to the bus side of the operation as it does to the Underground or the car.
London has one of the largest urban transport systems in the world. Bob Kiley, the high-profile transport commissioner for London, is proud to point out that bus and passenger numbers have been rising in the past few years.
In 2000, when Transport for London took over the running of London Buses, 1.3 billion bus passenger journeys were made every year. Now, that figure has reached 1.8 billion.
In 2000, there were 5,500 buses on London's roads. Today, it is more like 7,000, which equates to something like 5.4 million passengers every day more than on the Tube.
It is the fastest rate of growth in bus passenger numbers in London since the end of the Second World War. Passenger use goes up in the unlikeliest of places, even including the once-dreaded night buses, which not too many years ago were as scary as a Stephen King novel. In 2002/03, the number of night bus passengers increased by 16%.
The service operates 24 hours a day, usually building every day in volume from 3pm right through the night. The network now covers some 438 kilometres, the highest number in almost 50 years. 'It can be as busy at 2am on a Sunday morning in the West End as it is during a Saturday afternoon,' says CentreComm's Coolican.
Overall, Ken Livingstone's Transport Strategy proposes a 40% growth in passenger journeys from 2001 to 2011. It is a major contributor towards the realisation of the government's transport targets as the ten-year Transport Plan includes a pledge to increase bus use by 10% by 2010.
'TfL has held custody of London's buses since July 2000,' Bob Kiley tells Public Finance. 'In this period there has been a revolution in the quality, reliability and capacity of the bus network. There are now 2 million more bus passenger journeys every working day than five years ago, and an equally dramatic increase in night and weekend bus use. The improvements are in no small part due to the outstanding work of the London Buses team.'
But numbers alone cannot measure the changes. The bus fleet has been markedly improved, even if it has been at the expense of the much-cherished Routemaster, which will be phased out by the end of this year. The average age for a bus in service is now five years. The vehicles of today are much more accessible for disabled users, and drivers are sent on disability awareness training courses. The buses are also generally more comfortable to travel in, especially the 'bendy buses', and most have CCTV in place, making it potentially safer for users.
The whole operation is designed to move passengers as quickly as possible. On many services, it is impossible to pay for a ticket on board. Instead, tickets have to be bought before travel or cards used.
Kavanagh says the whole point of this cashless system is to speed up travel times, because a boarding passenger often cannot find the right amount of change. It also has the happy side-effect of making drivers safer from potential attack, as no money is carried on board.
Every year, a fifth of the bus network is re-tendered, meaning there is a constant review of stock as well as the service. Performance levels have been included in the operators' contracts for the first time in the history of London buses, which have been running in the capital for 176 years. There is a BTec qualification for drivers and salaries have increased. 'Bus drivers feel they are getting a lot more support nowadays,' says Kavanagh.
Fares are kept reasonably low, a deliberate policy. 'We have a lot more passengers but they are paying less,' she says. Changes in the future could include a service that provides up-to-date information on the whereabouts of your next bus being sent straight to your mobile phone.
There should also be more women behind the wheel. Just 6% of drivers currently are women. With bus driving traditionally seen as a 'man's job', London Buses, the operators and TfL are jointly holding women-only open days to recruit more female staff.
Kavanagh says: 'The thing that is most startling is that it is not any one thing that has made the improvements, it is everything put together. The service is much more reliable than it's ever been.'
It is obvious there is a real sense of achievement at London Buses, that things are moving in the right direction. 'As things have got better, people have seen that they have got better and that is a massive thing to achieve,' adds Kavanagh.
To prove the point, Coolican says staff morale is so high there will be few job vacancies in his section soon. 'Nobody wants to leave. It is very closely knit here.'