Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

How London buses differ from the rest of the UK

Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester

It’s time for another niche interest public transport blog post!

When it comes to public transport, London is a special case, mainly because so many more people use it, compared with other cities where cars dominate. The buses in London are no exception, and so the vehicles and the services have been designed around much more intensive use than elsewhere. Here’s a list of the major differences.

London buses are designed differently

Almost all buses in London have two sets of doors – one at the front for boarding, and another in the middle for alighting. This is more efficient than most other buses, where there’s just one set of doors at the front, but is at the expense of extra seating.

The ‘new Routemaster‘ buses take this further and, effectively, have three sets of doors, by virtue of having an open rear platform in addition to the front and centre doors.

I understand that if buses are retired from duties in London, the middle of set of doors is removed before the buses are sent elsewhere.

You can’t buy tickets with cash in London

In London, you can’t pay for your journey with cash. Cash payments were phased out; in 2013, they accounted for a mere 1% of journeys. Instead, you can use an Oyster card, any contactless credit or debit card, or Apple Pay.

Outside of London, it’s essentially the opposite situation. If you have cash (and coins are usually preferred), you should be able to get any bus, but very few will take credit cards. Transport passes, like West Yorkshire’s MCard, are accepted in their local areas, and there’s the English National Concessionary Pass scheme for old-age pensioners and those with disabilities. And I’m not aware of any bus companies outside London that accept Apple Pay at present.

London buses have a flat single fare

If you want to catch a bus in London, and you’re an adult, it’s £1.50. You can go one stop, or the entire length of the longest route, and it’ll be £1.50 either way. If you go somewhere and come back again, it’s two singles, so £3. However, three or more journeys on one day will cost a maximum of £4.40 as the fares are capped, and you can buy weekly, monthly or annual travel passes.

Elsewhere, fares tend to be set by distance, so longer journeys cost more, but you can get all manner of tickets depending on the area, bus operator and time of day. You can also expect to pay quite a bit more – a peak-time journey between Sowerby Bridge and Halifax costs around £2 one-way.

Travel cards are valid on all London buses

If you choose to buy a weekly travel card, then you can use it on any London bus, regardless of which route it is or who operates it. Outside of London, different operators have their own tickets that aren’t transferable. Which can result in ridiculous situations. Take, for example, with the 579 bus between Sowerby Bridge and Halifax. It’s operated by First during the day and Yorkshire Tiger in the evenings, but if you buy a return ticket on a First service then you can’t use it to come back on a Yorkshire Tiger service – even though it’s the same route and number.

Major metropolitan areas like the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire have cards such as the MCard which are valid across different operators, but operators will also sell their own weekly or monthly tickets which are only valid on their services.

All London buses are red

If you go to London, you’ll notice that all buses are painted red, even though they may be run by different operators. Not so outside London – operators can paint buses in pretty much whatever colour they choose. So First buses are lilac, Arriva buses are turquoise and Stagecoach buses are white with red, orange and blue stripes. Except when they’re not. There’s not much consistency.

London buses don’t have wifi

Well, there’s a trial on selected routes, but wifi isn’t widely available on London buses. Elsewhere, wifi is increasingly being made available on board, especially on more prestigious routes between major towns. I personally struggle to use mobile devices on buses as I get travel sick, but I assume enough people use it to be worthwhile. Some even offer USB charging points nowadays.

London buses have announcements and next stop information

Disabled users have it better in London. Not only are all London buses low-floor, there are audible announcements of the next stop, along with a screen repeating the information for those that can’t hear. This is rare on provincial bus services.

But why are London buses so different?

I mentioned before that buses in London are used more intensively than elsewhere, but there’s another reason why. In the 1980s, bus services across the UK were transferred away from public sector bodies to private companies, like the aforementioned First, Stagecoach, Arriva and others. This was called deregulation, and applied across England, Scotland and Wales – but not London.

London buses were later privatised, but on a franchise basis. The buses are operated by private companies, as with elsewhere, but the routes, fares and bus specifications are set by Transport for London, the public sector body that looks after all facets of transport in the Greater London area. Outside of London, bus companies are generally free to do what they want and most bus services are run primarily on a commercial basis, with an ever decreasing handful of services run with financial support from local authorities.

This may change, however. The government is planning to introduce elected mayors in various city regions across the UK, and their powers may include London-style bus franchising. Bus operators oppose this, as it takes away their freedom to set their own fares and routes and dilutes their branding. It will be interesting to see if franchising does go ahead outside London; and whether more cities will have all red buses in future.

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