Sunday, 16 February 2014

Council check: Essex County Council

This week, we take a look at how Essex County Council promotes the bus services on its patch.

Where do the buses go?

There's a comprehensive map of the entire county here. You can zoom in, click on a route number, and see who operates it and click through to the full timetable. This is really joined up. There are enlarged maps of all the major towns and cities too. 5 out of 5.


Use the map linked to above, click on any route number and you can click through to the timetable for any route in the county. It could not be easier. If you really don't like the convenience of the interactive map, you can find links to every bus operator in Essex here. 5 out of 5.


As usual, there is no info about single or return tickets. You need to go to the operators' websites to find out details of their own tickets. But, we have a ticket valid on all operators in the county: the Essex Saver. On Sundays, the Sunday Saver is surely one of the best value bus tickets available anywhere in the country. Plusbus also gets a mention, offering tickets in several areas of the county. 4 out of 5.


We have an excellent interactive map, that actually does what it should. Timetables are easy to find. The only reason Essex doesn't have full marks is that single and return fares are not publicised. Nevertheless, we have a new leader: Essex County Council scores a total of  14 out of 15.


  1. Before this series of articles, I have to say that I've never even considered looking on a council website for bus information. Perhaps as an enthusiast, I tend to know who the relevant operators are anyway? I've always managed fine with operator websites and Traveline. All that said, I'd certainly not expect to see a council website showing details of single or return fares, that does seem something of a bizarre expectation to me - how is the council supposed to keep that info up to date? Would you mark them up or down if such info was wrong and out of date compared to not being there in the first place?
    I suppose I'm of a mind that there isn't really a need for a council website to do anything more than direct people to the relevant operator sites and Traveline. Doing much more than that does tend to feed the irritating (and all too prevalent) notion that councils are responsible for organising all bus services on their patch irrespective of most of them being operated commercially and yes, I accept I have a problem with that!

  2. As an enthusiast you have a good chance of already knowing who the relevant local operators are. People new to an area or looking to make a one-off trip for business or tourism reasons probably aren't already armed with that knowledge. Councils making it easy for people to find out which buses run and who runs them makes it more likely that people will choose to visit and do business in a region, benefiting the wider local economy.

    Single and return fares can be found on councils' local transport portals throughout Europe. They are a key factor in persuading people into choosing public transport over the car or choosing one area to visit or do business in over another. The first step here is to get operators to share the basic information about how much it costs to use their services. Some are better than others. It is justified for councils or some other central authority to collect that information, make sure it is up to date and make sure that it is easily accessible to anyone who might be considering using the bus. No-one would use a supermarket that kept its prices a secret until you are standing at the checkout with a trolley full of shopping. To not let people find out how much they have to pay until they are standing in front of the driver puts a hell of a lot of people off getting to that point in the first place. The bus industry has so much to gain from being open and honest with its current and potential customers.

    Getting back to councils, Essex's investment in good quality information about local bus services benefits local residents, local business (not least the bus operators themselves!) and helps persuade tourists to visit the county. It is money well spent and really shows up some other local authorities in the country.

    As has been said many times before, if leaving everything to commercial bus operators was such an amazing proposition, they would be doing it in Greater London.

  3. Everyone uses the Supermarket checkout example to have a go at Bus Operators about fares but the comparison is not entirely accurate, Supermarkets are pay on departure but buses are pay on entry so they have a different structure - I can't say I have ever seen a supermarket provide anything resembling full pricing details anywhere but on the shelf by the item you want to buy (effectively the equivalent of the bus ticket machine). Just look at fast food restaurants where the only menu & price guide is next to the tills so you have to walk up to the counter before you can see how much it will cost, the issue for the bus industry is that we have lots of fares to try and minimise the comparative cost for each customer which comes with simpler & coarser fare structures.

    There is no easy way to show single & return fares for bus operators in non-urban areas, there are just too many fare stages and different fares for too many different journey opportunities to make it simple. My employers stick fare tables for all their routes on their website which is a good start but I've worked in the industry for over a decade and am an enthusiast so have a greater level of base knowledge than an ordinary passenger would be expected to have and I still struggle to read the fare tables and get the correct fare so it is not as simple as that. You could just put some exemplar fares for the busiest journey flows but that will only help a small proportion and is not going to be hugely helpful to many prospective passengers, sometimes it is still better to ask a member of staff for the price. Some operators offer a fare calculator of some sort but that does require someone with a better knowledge of programming than you are likely to find at a bus company - they tend to be on websites of companies who use outside contractors to manage their site so it comes at a cost that can be difficult to justify for small to medium sized businesses.

    The only reason London wasn't deregulated (and it was the intention initially) was that it would actually have had an effect on the MPs lives (I don't think I am being that cynical). Most of them live in London & they all work there and whilst they may not travel on the services themselves they would have been affected by bus wars and the like which characterised the early years of deregulation (think Glasgow & Manchester at their worst) which may have slowed their car journey to Parliament. London works but it costs a huge amount of money to make it do so, you have a choice much higher taxes and a London style regulated operation managed by Local government or less taxes and let the private sector do it to its best (which is often better), that said we could do with a bit more money or a bit less involvement - the government is trying to do things on the cheap and killing the bus sector at the moment.

  4. Yet again no mention of printed publicity 'on the ground'.

    Essex used to provide an excellent series of printed booklets that were relatively easy to obtain. The last single volume edition was far too cumbersome and replaced by one produced by an outside publisher at a very high price - which can I believe only realistically be obtained by post. I understand the cost issues of one being privately produced but that's the point.

    No help to the resident or visitor who pops into town expecting to get something from the TIC or library other than staff who don't understand the enquiry and/or insist they can only print out one timetable provided you know which ONE you want!!

    I don't think its realistic to expect councils to resource the maintenance of full timetables (much less fares information) on their own websites. Don't forget that second tier authorities are not transport authorities even though they may once have had their own bus company. Better if they provide links to appropriate (and hopefully correct) websites.

  5. Regarding the supermarket analogy, I think it is valid. Someone thinking of using the bus is the glance in the shop window. That's spotting the buses on the road and considering using them. Looking at products on the shelf is researching which bus goes where, who runs it and how much it costs to use. That's bus companies' and councils' websites and the information at the bus stops and stations - and this includes the price! Only once all that is in place and attractive to the customer are you likely to get someone to the checkout, or standing in front of the driver ready to buy a ticket. No price on the supermarket shelf: unsold goods. No way of finding out how much a bus journey costs: fewer people boarding and paying.

    Regarding councils, second tier authorities should (and in most cases do) have a clear link to the council that is responsible for transport. The ones that are responsible for transport have a duty to act for the benefit of taxpayers and surely providing information to make getting around the area easily is an integral part of that. Essex certainly thinks so.

    OK, not every council needs to go to the lengths that Essex has to attract tourists and customers to its businesses, but the least they can do is link to Traveline, making clear what it is and what it does and only doing so when it is fit for purpose, which currently in the North of England it is not. Links to bus companies' websites are good but only when the passenger has a way to find out which operator they need in the first place.


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