Barriers to bus travel


Bus Companies have never been good at publicising their services but today this is considerably worse to the extent it is pitifully inadequate. Bus companies used to produce an all embracing timetable in a standard national UK A5 format which would cover all of that company’s services, plus the majority of those run by other operators in their area. These included all sorts of local details, including town maps, showing where to board the bus, and half days, plus market days, and location of public toilets and buildings of interest. These were priced as loss leaders.

These had an index covering every town and village with a note of the services passing through and page numbered to find the relevant timetable.

Upon deregulation in 1986, when the Competition Commission (now the CMA) became heavily involved in bus services, advertising other companies’ routes was not permitted if they considered it might lessen competition. It meant for example that a commercial service operated during the day by operator A, but subsidised in the evening and worked by operator B, was unable to have a full timetable on one sheet of paper or in one place, which is ludicrous it being considered that operators should now be seen to be co-operating but rather competing even when not working the particular service at the same time.

Then the lazy introduction of individual leaflets for each service became the norm meaning that if a town/village was served by more than one service, more than one leaflet was required and often bus enquiry offices (now a rarity) ran out and an incomplete picture was provided but inevitably it saved money. Many operators do not provide paper timetables.

Even this deteriorated into having almost everything on the internet which is often not readily available to much of the prime market – pensioners and others who may not be computer literate or lack of signal. Again this is sheer bad practice by the bus company management.

The solution is to retain what is on the internet / APP at present, but introduce the ability to print off paper timetables for a whole area. It should be possible in a small county like East Lothian for all of the bus services, including school routes, to be amalgamated into a virtual booklet that can be printed off by those who are computer literate, say on the ELC website. ELC should offer a service, at a commercial cost, to those who are unable to do this, and post these out to potential passengers.

Information at bus stops ought to be the responsibility of ELC – as in the majority of council areas, but in East Lothian it is left to the operators, at least one of which simply puts up a QR code on the bus stop giving access to their timetable for that route which is unacceptable for those without a smart phone or if there is no/poor signal. ALL bus stops should have written timetable information that is fully kept up to date.

The concept of having a paper timetable readily available in the home is well understood as it is easier simply to look it up and see when the buses run – quick information at the fingertips rather than grappling with an APP or the internet or turning up at the bus stop to find the information at the stop is out of date or non-existent.

The concept of having a fully amalgamated, printable, record of all county bus services is straightforward and relatively inexpensive to put into practice.


Travelling by bus was the norm years ago and everybody knew how to use them, but as the motoring generation took over bus use declined resulting in fewer people using buses to the extent that the majority of middle aged males and many females have never used a bus, or if at all, on very rare occasions. It does not help when operators have different paying systems – e.g. do you state your destination, or if there is a one fare system do you state it at all? Do you have to tap off as well as tap on? There are two contactless pads – one for your contactless card, and the other for concessionary passes. It is not clear which is which to infrequent travellers.

A large number of educated people do not know how to use a bus, read the timetables, or what is expected of them when alighting – e.g. ringing the bell or indeed when to rise from your seat to alight many waiting until the bus has actually stopped and passengers board creating conflicting movement in the passageways. Many have no idea where the buses go, or their route, particularly in built up areas. Do they have to signal the bus to stop at a bus stop by waving their hand, and at night using a torch or lit mobile phone?

What is required is a simple user guide, including how to pay. Bus Users UK believe that if cash is not accepted on a bus, it may infringe The Equality Act (2010) by discriminating against the sector of the population who do not have bank accounts (about 18%), or use bank cards and it is only a question of time before one of the Charitable Foundations decides to create a legal precedent under that Act.  

I believe that at least one operator in East Lothian does NOT accept cash on its buses although you would not know this from its website.  


With the increasing cost of subsidising rural bus services, and evening and Sunday services, the responsibility of Local Authorities (introduced with the 1968 Transport Act, but not properly funded), there is current ‘fad’ of using software similar to that for say parcels delivery drivers who have their route worked out the day beforehand. This results in what is called ‘Demand Responsive Transport’ (DRT) where often a fixed route and timetabled bus service is totally replaced with the DRT service. The ONLY advantage of a DRT service is that it covers small pockets of highly rural and isolated populations not currently served by a fixed route bus, something which in Europe is covered by identifying those in need and providing them limited paid for local taxi trips, perhaps 2 or three per month which is considerably cheaper than DRT. 

Most DRT operations rely on pre-booking your journey the day beforehand which destroys impulse travel, which is one of the benefits of car travel and is seen as possibly the biggest barrier to using a DRT service and certainly puts DRT at a serious disadvantage to the car including introducing a major barrier not there beforehand compared to a fixed route bus service. There is also no guarantee that the passenger’s desired journey can be catered for timewise, as the route and timetable are always a compromise, so making appointments is tricky. Usually the potential passenger will only find out if their journey can be catered for the following morning or later in the previous evening, which is useless if it cannot and arrangements have been made for an appointment. The majority of DRT operations have been funded by central government grants on a one off basis (although some local authorities – the minority – have done so themselves) covering, say, two years of operations, and now these are running off analysis shows consistently that the cost of subsidising per passenger is substantially above that of a fixed route bus service, often almost double, and further the number of passengers has fallen by as much as 60% vis-à-vis what was carried before on the fixed bus route. Attempts by local authorities to replace the DRT service by reintroducing a subsidised fixed bus route has resulted in substantially higher subsidy costs at a time when that can be least afforded, and often the replacement services are only a shadow of what went before with only a handful of retained passengers. NOT ONE DRT service has survived the abrupt cut off of grant finance and in short DRT is resulting in the obliteration of rural bus services without adequate replacement when the DRT finance ends. There is now sufficient experience and evidence available to ensure that DRT is not expanded and generally is not even considered for replacement of fixed route and timetabled bus services.

Publicity for potential passengers to phone in, or use an APP to book their journey is usually appalling. Some DRT minibuses have the phone number plastered all over them, but that relies on actually seeing the bus and realising what it is, others do not and rely on internet or APP information. Passengers have to know beforehand that the service exists, how to use it and where to phone and who vitally operates the service in order to book. At Humbie Hub, for example, the now withdrawn limited bus service from there to Haddington had paper timetables on the counter. Now that it has been replaced by a DRT operation, there seems to be nothing (that I could find).


Buses are often thought to be unreliable. Generally speaking they are not, but can be caught up in traffic congestion (not of their making) and affected by staff shortages. It only takes one example of a bus not turning up, or passing a passenger at a stop, or running late, for buses to be regarding as unreliable in general. Many operators have an APP where it is possible to see where the bus is on the route, and knowing this often takes out any uncertainly suffered by the intending passenger. This also includes the reasons for any major delays. Real time bus stop information – expensive to implement – also is important but because of cost is mainly confined to urban areas, whereas there would be real benefits is more rural areas where frequencies tend to be lower. The reliability of these systems is poor.

In addition if the information is not real time, the due time that a bus passes the bus stop is displayed and, if the bus is running even slightly late, that information will disappear from the screen when the due time passes. This causes frustration amongst passengers who see the bus vanish from the screen when it has not even arrived and is not in sight.


This is closely linked to available information. The concept of having a frequency that is so high that ‘turn up and go’ is the norm is not usually the case. It is in Musselburgh High Street where there are up to 22 East Coast Buses services at some stops, plus Prentice services, per hour, but many routes run at half hourly intervals or less in the evenings. Simply knowing when a bus is scheduled to operate is invaluable so you know what to expect. Turning up to use a bus without knowing when the bus is due is one of the most common reasons that frequency is complained about, and again this goes back to the availability of information.


Bus Users UK, which has amongst other duties, the role of the only Alternative Dispute Resolution organisation that specialises in the Bus industry, records unresolved complaints and categorises them so that tends can be ascertained. It has to be said that driver and staff attitude is almost always in the top three along with punctuality and reliability. There is no doubt that whilst drivers of larger operators are generally put on customer charm courses, there are all sorts of issues that can affect them. These can be personal at home, heavy traffic congestion, downright rude passengers, badly behaved passengers, people who refuse to pay their fare and sorting out disputes between passengers who have pushchairs and/or wheelchairs and fully able passengers sitting or standing in the disabled area, cyclists holding up the bus in a bus lane etc.  Running late can also be frustrating for drivers as the Traffic Commissioners have the power to fine bus companies where an operator runs more than 5 minutes late.

If passengers encounter poor attitudes of drivers they should never become involved in an argument and appreciate the real pressures they are under doing their job and make appropriate allowances.


The cost of using a bus is often inaccurately compared to car travel. The latter is usually simply calculated as fuel cost, often fuel already being ‘in the tank’ and hence regarded as no additional cost at all on the day. This ignores other costs such as insurance, depreciation, servicing, parking etc. which when added up and apportioned are likely to exceed the cost of the bus journey.

A detailed costing of owning a car including all of the above including loan repayments vis-à-vis using the bus all the time will show a major saving in favour of the bus over say a year of average use even if say, for special journeys such as a holidays, a car is hired for convenience. 


Buses are regarded as slow compared to cars for a variety of reasons. However buses become embroiled in traffic congestion exactly the same as cars. Bus lanes, when operating correctly, often result in buses travelling quicker than queued up cars in these sections. Buses generally strictly obey speed limits so when they travel at 20mph, passengers often note cars overtaking them travelling much faster and hence regard the bus as slow. (Bus drivers are loathe to accumulate points on their licence for fear of losing it and their job.) The mass introduction of 20mph limits in East Lothian (elsewhere in Scotland this is not the case – e.g. parts of Aberdeenshire where they are a rarity or restricted only to small town centre locations) has resulted in buses travelling slower, journey times extended and hence cost of operation.


Rail timetables tend to be highly inflexible and are subject to national agreement amongst Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and Network Rail and can take years to perfect, change and introduce. The rail industry therefore takes the view that if bus/rail connectivity is to be introduced it is the bus industry that has to be able to change timetables to effect connectivity with rail.

However, The Equality Act (2010) is proving to have major unintended consequences in this regard. This stipulates that any NEW facility (and this includes a new bus/rail connection) must be fully compliant with the Act. If it is not, then it is not the bus or train operator that is fined for non-compliance, but the advertiser of the connection. This means that even if a connection may be compliant, it tends not to be advertised, which is ludicrous.

To be compliant, alighting at a railway station means that the disabled person must be able to cross from one platform to another in a manual wheelchair travelling at the legally agreed 1.5mph. Hence, in East Lothian, the only stations that are compliant within the curtilage of the railway station are North Berwick (only one platform) and Dunbar, where lifts have been installed following the new platform being opened (this being considered a new facility under the Act). However bus/rail connectivity at Dunbar is not compliant or available as the turning circle is too tight for a bus, and hence access to the nearest bus stop in the High Street is equally non-compliant as the distance is too great and the gradient of the hill to the High Street is also non-complaint, all of which are specifically detailed in the Act. None of the ways of changing platforms at Musselburgh, Wallyford, Prestonpans, Longniddry and Drem are compliant without serious capital expenditure by the rail industry. At North Berwick, the only East Lothian compliant station, the Community Rail Partnership’s efforts to introduce connectivity with Eve’s 120/121 buses to Dunbar and Haddington failed because an alighting wheelchair from the train required 8 minutes to board the bus to be fully compliant. This meant that the bus would have had to terminate at the station in the bus layby rather than simply pass the station, as the train is only at the station for around 10 minutes. The CRP has given up trying to effect bus/rail connectivity, as has the Strathallan Community Rail Partnership between Stirling and Auchterarder by connecting at Gleneagles, but again similar issues have been encountered.  

As noted below, the bus industry is fully compliant with disability matters. It is the rail industry that requires to effect changes to stations, and those responsible for access outside the station curtilage to ensure that access to the nearest bus stop is compliant, including the provision of sunken kerbs and ensuring that pavements are sufficiently wide to enable two wheelchairs, or one wheelchair and another wheeled vehicle such as a buggy, can pass without having to go onto the road. (This is proving to be a serious problem in London).

Other legislation controlled by the Competition and Markets Authority equally has to be changed as they will not permit any bus/rail connectivity where the bus operator and train operator form part of the same commercial group, as they think this means that they WILL connect buses and trains which will be a trading disadvantage to any new operator that might wish to compete with them. This was a problem when First Group operated both the buses and trains up to 2015 in East Lothian and the CMA deliberately made the buses change their timetables to avoid connecting with the trains. It is still a problem in Wales and parts of England.


Safety as a passenger can take several forms, from violence and intimidation from unruly passengers, to falling down the stairs or when alighting from the vehicle, or if the bus takes off (and many can at the speed of an accelerating car) before they are seated.

Potential passengers should be made aware that all buses have CCTV covering anything that might happen within the bus, and this is readily available to the driver who will have constant radio contact with the control room, and if necessary the police, who if contacted by the control room will take immediate action to intercept the bus. Some double deckers have periscopes so that the driver can view the top deck in total from his seat.

Drivers are trained to wait until passengers are seated before they move away from a bus stop and also unless in an emergency, to brake calmly. It is illegal to allow a passenger to alight at anything other than a bus stop for insurance reasons. If a passenger falls on alighting and it is NOT at a bus stop, it is unlikely the bus company insurers will meet any liability claim. This is why drivers will not open the doors at, say, traffic lights or roadworks and it could well cost them their job if they did.  

To improve passenger confidence in safety, it is considered that a scheme similar to the railways where anyone feeling threatened texts 61016, and the call goes to a national control centre operated by British Transport Police, could be introduced for buses. If such a text went to a control centre, say at Lothian Buses, identifying the bus and its location, an immediate message could be sent to the driver who could intervene quickly and if need be involve the Police. This would be a local scheme for Edinburgh and the Lothians.

The mechanical condition of buses is not a problem in East Lothian. All buses have to pass an annual MOT test, and Lothian Buses have a 100% success record in this area. At times, however, as with all vehicles, some mechanical issues can crop up just as they can and do with cars, but this is rare.


The bus industry is a shining example of how it has catered for disabled passengers since legislation was introduced in the late 1990s. All new buses, apart from a handful of small minibuses, have by law had to be wheelchair accessible since the late 1990s. As buses have been replaced, usually on a 15 year vehicle life, all buses are now fully accessible. In addition in order to cater for other disabilities, again by law, buses may have verbal information available (called talking buses) for blind passengers, and visual information for deaf passengers. The positioning of these signs is currently subject to Bus Users UK consultation with the DfT and manufacturers.  Passengers who may be concerned that their wheelchair cannot travel through the ‘throat’ of the bus from the door into the passenger seating area, should be aware that, again in law, a standard wheelchair will be able to pass through. Larger non-standard wheelchairs, often powered, may not and some operators will not carry battery operated wheelchairs due to potential fire issues.

Compared to, say, the rail industry, where it is often necessary to use a footbridge to cross the line, there is little more that the bus industry can do to become more disabled friendly. 


The perception is that buses are polluting belchers. In East Lothian this was exacerbated by First Group (who have not operated within the Country since 2016) who ran poorly maintained elderly vehicles many up to 20 years old.

In fact ALL buses now operated on services within East Lothian are Euro 6 compliant or better and all would be permitted to enter a Low Emission zone without penalty.

It is significantly ‘greener’ to use a bus than a petrol/diesel or at times a hybrid car.

Those potential passengers who may use fully battery powered cars should be made aware that taking the view that they can now drive anywhere is faulty thinking as they will continue to cause and increase congestion, which in turn will result not only in delays to bus services, but also increase pollution as non-battery powered vehicles idle in traffic jams.

Published by

Harry Barker

Harry Barker is chair of Rural East Lothian Bus Users and the East Lothian Community Rail Partnership. He is a main board Director of Bus Users UK, to represent Scottish interests, but is also their Treasurer. Harry also has an interest in the application of The Equality Act (2010) within the bus industry.