Confession out of the way first: I have a car and know how lucky I am to have a choice of transport mode. But with Wetherby having no rail service, I like to use the bus network as often as possible. In theory, it is a less stressful and cheaper way to travel, while helping reduce traffic congestion and being good for the environment.
It is in everyone’s interest that I use the bus as much as I can – so what puts me off? Over the last 15 years I have witnessed a deterioration in the infrastructure of our bus network in West Yorkshire. Infrastructure includes bus stations, bus stops, timetables and online information. The body responsible for a multi-million pound budget to maintain these things is Metro/West Yorkshire Combined Authority and they are publicly funded by you and me.
On a recent trip to Nottingham I noticed such a stark contrast between our infrastructure and theirs, I feel the need to highlight these differences and provide some impetus for improvements. There is no reason why we can’t have a similar excellent service in Leeds, a supposedly modern European city and integral part of the Northern Powerhouse.
As soon as I arrived at Nottingham railway station, I knew this city meant business. I found all the information I needed to travel to all my destinations by bus – printed maps and timetables on unmissable racks near the exit/entrance. There is nothing at all about buses in Leeds railway station since the well-used Visitor Information Centre was closed years ago. It had a comprehensive display of maps and timetables, whereas the current poorly-used Visitor Centre by the Art Gallery has no bus information, except DalesBus.
As for our other major entry point for travellers, Leeds Bradford Airport, you were lucky to spot any bus information in the building. Today there is nothing to promote the Leeds, Bradford, Wharfedale networks or the many different day tickets available in the West Yorkshire area. It is a nightmare for new travellers who will often pay more than they should and slow everybody down when they offer £20 notes to drivers. Since I highlighted this inadequate provision, Metro, LBA and the bus companies made a few improvements at the bus shelters but there are still no ticket machines or network promotion.
Nottingham City Transport have told me that nearly every single bus stop in the city has a real time display. Leeds cannot manage every single bus shelter, let alone stop. More serious is that the Metro real time system simply does not work most of the time. In my experience it gives wrong information more often than not, despite millions being spent on it. Nottingham’s system worked 100 per cent of the time during my recent visit. In summary, their passengers can have total confidence of which buses will stop at a bus stop and when it will arrive, accurate to within a few seconds. Metro’s ‘‘bus due’’ means at least another two minutes’ wait.
Meanwhile, Nottingham improves and promotes their network in obvious and effective ways, encouraging more people to use the buses. The buses themselves are new, comfortable, frequent double-deckers, most with onboard TV screens showing next stop information with announcements, invaluable to new passengers. Leeds has always had its fair share of new buses, some with next stop information, but the customer service on West Yorkshire’s main operator, First buses, has devalued this large investment. It is not hard to see why passenger numbers in Nottingham are increasing, bucking the national trend of decline.
Councillors and officials in our region should all take a trip to places like Nottingham, Brighton and Edinburgh to see what can be achieved with proper collaboration.
There are currently ambitions to double bus use in Leeds within 10 years and on top of that, leading councillors want to re-nationalise the buses and take control of them in the city. They believe they can take on the extremely difficult task of running a good bus service when they have failed so abysmally in providing high quality infrastructure, promoting bus travel and producing a coordinated transport system. It is left to individual taxpayers and bus passengers to speak out and demand better.
As for me, sorry Planet Earth, but I find I’m using my car more and more because it’s often too much hassle to plan bus journeys.
Maybe I should move to Nottingham. But why should I?
Paul Kirby is a bus campaigner from Wetherby