The multimillion pound bendy bus bye-bye debacle

By this weekend, all but one bendy bus route will have been axed. What will ditching the combustible death-wagons cost Londoners? Mark Smulian gets out his calculator

No more hogging the roads. No more needing inspectors and police assembled in gangs to catch fare evaders. No more bursting into flames on Park Lane.

London’s bendy buses will be completely banished by early December, ending - depending on your point of view - a nine-year reign of terror, or a laudable plan to boost the capacity of our bus network.

Conventional double deckers will replace bendy buses at what Transport for London says is only a modest total conversion cost of £302,000.

But it turns out there is in fact an extra fee: the £2.2m paid to terminate bendy bus contracts early (on the 29 and 207 routes), rather than waiting until they expire - as has happened with other routes.

More on those costs later.

For now, suffice for me to point out that by remarkable coincidence, this severance payment allows mayor Boris Johnson to deliver on his pledge to scrap bendies before the May election.

A TfL spokesman says: “This was a mayoral decision. He is chair of TfL and gave us a deadline to meet”.

Good riddance?

Each batch of bendy routes has gone to its doom accompanied by a barrage of mayoral insults.

It was once very different. When the 73 route went bendy in 2004, London Buses’ then performance director Clare Kavanagh declared: “The new accessible vehicles will be particularly welcomed by people with children in buggies, those with mobility difficulties or people with lots of shopping.”

The London Cycling Campaign had concerns. “We did not officially campaign for their removal but some of our members did, as they felt they were dangerous because of their length,” says campaigns officer Charlie Lloyd.

There was anecdotal evidence that people disliked being crammed into standing room on bendy buses, thus providing opportunities for pickpockets, and that the ease of fare evasion attracted dubious characters onto bendies.

Some people liked not having to climb stairs, and the ample space for wheelchairs and buggies, but that was only when they could squeeze aboard these crowded vehicles.

Less bendies = less seats?

Bendies carry 150 passengers, according to the Dawson Group, which re-sells the vehicles, but only 49 of them seated. A conventional double decker carries 90.

When the 73 route lost its bendies earlier this year, an Arriva Buses statement said 51 double deckers replaced 43 bendies.

Do the maths and 6,450 bus spaces have been replaced by 4,590.

TfL’s spokesman insists this comparison is invalid. “Timetables are carefully designed so that we have enough buses to meet peak demand and there is no capacity reduction on the 73 [route] except some around Victoria where there are other routes available.”

He said the lost capacity comes from off-peak times when it was not needed.

But what about the cost?

The true cost of scrapping bendy buses

TfL contracts operators to run groups of routes, usually for five years, at which point TfL can specify a different kind of bus.

According to TfL, the 12 routes affected by the bendy change cost £109.7m a year to run as bendies, and £110m as double deckers.

The extra £302,000, plus the £2.2m for early contract termination, will be more than met by reducing the £7.1m of fare evasion that TfL estimates bendies have resulted in. (Bendies are, of course, much easier to sneak onto without a ticket.)

The whole financial case for scrapping bendies derives from this saving, as opposed to the issues of passenger comfort and road safety.

TfL says surveys of evasion on both bendy and non-bendy routes allow it to build up a detailed statistical picture of lost revenue.

But transport expert and commentator Christian Wolmar says: “I am very dubious about savings from fare evasion - if they were true, this problem could have been dealt with in other ways.”

London Travelwatch’s policy director Tim Bellenger says: “The fare evasion figures are probably realistic because the bendies have had much higher rates of fare evasion than other buses, but to an extent it relies on a series of assumptions.”

The watchdog estimated in 2008 that replacing bendies with double deckers would cost up to £13m a year on the routes 38, 507 and 521 alone.

Bellenger said London Travelwatch arrived at this figure using TfL’s normal estimate of £250,000 to £300,000 a year for each new vehicle used.

How then has TfL arrived at such a low conversion cost?

Bellenger says this is partly reduced capacity and partly from new tenders. “The extra costs might be borne by operators who want to retain the contract, so they meet those as a business decision,” he says.

He thinks the loss of bendies has already caused problems. “Go to any terminus and you’ll see the results.

“At Victoria they have trouble even getting all the buses into the bus station.”

So it’s double deckers for now, but one day the mayor’s new Routemasters may be on the roads: vehicles with a conductor and open rear platform.

It remains to be seen whether demand will be sufficient for these to be mass produced economically, and whether TfL can pay for conductors without a huge fare hike.

As Londoners find out again and again, nothing comes without a price tag.

 

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