Thank you for that welcome.
It’s a privilege to deliver the closing address at this year’s Transport Times UK Bus Summit.
I know that you’ve had a packed day.
You’ve talked about the economy, about technology and about how the private and public sectors should work together.
You’ve heard from the leaders of the bus industry.
And I’m sure there’s been agreement and disagreement in equal measure.
It’s a tough act for me to follow.
So I’ll respond by getting straight to the point.
Everyone here today (12 February 2015) can agree on one thing: our aim should be to get the very best deal for passengers.
If passengers are satisfied with their bus services, that will be reflected in patronage and ticket revenue.
But the government wouldn’t be doing its job if we didn’t ask: can things be done better?
So I’m glad the city of Manchester is set to look at whether an elected Mayor should have the powers to franchise bus services.
I believe it’s a plan that could give passengers an even better deal than they’ve got now.
A simpler fare structure.
Bus routes and timetables co-ordinated with trams and trains.
And a single smart-ticketing system that works across Manchester’s public transport network.
I know that some in the bus industry have real concerns.
And no-one should underestimate the first-rate services already offered by commercial operators across the country.
That’s why events like today’s are so important.
Not because I expect everyone to come round to the same way of thinking.
But because it’s through talking that we move the debate forward.
And let’s be clear - it’s debate that will determine whether these proposals stand or fall.
That means debate in Parliament.
And it means debate through the public consultation process.
So I hope that getting the bus world together today, with all the right experts, has helped you decide where you stand.
And if you disagree with the proposals, perhaps you now have a clearer idea about how they can be improved.
But if the proposals for Manchester prove anything, it’s this: smart ticketing matters.
We didn’t have to include smart ticketing in the Manchester deal.
And yet we did.
Because it’s the surest way of getting the benefits of smart and integrated ticketing to the people of Manchester.
But I hope Manchester doesn’t have to wait for devolution, because I want to see all the major cities in England have a smart, multi-operator bus ticket in place by the end of 2015.
And thanks to the Smart Cities Partnership, the major bus operators have made a commitment to deliver exactly that.
It’s already happening in Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Birmingham and the North East.
And even though South Hampshire is outside the Smart Cities Partnership, we provided funding for the SolentGo smart card.
Because 9 bus operators were ready to work together, with 4 ferry operators and 4 different transport authorities.
So the bus industry has proven it can deliver.
Where there’s pragmatism.
A willingness to negotiate.
And an understanding of customers’ needs.
That’s the challenge the bus industry has itself in 2015.
But that’s not the only customer service challenge being met by the bus sector at the moment.
In this country there are over 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability.
Disabled passengers have as much right to access services as anyone.
And by law, from 2015 many single-deck buses need to meet accessibility standards, such as devices to help wheelchair users get on board.
And priority seats for disabled passengers.
There are further deadlines in 2016, 2017 and 2020, including for double-deck buses and coaches.
So it’s great news that the latest statistics show that 84% of buses in England now meet these accessibility requirements, and the number of compliant buses continues to grow steadily.
In the UK, a quarter of bus passengers who are blind or partially-sighted rely on the bus every day.
But two thirds of blind or partially-sighted bus passengers have missed their stop in the last six months.
For any passenger, that’s inconvenient.
But when a blind passenger unexpectedly disembarks in an unfamiliar place, it can be dangerous.
Technology can be a great help, but we understand that current audio/visual technology can be too expensive for smaller, local bus operators.
So in October, I launched a competition for 14 to 18 year old’s to design an alternative, innovative solution for providing accessible information on buses to those with visual or hearing impairments.
The Transport Systems Catapult has committed up to £100,000 to support the competition and subsequent prototype design stage.
The deadline is tomorrow (13 February 2015), and I am keenly awaiting the results.
Of course, it’s not just about buses and technology.
Skilled and helpful drivers can make the biggest difference to disabled passengers.
I recently completed a review of whether bus and coach drivers should be exempted from mandatory disability awareness training.
The good news is that the bus industry reported that the overwhelming majority of drivers have received disability awareness training.
But disability groups said that’s not always reflected in passengers’ experiences.
So I’m talking to ministerial colleagues, and others, about whether there’s a case for doing more.
Disabled passengers are not the only people who need frequent, reliable services.
For many isolated communities, buses can be a lifeline.
Commercial operators do what they can to serve this market, but the public and voluntary sectors have an equally important role.
The challenge is not a new one.
But the need for innovative solutions has never been greater.
So as the Secretary of State said this morning, last month we launched a £4 million scheme to pilot ‘Total Transport’.
Many public sector and voluntary organisations already provide vital transport links for isolated communities, whether it’s taking kids to school, or driving older people to medical appointments.
If we can co-ordinate these trips it could mean more choice and a more regular service for everyone who needs it.
I said at the beginning that our aim should be to get the very best deal for passengers.
But before closing I’d like to say something about the effect buses have on us all, whether or not we are regular passengers.
And that’s the effect buses have on our environment and the air we breathe.
The Met Office has said that 2014 was the UK’s warmest since records began in 1910, and we know that air pollution has a serious impact on our life expectancy.
Through the Green Bus Fund we’ve supported the bus industry in upgrading fleets, providing £58 million to support the purchase of almost 900 new low-emission buses, backed by around £7 million through the BSOG low carbon incentive.
And we continue to develop new technology. There are now well over 2000 buses on our streets that have been modified to cut down NOx tailpipe emissions.
In York, we supported the first ever double decker bus to fully-electric running.
Then we successfully tested it on the steepest gradient on last year’s Tour de France – Sheffield’s Jenkin Road.
And last month I visited Bristol to announce funding to trial a number of diesel-electric hybrid buses, which use satellite positioning to automatically switch from diesel to electric-running in the areas
where air quality is lowest.
The data they will provide could lead to a real step forward in developing cleaner bus technologies, because we will be sharing the performance data across the UK and across Europe.
And of course, this push for better air quality complements our policy to develop the Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle market.
We’ve made half a billion pounds available for the development of the ULEV market up to 2020, and that includes a new £30 million fund to clean up bus fleets.
And so to sum up.
The bus sector is evolving.
We’re looking at new ways of providing the services that communities need.
And I’ve seen the bus industry showing new resolve, in smart ticketing, and in adopting new technology.
But the test stays the same.
Are passengers getting a good deal, and could it be improved?
In the latest passenger survey, overall satisfaction rose to 88%. That’s the proof that you’re doing something right.
But I believe there’s more that could be done.
So in 2015, I’ll be looking to the bus sector to lead the way.