Why So Difficult?

Arriva Yorkshire
This blog started life as a series of posts on my canal boating blog Narrowboat Starcross and was intended to help other boaters unravel the mystery that is the UK's bus system. For that reason many of the examples given relate to places known to boaters but which may strike other readers as obscure. Boaters, like many people, are reasonably happy when it comes to using trains and I dare say that they'd be equally happy to get on a plane and fly to the other end of the planet - so why do they and so many other people people find it so difficult to use the bus to go a few miles down the road?
 This blog examines some of the reasons why people find bus travel so difficult and offers some assistance, but you can cut quickly to those questions that interest you by following the links in the right-hand sidebar.

Why so difficult?
Fundamentally, it's because buses are local - in concept and in organisation. The railways, despite fragmentation of ownership of the trains, still operate as a national network. You can still buy a ticket from anywhere to anywhere else that you can use on any train (although this may not be the cheapest option). There is one single telephone number and one website that can tell you all you need to know about where the trains go and what it will cost you.

The motorist has the benefit of a single national system of road numbering, even though he or she may not realise it, and maps produced by different publishers all follow the same basic approach and presentation of the network. If road numbers and maps are not enough there is a standard national system of signposting and road marking - all of which is provided at no cost at the point of use.

The bus user however, has none of this. Despite a concentration of ownership into several large groupings, buses are still organised on a local basis and each bus operator produces information in it's own unique way. There are even some bus companies that still insist on using the 12-hour clock, nearly 50 years after the 24-hour system was supposedly adopted as standard!  Because of deregulation and competition, bus companies would rather not tell you about other operators' services, even when they complement - rather than compete with - their own. Services are marketed on an individual rather than a network basis, which makes it difficult even for regular users to find out about buses they wouldn't normally use and there is a perception that the network is unstable, with frequent changes to routes and times, much more so than is really the case. I sometimes refer to buses as "the secret service" : they go about their job - doing it well in most cases - and catering for their regular passengers' needs but exist in  a closed world where outsiders can feel unwelcome.  But if you can actually break through the information barrier you'll find that for the sort of journeys buses cater for they are actually very good. On the whole they are reliable, much more so than trains, and once you've got the knack, quite easy to use. I realise that for some there is a stigma about bus use. Margaret Thatcher is alleged to have said that any man over the age of 30 seen on a bus is a failure in life, although there is no evidence she ever did so and a similar quote was attributed to the Duchess of Westminster a hundred and fifty years earlier! Yes, most people on the bus are only using it because they have no alternative and that means they are predominantly old, young or poor. But don't worry - they won't hold your position in society against you and they'll happily share their knowledge with you and help you out if you get into difficulty along the way.

 I shall assume that readers have internet access but also that such access may not be available to them at all times, particularly whilst travelling. There are some instances, particularly when we get to where the bus stops are, where smartphones are invaluable, but on the whole it's perfectly possible to manage without them as people always used to.

Finding Bus Times

Journey Planners

Most people will be familiar with journey planners either for rail travel or for planning car journeys. There are two widely-used journey planners for buses.Traveline and Transport Direct.

Traveline is run by a consortium of bus operators and local authorities and is organised on a regional basis. There are twelve regional sites, all accessible from one home page. The bus data is provided by local authorities, who maintain their own databases of bus services and contribute to a national bus database. Traveline also includes train and tram services.

Transport Direct is a government site that, using the same data, will plan a journey using buses and trains, just buses or trains or even by car. It's better than Traveline for long-distance journeys that cross regional boundaries.  The bus data for both sites is provided by local authorities that maintain their own databases of bus services.  The principle is simple. You enter your point of origin, destination and time of travel and are presented with a number of itineraries.

These sites should be used with caution!  Here are some of the pitfalls:
1)  You need to look closely at the results. As part of the research for this post I made an enquiry of both sites for a Saturday afternoon journey from Norbury Junction to Wolverhampton (chosen because I knew it wouldn't be easy). Traveline's East Midlands site (which also covers the West Midlands and large parts of southern England for some reason) couldn't find anything on a Saturday so gave me details for a Friday instead! This wasn't immediately clear and could have led to a very frustrating (non) trip.
Transport Direct couldn't find anything either, but at least it said so.  Traveline's West Midlands site however came up with a number of suggestions involving taxis to nearby villages from where buses could be caught.

2) Traveline has a facility to distinguish between "buses" and "coaches". Transport Direct doesn't and treats them all as buses. This can lead it to suggest using a National Express coach for a totally-inappropriate journey without explaining that on such services you are expected to book a ticket in advance. The worst example of this I have come across was on Transport for London's planner, which once advised me to get from Central London to Greenwich by getting a bus to New Cross Gate followed by a National Express Coach, with a one-minute connection!  Some planners even suggest using "dial-a-ride" type services even though these MUST be booked in advance and have routes and timetables that vary according to demand - making connections and exact timings very difficult.

3) Both sites can sometimes suggest changing buses unnecessarily. Buses using the same stretch of road won't always have the same running times and if the planner perceives that it can get you to your destination one minute quicker by changing buses it will suggest this without a thought for the practicalities. Where a change is necessary planners will often suggest changing buses at the first point that the routes come together, even if this is an obscure rural location, rather than waiting until the two buses come to somewhere more suitable such as the next town where a more reliable connection can be made.

4 The Planner will not necessarily suggest the obvious place to catch a bus. Planners are programmed to find the fastest route between two points. They will therefore suggest catching a bus from a stop at the edge of a town centre rather than a central bus station because that offers a "faster" journey. You can avoid this by specifying "Main bus station" in your enquiry, but then you might be advised to get a different bus to the edge-of-centre stop and change there if that offers a theoretically faster journey. For example, as part of a journey from Hereford to Norbury Junction I sometimes used to catch a 519 bus from Shrewsbury to Newport (Salop).  In order to minimise waiting time in Shrewsbury, the planner suggested catching a local bus to the edge of Shrewsbury and change to the 519 there, even though both services left from the bus station! Needless to say, I didn't bother.

So:  Check that the date of travel you requested is the one being offered; Ignore suggestions that include coaches or demand-responsive services and be wary of suggested connections that may or may not be necessary.

TIP: After obtaining an itinerary follow the links to the actual timetables of the suggested services. You may find that that a "connection" is unnecessary or can be made at a more convenient location. (I'm assuming everyone can read a timetable....)

Oh! and if you prefer to deal with a human being, or you don't have internet access, all the information in the journey planners is available over the telephone on 0871 200 22 33 or, if you prefer not to pay the 10p/minute charge (more from mobiles), you can use one of these geographical numbers here.

Journey Planners are OK for specific enquiries, not so good at giving a general overview of the bus network in a particular area.For this, you need a map.

Finding Bus Routes


 Journey Planners are fine for planning journeys between known points, but they can't give an overview of everything that may be available. Many bus users can afford to be flexible in their journeys - for example if you want to take buses into account when deciding where to leave your boat for a few days - or even moor permanently. With a Journey Planner you'd have to research each possible location as a separate enquiry - with a map the options are all there in front of you.

There is no bus map of the whole of the country. Attempts were made in the 1990s to produce a simplified version, showing only regular services, and I still have a copy.
Part of the Midlands bus network in  1999. See how it all joins up!
The map was linked to a national bus timetable, but the cost of producing that was so great that it couldn't be sold at an economic price and no funding was available to subsidise it.  You can see from the extract above, covering part of the midlands, how buses radiate out from towns and how all the routes join up to form a network that extends across the region and indeed across the country. However, if you look carefully enough you'll also see some places that are only connected indirectly.

Bus companies generally don't produce maps of their services, even in electronic form and certainly not in paper versions. I think it's partly because they don't consider their services as a "network" and that's  because they feel that their passengers never travel further than the end of the route on which they live. Even if bus companies did provide maps they would only show their own services and would therefore be of limited utility. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Local Authorities (County Councils, Unitary Authorities or Integrated Transport Authorities in large conurbations) have a duty to ensure that information on bus services is made available to their residents. They all interpret this duty differently and some are happy to leave everything to the bus companies. Others take a more enlightened approach and produce high quality maps and even timetables.

As ever, the first place to look for these is on the 'net. Councils have web addresses in a format  nameofcouncil.gov.uk and my experience is that it is usually easy to navigate from the home page to the relevant section dealing with buses. It's usually under "Roads and Transport" but often there is a direct link from the home page under the "most searched for" list or similar. There is more information in the Resources Menu on the sidebar.

From these sites you should be able to view or download a copy of the bus map for that council's area. Most of them will also show summary details of the frequencies of the services somewhere and there will be telephone numbers for more information.  The maps may not display very well on smartphones and won't display at all if you don't have a signal but they are usually also available in printed form. I would advise getting these from the council by post before you need them as they are often difficult to find locally. In theory they are available from outlets such as libraries and tourist information centres but I know from my own experience when I used to produce maps for Herefordshire Council that they were often kept under the counter because "if we put them out people would take them all" so if you do need to pick one up from such places don't expect to find them on display.  Not all councils produce such maps, more's the pity; those that do are identified in the Resources Menu.

TIP OF THE DAY: If contacting a council to request a map you may find it more productive to ask to speak to the "Public Transport Section" rather than attempt to deal with the call centre that usually takes calls these days. Someone there may be able to find you a copy even if they have officially "run out".

The maps are usually limited to the area covered by the council, although through routes into neighbouring areas may be shown in full if space allows. For cross-boundary journeys you may need more than one map and, inevitably, they will be of different styles and even, confusingly, may use the same colours and symbols to mean different things!  On the plus side, many of them show rivers and canals, which should make it easy to relate them to where you are, or want to be on the cut.

Unfortunately, even the best maps are unlikely to be detailed enough to help you find out where the bus actually stops - but there are ways of overcoming this.

Finding Bus Stops

Bus Stops

From feedback I've received it seems that  the hardest part of bus travel is finding out where the bus actually stops and making sure you are waiting in the right place. It's easy by train: once you've found the station there is usually enough information to find the correct platform and as with trams the presence of the track is a reassurance that something will be along sooner or later.  But buses are "flexible". Transport planners see this as a virtue - an ability to react quickly to changes in circumstances - but for the occasional passenger it's a problem and leads to uncertainty. Because the industry is so poor at selling its services you will discover bus stops that have no indication of which buses use them, much less when they go and you'll also find buses that stop at places where there is no indication that they might do so, but again, these deficiencies can be overcome.

It's here where the internet and the smartphone comes into its own. Zoom in far enough on Google Maps and you'll eventually come to a layer on which the bus stops are shown. It's pretty accurate, although as with anything on computer it depends on the accuracy of the data that's been entered in the first place. Click on the bus stop symbol and a box opens showing the bus stop name (Yes, every bus stop in the country has an official name, although it's not always the one the locals use!) Sometimes, as here at Braunston Church, you'll also see the times and destinations of the next few buses plus a link to Traveline. In other places,such as here at Wigan Top Lock there will be a link to Transport Direct and a departure board showing rather more departures.  In all cases, clicking on "more" in the box brings up a link to Google's Street View - here's Braunston Church, which I find particularly useful in confirming I'm waiting at the right place. 

All this information is also available for smartphones via a number of apps. You can find a full list on Android Market under "Transport" I used to use "Catch That Bus", which I paid-for but which since its last upgrade is now "incompatible with my device"!  So I've changed to the free "UK Bus Times" . It will either find your location using GPS or you can type in a remote location or select a favourite. In all cases it will show the location of the nearest bus stops. A click on the symbol brings up a box with the stop name and the numbers of the services that stop there. Click on that box and you get a list of the departure times of the next few buses.  A WORD OF CAUTION HERE: According to which app you use,the list may be of the NEXT few buses irrespective of which day they run. An enquiry made on a Saturday evening for travel the following day might show departures at convenient times. However, if there is no Sunday service these will be MONDAY's buses!

The app can show all the services from a particular stop - not just those due to depart shortly - and  clicking on a service brings up a list of stops for the whole route, which can also be displayed in map form. Clicking on one of the stops on the list brings up all the same information for that stop, including Street View, which I find useful to help identify my destination stop if I've not used it before.

By the way, the times you will be given are, in most cases, scheduled times: the time the bus is due. It's a tribute to the reliability of the bus network that many people assume the information is "real time" i.e. when the bus will actually arrive.  If you are given a time (08.14, 17.27 etc) that will be a scheduled time. If, however, the display says "3 minutes" or similar that is "real time" irrespective of the schedule.

And another word of caution.  You may find, as I did in Alrewas last year, that the information on the app conflicted with that shown on a printed timetable displayed at the stop!  I resolved the matter by asking a passer-by, who confirmed that the bus to Lichfield stopped at that stop and not opposite as suggested on the app. I reported the matter via the app and am pleased to see it has now been corrected. The problem, as ever, was incorrect data in = rubbish out.

TIP OF THE DAY:  Check and compare all possible sources of information - and if in doubt - ask a bus driver.

  Next: How to find your bus stop without the aid of technology.

You are in an unfamiliar location. You know there is a bus that will take you to where you need to be, but where does it go from? If you have a copy of the timetable it should at least give you a stop descriptor: "Bus Station", "Rose & Crown" (pub names are popular) etc, but of course you still need to find these.

In town.
If your bus goes from the "Bus Station" then you are in luck. Every passer-by should know where it is, even if they haven't used it for years. It should also appear on pedestrian signage around the town. If in doubt, a good place to start would be the railway station. Not that the bus station will necessarily be anywhere near, this is the UK after all, not continental Europe, But in the station there should be a map of local information, which includes bus stops.

If there isn't a bus station, or if your bus goes from somewhere else, it's not so easy. In town, all bus stops usually have some indication of which bus uses them - either a service number on the flag (the "bus stop" sign) or in a timetable case. At major stops you might even find a plan or chart showing which bus goes from where. BEWARE though, that in some towns, Stafford is a case in point, where the council has left the provision of information to the major operator, that services run by other operators may be ignored. For these, you'll just have to ask the waiting passengers.

 In Villages
It's usually easier in a village because there are fewer stops to choose from and fewer buses using them. The chances are that all buses in a particular village will use the same stops, so it's just a question of working out which side of the road to stand. (This though isn't always obvious - or logical - as by-passes and new roads have forced buses to take circuitous routes in places or to double-back on themselves as I found in Alrewas).  Bus stops are usually located near village landmarks, pubs, post offices (or former post offices!), schools etc. and everyone in the village will know where the bus stops.  In smaller villages, or areas where the council is less active, the stops may be unmarked. These are known as "custom and practice" stops. Buses have stopped there for years but no one has ever got round to putting a sign up!  With experience you should be able to spot them - a patch of tarmac on a grass verge put down for passengers to wait at (the stop I use at Anderton is like that), or an "obvious" place such as a pub forecourt or outside a shop.

Out in the Country
You are unlikely to find a marked bus stop in the middle of nowhere, except possibly on busy main roads, where they will have been sited for safety reasons. But you may be trying  to catch a bus near an isolated canal bridge, or lock, and need to know where to wait.
The good news is that where there is no system of fixed stops buses will stop anywhere that it is safe to do so. "Safe" generally means not on a bend, the brow of a hill, a major road junction, or where there is fast heavy traffic i.e. a trunk road.  Note that junctions with minor roads are OK, and in fact these are usually "custom and practice stops" anyway. You'll also need to find somewhere safe to wait off the road and choose a spot where the driver can see you (and you can see the bus approaching). It's important to give a clear hand signal to the driver (hold your left arm out at 90 degrees with palm facing the bus). In fact, it's a good idea to do this at any bus stop, it certainly helps the driver - and the locals do sometimes spend a lot of time gossiping at bus stops without intending to go anywhere.

TIP:  If in doubt ask a local and make sure the driver of the approaching bus knows you want to catch it.

Fares, Tickets and Passes

Fares, Tickets and Passes
Having found out what time your bus is due and where it stops, there is just the matter of how  you pay - and how much it will cost.
Feedback I've received so far on these posts has suggested that I am merely confirming that buses are more complicated and harder to use than trains. The good news is that bus fares are a lot simpler than their railway equivalents, although there are still a few things worth knowing to help you get the best deal.

For one-off journeys you always pay the driver on the bus. Off-bus ticketing is restricted to weekly or longer period tickets although there are some multi-journey day and weekly tickets which you buy on the first bus and use on subsequent ones and others that must be bought before you travel. Here are the main types of ticket: Note that there are no "advance" fares or "first class" fares to complicate matters. On the bus, everyone pays the same fare!

Single Tickets - One ticket - one journey -  in one direction. The fare varies according to distance on a tapering scale (i.e. the further you go, the less per mile you pay). In urban areas there may be a "flat fare" in which one fare covers all journeys irrespective of distance. One of the best bargains in the UK for bus travel is in the West Midlands, where the bus company National Express West Midlands has a flat fare for all journeys other than very short ones of £2. This covers journeys such as Birmingham to Wolverhampton, Walsall, Coventry and Stourbridge. Unfortunately, other bus companies are very secretive about the level of their single and return fares and I can't really offer any tips as to how to prise the information out of them, although a direct email enquiry to customer services from the website might elicit a response.

Return Tickets - You'll not see this mentioned anywhere, but on the buses a "return" is almost always a "day return". In other words you have to make both the outward and the return journey on the same day. It's always cheaper than buying a single each way, sometimes significantly so, but it is usually only valid on the buses of the company that sold it to you. If two companies operate on the same route they won't usually accept each others tickets. It's not necessarily their fault. The government believes that for them to do so would be "anti-competitive" and that the best interests of passengers depend on out-and-out competition at all times. It's nonsense; but it's the law. (Note that the same argument doesn't apply to the railways, where "any-operator" fares are protected by law!)  In some cases, such as where a council has entered into a subsidy contract for one company to provide extra journeys on a route, such as in the evenings, a condition of the contract may be that the daytime company's tickets are accepted. If so, it will usually say so in the timetable (although if you are looking at the bus company's timetable rather than a council one the extra journeys may not be acknowledged in the first place!)

Day Tickets If your journey involves using more than one bus a then a day ticket may save you money. Day tickets give unlimited travel for one day over a given network of services. They often, but not always, have a restriction that means you can't buy one until after the morning peak (usually about 09.00 on Mondays to Fridays).Note that this is not the same "morning peak" time that applies to concessionary travel covered below.
There are two sorts of day ticket: Operator Specific and Geographic. Operator-specific tickets are only available on one bus company's services.  The larger bus companies, such as First, Stagecoach and Arriva always offer a range of day tickets for varying parts of their networks and, unlike ordinary single fares, these are widely advertised, often on the outsides of the buses themselves. "Geographic" tickets are organised by local authorities and cover all operators in a given area. They are most common in large urban areas where they may also include tram and even train travel, but can also be found in some more rural areas, such as Derbyshire or Wiltshire. They tend not to be so widely promoted, because bus operators have to share the revenue from sales and would rather sell you one of their own operator-specific tickets.  If I can find a list of such tickets anywhere on the web I'll include it here when I transfer these posts to a permanent "page".

Longer Period Travel Tickets  Many bus companies will sell you a ticket for a week's, a month's or even longer travel. They usually cover a whole network rather than an individual route. Weeklies can almost always be bought from bus drivers, longer period tickets may have to be bought in advance from company outlets. Note that tickets bought on the bus - and some longer period tickets - will not carry a photograph and can therefore - in practice if not always officially - be used by more than one person (but not at the same time, obviously!).  In the metropolitan areas (Tyne & Wear, West and South Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands) there are also tickets available that cover ALL bus operators in the area. These are sold in addition to operator-specific tickets and do cost more, but offer full flexibility of travel and can include trains and trams.

Concessionary Passes -

The best bargain of all, but there's a snag - you have to be an old enough to qualify! The English National Concessionary Bus Travel Scheme  gives eligible persons the right to a pass that allows them free bus travel throughout England. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own schemes). Eligibility is based on age and the qualifying age (for both men and women) is the age at which a woman with the same date of birth would receive her state pension. Women's state pension age, and therefore the bus pass age, is in the process of being increased from 60 to 65 over a 10 year period but there is a calculator here that you can use. Leave the gender set at female, even if you are male, to get the right answer.
Once you've qualified you must contact your local county council, (or equivalent unitary authority). You'll need to be a "permanent resident" of the district and to be able to prove it. Continuously Cruising" boaters should make use of whatever address on the bank that they use for doctors, pensions and the like but you'll still need something that identifies you as a resident. Each council sets its own criteria as to what evidence it can accept.

The pass allows free travel on all "local" bus services (best defined as those on which you cannot reserve a seat, although some "tourist" type services are also excluded). Some quite lengthy services are included such as the buses in the East Midlands that link Leicester, Northampton, Peterborough and Milton Keynes. The pass can be used at all times between 0930 and 2300 on Mondays to Fridays and at any time on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. Some councils allow travel before 0930 within their own area and for their passholders only as an add-on to the scheme.  The evening restriction gives rise to an interesting anomaly. The times 0930 and 2300 are inclusive, so you can board a bus at 0930 (but not before) and at 2300 (but not after). However, if a bus due at 2300 is late, the pass should still be accepted. (If a bus due at 0930 arrives early, it should wait for time!) The anomaly comes on a Friday night. The pass stops being valid at 2301, but because there is no morning peak restriction on a Saturday it becomes valid again at midnight! Admittedly, not many buses run this late, at least outside London, but where they do, you can use them.

Concessionary Passes are also available to people with certain disabilities, in which case there is  no age restriction. Contact your local county council (or equivalent) to find out if you qualify.

How to Complain or Compliment

The vast majority of bus journeys pass without comment and passenger satisfaction levels are higher than most train operators manage; but sometimes things go wrong. So, what to do?
It's not much good complaining to the driver. Even if he or she is in the wrong your complaint will go no further and no corrective action will be taken. Your first course of action should be to approach the bus company management. Each bus carries the name and address of its legal owner, usually towards the bottom of the bodywork on the nearside (the pavement side). However, this will only be a postal address and in any case may be the address of a large umbrella company that ultimately owns the vehicle. There is a list of major bus operators in the Resources List in the sidebar.  It's better, particularly if you want to make a complaint by e-mail (which is better than a phone call, as a written record is preserved), to check on your ticket or in the timetable leaflet for contact details. You should always keep your ticket as it carries vital information that allows the bus company to trace the bus and/or driver involved in any incident.
In most cases you should receive a satisfactory response from the company, but if you don't, two further courses of action are open to you. If the service concerned is subsidised by the local council they might be able to deal with the matter on your behalf, particularly if a breach of contract has occurred (the contract between the council and the company to provide payment in return for operating the service). If you are not sure whether the service is subsidised or not (most aren't) you can always still copy a complaint to the council and make sure the bus operator knows you have done so.  If you are still dissatisfied you could take your complaint to the "Bus Appeals Body" an organisation that offers to resolve complaints after all other avenues have been exhausted.
However, please don't expect much in the way of compensation. Unlike the railways, bus companies are not obliged to offer any compensation for delays or cancelled journeys. Most operators will consider offering something in cases where major inconvenience has occurred, such as the cancellation of the last journey of the evening - but even then only if the complainant was faced with difficulty in getting home. But for run-of-the-mill late running, cancellation, missed connections etc don't expect anything to be offered other than an apology.

Should, however, you receive exceptional service from a driver, or other member of staff, please let the company know. A bus driver in Plymouth once held up his bus and insisted on conducting a thorough search of the vehicle himself to help me retrieve some valuable property that I'd lost and although I rewarded him at the time, I've always regretted not telling his employer how grateful I was. Bus drivers take a lot of flak in the course of their work and don't expect much in the way of thanks from the public, so if you have cause to do so - please say thank you - and make sure the company knows as well.