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The Waiting Game

An examination of the quality of transport performance in UK cities. By Ian Souter.

Stagecoach Supertram 100% reliable. Unit 125 is seen at Malin Bridge on 4th March. The ugly feeder cables are one of the few jarring aspects of the Sheffield overhead installation. Picture David Smithie
Stagecoach Supertram 100% reliable. Unit 125 is seen at Malin Bridge on 4th March. The ugly feeder cables are one of the few jarring aspects of the Sheffield overhead installation. Picture David Smithies

One swallow does not make a summer, and one light rail route does not constitute an integrated transport network. For light rail to be able to play an effective part in a transport network, it is of fundamental importance that users can have confidence in the day to day performance of the network, a consideration which is equally valuable in ensuring that public transport is an attractive means of moving people about a city. The purpose of this survey is to examine the quality of service performance now being delivered in Britain’s biggest cities by their principal public transport modes.

The first point to report is that whereas there has been a long tradition of media/public interest in the performance of the country’s rail services, particularly in terms of its ‘punctuality’ (what proportion of services run to time) and ‘reliability’ (what proportion of services are likely to run),, public scrutiny of the equivalent performance measures for other local transport modes is not to the same level.

The United Kingdom’s light rail and bus operations are not subject to any national performance targets or performance monitoring process, each of the country's passenger transport authorities having its own criteria for performance measurement.

Since bus deregulation in the mid 1980s, with two important exceptions, the format of local bus service provision has become:

  1. A majority of services operated commercially, usually by privately owned operators.
  2. A minority of ‘tendered services’ run at the behest of local government which contracts with operators for services where there is a perceived social need.

Data on the performance of commercial services is generally not made available by operators, a matter of some irritation to local government which is obliged to undertake sample surveys of its own. Being operated for local government, provision of performance data on tendered services is a requirement of contract, this too being backed up by sample surveys. The UK's light rail operations are local government owned, and are operated either by themselves or by contractors under franchise; their performance is monitored in a similar manner to tendered bus services but with some electronic recording of data.

The exceptions referred to above are:

Table 1
ModeCriterionBest LocationWorst Location
Light Rail + UndergroundPunctuality (% right time departures)
Reliability (% of timetable run)
96.9% South Yorkshire (Supertram)
100% South Yorkshire (Supertram)
88.9% London 1
85.4% West Midlands
Commercial BusPunctuality (% right time departures)
Reliability (% of timetable run)
94% Translink (Ulsterbus) 2
99.4% Translink (Ulsterbus)
69.6% London 3
95.9% London
Tendered BusPunctuality (% right time departures)
Reliability (% of timetable run)
96.5% Merseyside 4
99.8% Tyne & Wear
93.7% West Yorkshire
99.0% Merseyside
Heavy RailPunctuality (% right time departures)
Reliability (% of timetable run)
93.7% Tyne & Wear
99.2% West Yorkshire
80% West Midlands
98% West Midlands
Source: Performance information supplied by passenger transport authorities in: Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, London.

Information supplied by transport authorities did not always include data on all criteria for all modes operating in their respective areas.

Heavy Rail data relates to experience within the boundaries of the respective authority and will not necessarily correlate with that reported under the national train performance reporting scheme.
Punctuality can be based on arrival or departure data as shown:
  1. Derived from published average and excess journey times for on-train element of a journey.
  2. Based on arrival times. Ulsterbus scored 100% using departure times.
  3. Based on "Low Frequency" services, i.e., more than 12 minute service interval. "Night" bus services are even less punctual with a 68.6% chance of leaving on time or within 5 minutes.
  4. Based on arrival times.

The following observations are offered on aspects arising from Table 1:

  1. Each authority has its own definition of ‘Punctuality’, the most liberal being London where a punctual departure covers the period between two minutes early and five minutes late.
  2. Some transport authorities monitor ‘early’ departures and it is apparent that this is a problem for all transport modes. From the information available, examples can be given for each mode for the proportion of services running early: Early is defined as greater than 2 minutes before scheduled time in London, 1 minute in South Yorkshire.
  3. There is no consistency in the definition of ‘Reliability’; some authorities exclude mileage lost through adverse weather and industrial action from bus reliability calculations. Such practice hides the extent of disruption of service to the public, but also serves as a general warning on the risks of using data for purposes other than for which it was prepared.
  4. The underlying sources of loss of scheduled bus mileage in London and of tendered bus mileage in West Midlands allocate the bulk of the shortfalls to bus crew shortages, traffic congestion and vehicle problems. The relative proportions of these factors are significant (see Table 2).
  5. The West Midlands light rail operation is still experiencing operating problems following its opening last year, vehicle shortage accounting for a large proportion.
  6. Some authorities have supplied sufficient data to show trends in punctuality and reliability in the previous twelve months. Overall, there have been minor shifts in both directions, the most disappointing results coming from London where bus services have dropped 1.4% in reliability, and punctuality of low frequency and night services has dropped by over 1 %.
Table 2
LondonWest Midlands
Bus crew shortage48.8%44.8%
Traffic congestion29.3%11.1%
Vehicle shortage or breakdown12.2%34.2%

The patterns of performance described above illustrate the erratic delivery of today’s local transport services and demonstrate the extent of the difficulties facing those who wish to see greater integration between transport modes. Three suggestions are offered:

  1. Whilst the national rail performance monitoring scheme may have many shortcomings, it does facilitate comparisons between operators, allows trends to be marked by interested bodies, and keeps the subject high in transport agendas. For the same reasons other public transport modes justify the same consideration. An attempt is being made by a group of local transport authorities to develop a standardised form of performance reporting for the UK; this initiative justifies support.
  2. Quality partnerships between bus operators and local authorities have been one of the structures offered to car users to encourage them to think more positively about using public transport.

    Strangely, the elements of partnerships set so far have not offered any assurances on service performance; no quality regime worthy of the name can exist without the setting, delivering and monitoring of performance targets.
  3. Urban bus operations have received much public support in the form of provision of bus lanes and other traffic priority measures. It is clear that other aspects of bus operation are seriously affecting performance and these warrant urgent attention both by local management and central government.

To conclude, light rail can deliver a high standard of performance when supported by good management and sound technology; an improvement in the quality of the connecting services provided by other transport modes has to be of benefit to all concerned.

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