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  • Gareth Davies

When the Train Becomes a Bus. May 2020

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

There are some strange events taking place during this unprecedented time of lockdown. A significant one is the fact that our railways have sort of been re-nationalised. Aware of the fact that the rail companies and the rail system was in danger of imminent collapse, the government has stepped in, abandoned the existing franchise system and re-awarded the franchise holders with ‘stay-put, we’ll pay you’ contracts. So the train operators are now paid a set amount (apparently 2% over the cost of running the railway) by the government.

Naturally the amount the government was willing to pay would determine the level of service to be offered to the public during a time when people were exhorted to stay at home unless travel was essential. This immediately meant a scaled down level of service which has taken place across the country. In the case of the Hereford-Worcester-Birmingham service the government in association with West Midlands Trains (the franchise holder) determined no trains would run between Hereford and Worcester and a bus would be substituted.

Fair enough you might say at this exceptional time of lockdown. But are there undertones? It is easy to see the Department for Transport rail section rushing for the archive shelves and dragging down the results of an exercise that took place in the 1980’s on bus substitution for rail services. I was in the industry at that time and was involved in that exercise. It was an exercise to save the government money.

The general policy paper that emanated from the British Railways Board in 1983 is appended here for interest. You will note that bus replacement has moved away from that of the Beeching era idea when lines were closed and bus services replaced them. In the document there are strong hints of buses replacing some trains in an integrated timetable. Where trains are lightly loaded, say evenings and Sundays, the temptation to save train and signalling costs by replacement with a bus have always been lurking in the background. Hence the change of terminology to bus substitution. The concept is widely practiced by SNCF in France where you will often see the note ‘autocar’, signifying a bus, appearing against certain journeys in the railway timetable.

Incidentally, there is already an example of long standing bus substitution in the Marches timetable. On a Sunday morning the 0750 train from Shrewsbury to Hereford is a bus. Note the symbol at the top of the column.

The long delayed Williams Rail Review is also likely to pronounce that the current franchise system is not fit for purpose, although what will replace it remains unknown. Whatever it is, hot foot on the continuing disastrous effect of the lockdown on rail services, it follows that the government is likely to be desperate to save money. So bus substitution for some journeys at certain times of the day and week cannot be ruled out. We live in very interesting times!

The British Railways Board General Policy Paper of 1983 is shown below.

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