THE HERALD'S OPINION: Keolis Downer needs its new bus routes and timetables to work

WITH Keolis Downer launching new routes and timetables for its Newcastle bus services on Sunday, criticism of the company and its intentions for public transport are likely to keep building as passengers acclimatise to the changes.

This is unsurprising. Earlier “improvements” to the service did not always bear fruit, and the privatisation that resulted in Keolis Downer winning a tender to operate the buses, the Stockton ferry and the impending light rail, was far from universally popular.

Additionally, any change in bus routes must invariably disenfranchise some people to favour others, by no longer going up one street, and running down another instead. So the process has the potential to be a public relations disaster, especially now, with the light rail construction causing substantial traffic delays for any buses coming into the city centre.

Into such a climate, Keolis Downer is promising a service so frequent and reliable that for some major routes, passengers will no longer need a timetable, secure in the knowledge that a bus will be along every 15 minutes. That’s the theory, anyway, but Keolis Downer’s performance-based contract means it’s in the company’s interest to have its services running as smoothly and as efficiently as possible.

With so much change happening to Newcastle public transport it is worth remembering the government took the action it did to attempt to reverse long-term declines in the patronage of Newcastle buses.

As we reported in 2013, official passenger numbers had fallen by 700,000 in seven years, a rate of about 2000 a week: this was despite a 2008 review that had aimed to lift patronage. Keolis Downer would have been aware of all of this history when it tendered for the contract, and its executives are confident they can attract the public back to the system.

It is true that some direct routes to Newcastle will be lost – Swansea being an obvious example – but if Keolis Downer’s extra trunk route services prove as “seamless” as promised, then the inconvenience of changing buses may well be cancelled out by more frequent services.

The light rail might have attracted most of the attention, but Keolis Downer is well aware that the bulk of its customers will be on the buses. It has strong financial incentives to keep its passengers happy.

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