A Welsh Bus Revolution

The Welsh government's plans to reverse decades of bus deregulation and create a publicly run network spanning the country are the most radical transport proposals anywhere in Britain – and key to fighting the climate crisis, writes Lee Waters.

Over the last fifty years we’ve created a car-dependent society, where we’ve made it easier for people to travel by car and harder to travel by public transport—this has to stop.

Transport accounts for 17 percent of our carbon emissions and we will not meet our overall Net Zero targets unless we can achieve a major shift in the way we travel, encouraging more people to swap their private car for a sustainable alternative, such as public transport, walking and cycling. 

Some would point to electric cars as the solution, but whilst they are a crucial part of a low carbon transport system, the UK Climate Change Committee is clear that as well as decarbonising the car fleet we also need to reduce the number of journeys—and we need to do it quickly. 

A car-centric transport policy not only fails the climate test, but it falls short on social justice grounds. More than 1 in 5 households don’t have a car, but the provision of key services too often assumes that they do. Surveys of bus users in Wales shows that around 80 percent of passengers don’t have an alternative to the bus, and have to rely on a bus network that is characterised by rising fares, shrinking coverage and poor reliability.

For nearly 40 years, legislation has prevented us from planning bus services and networks as a public service. Despite relying on hundreds of millions of pounds of public funding in Wales, private operators can choose which services they want to run— usually the most profitable—leaving local authorities to pick up the bill for providing services to more rural and less profitable locations. 

In Wales we want to deliver a bus system that is easy to use and puts people before profit. But first we need to unravel years of dysfunction and fragmentation that is not designed around the needs of the passenger. We need to make public transport the obvious choice for most journeys for most people.  Put simply, we need to make the right thing to do, the easy thing to do. 

The Welsh Government has set out in a white paper the most far reaching plans in the UK to create a planned system of bus services. We are designing a bus system that delivers one network that can be served by one timetable and one ticket, not just across a single city or region but spanning the entire country. 

These new proposals will empower local authorities, the people that know their area the best, to design and agree the services their communities need. We will pool expertise to give groups of councils the skills and expertise needed to secure a network that works for passengers, along with the procurement power, so that no matter where people live in Wales they will receive the same level of service. This will be complemented by lifting the ban on local authorities setting up new publicly owned bus companies so they can run services in the public interest rather than for the profit of private shareholders.

In continental Europe, franchising models are overseen by a ‘guiding mind’, bringing together key decision makers to collectively oversee public transport services, and ensure they are all pulling together to make it work as effectively as possible. I want to recreate that model in Wales, working together with Transport for Wales, regional local government representatives and representatives for operators, passengers, and employees to collectively ensure buses are meeting people’s needs. This will be a new way of working for us in the UK, but I believe it is a crucial step towards a modern, collaborative system which will allow us to address the challenges we face. 

Whilst we don’t have the luxury of time— climate change needs to be tackled now—we know legislation can’t happen overnight, so in the meantime we are going to be working with the sector to explore some quick improvements we can make to improve passenger experience in the short term. 

We know the road to bus reform won’t be easy, but if we make the right thing to do, the easy thing to do I am confident we can achieve change that will benefit us all and future generations.