Thursday, 3 November 2011

Weight rules put brakes on rural buses

Updated May 2014

Or why your Nan drives a country bus...

Any busman will tell you profits from operating country buses are small and volatile, which is why many rural routes depend on public subsidy or can only be provided by volunteer-run non-profit Community Transport Operators.

Halesworth Area Community Transport Ltd is constituted under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965. It currently operates the 511 bus route in Halesworth, Suffolk on a non-profit basis with its own 16 passenger coach and a 15 passenger minibus.

The 511 Halesworth and Holton circular route has been going since 1993 but despite capacity averaging at 88%, its fare revenue shortfall has to be filled by vigorous fundraising and local sponsorship, currently by the Halesworth Golf Club and the Central England Cooperative Society.

HACT also takes disabled passengers twice a week to a day-care centre and provides vehicles with drivers for hire by local community groups for events and outings.

Both services are operated by volunteers and on average each gives 15 hours per month, which is an exceptionally high commitment for the Third Sector. Some do more, some less, each does what they can.

The issue they wish to raise public awareness about is that there is a declining supply of volunteer drivers like them. In every month's schedule 10 out of 50 driver 'slots' go unfilled so HACT volunteers frequently forgo social engagements or family commitments rather than let the public down, a situation that is quite unsustainable. Just ten more drivers joining HACT would ensure it could run without any volunteers feeling obliged to give more time than they really want to (not that they'd ever say so...)

The problem is, in order to drive the kind of minibuses used by most community transport operators, a volunteer driver must have a 'D1' category on their license or pass a second PSV driving test, but the D1 driver license classification ended with the EU harmonisation of bus regulations in 1997.

So if you got your driving license before 1997, you probably have a D1-entitled license. If you passed your test after 1997, you won't but will have a category 'B' instead.

Therefore if you passed your test before 1997, you can volunteer to drive for any of HACT's services. If you passed your test after 1997, you can't drive a minibus with 9-16 seats that is over 4.25 tonnes (the MAM) until you pass a PSV test. Thus - and this is the crux of the problem -  services like the 511 can't be driven on a category B license, the class of license which most people now hold. You can see in previous posts on this blog how much I have researched the legislation trying to find a way around this.

This situation is an unintended consequence of the Second EC Directive on the Driving Licence (91/439/EEC). To quote the CTA handbook: The Directive attempts to harmonise the rules across the EU as part of the “single market” initiative. In fact, UK rules are particularly complicated reflecting the different history of our transport industry. Of particular relevance is that no other EU state has a not-for-profit sector based largely on minibus use quite as developed as that of the UK. In the early 1990s CTA (with the NUS, Help the Aged and others) was part of the successful Mobility Alliance campaign - which included a mass rally of UK minibuses in Brussels - to prevent second tests for all minibus drivers and protect the viability of the sector and the position of employees in community groups, local authorities and the NHS. The UK government secured important concessions announced in late 1994. In April 1996 the implementation date of July 1st 1996 was postponed for six months until January 1st 1997.

Perhaps in the political horse-trading someone settled on 4.25 tonne MAM which is OK for a minibus used for schools or social clubs but is not for rural buses. The transcript of parlimentary debates on this issue is illuminating.

The solution isn't a case of operating these routes with different vehicles. There are now very few minibuses on the market robust enough to be reliable which have all of the required safety and disabled-access equipment under the 4.25 tonne MAM limit. Minibuses light enough might do for a social club outing but are not suitable for the rigors of rural bus routes.

HACT recently researched the specifications of a replacement bus for the 511 route and it found that a van conversion makes a very poor rural bus. The floors are too high, doors and lifts are compromised, the wheel humps take up legroom, there isn't enough headroom and so on. Rural buses are not like the behemoths plying their trade in the cities, they have to be small and light because of the narrow roads and weak bridges they travel over. 

But there are plenty of suitable vehicles, typically custom bodied on a van chassis, in the 5 to 7 tonne MAM range that D1-entitled volunteers have no difficulty operating once they have undergone the MiDAS training that HACT gives them. How is a driver licensed in December 1996 competent to drive a seven tonne minibus and one in January 1997 is not? It is reasonable that both first have to be over 21 and licensed for two years.

HACT are not alone in this problem. The Variety Club of Great Britain is a leading customer for minibuses for its 'Sunshine Coaches' which it donates to schools and community groups working with children but it doesn't offer a minibus to groups that can be driven by 'ordinary' drivers.

To get around the PSV, some transport operators use older and lighter vehicles that are less fuel efficient and less accessible, or eight-seater minibuses, which are regulated differently but the operation of eight-seater minibuses is even more uneconomic. 

Many rural areas offer volunteer 'community car' schemes as a solution to isolation. A HACT volunteer typically drives 42 people per day. Why must a efficient 1:42 volunteer/user ratio be reduced to 1:8 or even 1:1 as a community car scheme when overheads practically stay the same? Ironically, smaller buses also cannot meet demand. When HACT operated a once-weekly 532 service between Laxfield and Halesworth, the 16 seats available were consistently filled. Inexplicably the service was re-tendered by Suffolk County Council to another operator who switched to an 11 seat minibus and the service became over-subscribed. This angered the passengers who used to board at intermediate stops as they now couldn't board because the bus was full. Those passengers are unlikely to return to using a rural bus service as quickly as they were barred from it.

The number of D1-entitled drivers nationally cannot be known without a Freedom of Information Request to the DVLA but from their published figures of driver ages, it seems that pre-1997 license holders in the peak volunteer ages of 41 to 65 could diminish by more than 60% in the next decade before consideration of any health factors removing their qualification to drive a minibus. Not everyone passes their driving test at age 17 but if they did, the youngest D1-entitled driver is now 33. If they passed their test in their mid-to-late twenties, they are in their forties now.

Since these regulations were introduced the pool of D1 drivers has diminished slowly but the rate of decline is rapidly increasing as this cohort reach the cut-off date for requiring medical exams or being barred completely. Meantime, disability access equipment and safety design have increased the weight of minibuses and the demand for community transport is increasing as the post-war generation ages and they can't drive any more. A decade ago the DETR forecast 25% bus passenger growth amongst the elderly. While public subsidy of commercial rural transport is withdrawn, it's ironic that the service older people need most can only be provided by older people themselves.

HACT feel they have fairly saturated the local area with the message that they offer volunteers a very convenient and effective way to make a big difference to their community but they find D1-qualified volunteers are scarce. Recruitment efforts bring in potential drivers in the B category but these volunteers, not always younger than the D1-entitled, cannot be utilised where they are needed most on rural routes.

The Community Transport Association's Strategic Review of Training in 2009 recognised that the supply of D1 qualified volunteer drivers would gradually diminish over time.

It said: "The 1997 change in driver licensing has created a ‘time bomb’ of potential shortages of minibus drivers both for paid employment with local authorities, community transport operators, etc. and volunteers…"

In the 2009 review the CTA expected that their community driver training programme would address the need for people to obtain a PSV driving licence, though the revenue it published from the courses it offered between 2006-2009 indicates this cost £900 per volunteer. Vendors have provided quotes at a 'charity rate' for PCV training at £600 per volunteer if they pass first time. Few do.

Adding a PSV to a B license involves taking a medical (£100 - 150), applying for a PSV provisional entitlement and then taking the theory and the practical driving test, let alone the lessons with an instructor before that.

I recently took up the offer of PSV training funded by Suffolk County Council. However I had to travel to the Chilterns and stay 3 nights in a B&B. The total bill for training, test fees, travel and subsistence was easily in excess of £2000.

This is a financial and human resources overhead that most CTOs cannot afford. For every hour a HACT volunteer is driving, another 70 minutes is being expended on publicity, policies and legal compliance, vehicle maintenance, banking and accounts, volunteer recruitment and training, route and vehicle licensing, passenger assistance, committee meetings, facility and office maintenance, route development, council meetings and fundraising. The Task Force on Red Tape highlighted a case study where every eight hours of instruction required two hours of form filling. Most of these non-driving tasks are required by legislation; even bus washing is a condition of Section 22 operation. The goodwill of prospective volunteers is unlikely to stretch to several days of attendance at driving test centres and a doctor's surgery unless they have an ulterior motive.

Even if HACT had extra funding to train volunteers to pass the PSV, it would be unlikely to retain these volunteers for long, as PSV-qualified drivers are in demand (because of the same training cost burden) in the commercial transport industry. Voluntary organisations cannot compel volunteers to repay the cost of training if they leave, as legally they cease to be volunteers. Another local CTO told HACT informally that it cannot and would not pay for volunteers to take a PSV as it could not retain them. Their minibus DRT service uses paid drivers and its recruiting for its 'community car' scheme rarely finds volunteers with a D1 entitlement.

Some would debate the merits of various community transport models but serving Suffolk's rural communities requires all of them. CTOs give excellent value for money and government health policy recognises the value of supporting independent living. Without any transport to access the services they need; the shops, the doctor, the post office; people's needs of every kind become acute and treating acute needs costs a lot more than community transport.

The enormous cost of training drivers for a PSV cannot be passed by CTOs onto rural bus passengers as most are operating routes that are commercially unviable but critical to the health of society. If a CTO was resourced well enough to train drivers for the PSV, it would likely be a large organisation with significant overheads and paid management (as some are). It would have to be a bureaucracy-expert box-ticking social enterprise operating county-wide and indistinguishable from a commercial bus company. That wouldn't be so attractive to the volunteer who just wants to help so that people can live independently. In human management terms, such economy of scale could lose the benefits Schumacher's maxim: "small is beautiful" and the adhocracy structure posited by Mintzberg and the empowering 'purpose' of Bartlett and Ghoshal.

The CTA's advice on licensing community bus drivers recognises that CTOs must consider the diminishing supply of D1 qualified volunteer drivers: "heavier buses are quite common and operators will have to think carefully before either buying smaller buses in the future or making sure that new volunteers are qualified to drive..."

Therefore HACT would like to suggest to anyone concerned that legislation is enacted as soon as possible to remove the MAM weight limit of 4.25 tonnes for 9-16 passenger minibuses operated under section 19 and 22 in rural areas by CTOs so they can be driven on a category B license just for this purpose. There is very little transference of risk or decrease in passenger safety as CTOs already train their volunteers through the MiDAS scheme.

This doesn't call for an exemption to apply to schools and social clubs too (unless they have a need for one) as there are good reasons for requiring a PSV qualification in some situations. Once upon a time an employee, schoolteacher or volunteer could have been handed the keys to a unfamilar minibus and driven for unlimited distances and hours but most rural bus drivers are very familiar with their vehicles, the local road conditions and the hazards on their defined routes. Their usually regular frequent volunteering for a CTO enables the responsible operator to maintain safety standards through the MiDAS training and certificate programmes.

Another option could be to enable a MiDAS certificate to be a qualification to drive some heavier vehicles for community transport or make the PCV training and examinations free to community transport volunteers (if they could be retained). Your own reasoning must surmise which is the lightest burden on the public purse or most likely to pass through the legislative process.

If you could also write to your MP to suggest the MAM weight limit is raised for community transport, that would be a great help. You can write to your MP at

The Government isn't going to roll over about this. I have had lots of waffling letters in response. I suspect it is beholden to more powerful interests who think Community Transport has an unfair advantage and see it as competition. Below is the response my MP Therese Coffey (Conservative - Suffolk Coastal) gave me after I wrote to Richard Drax MP when he debated rural transport in April 2014.  Somehow we must change the government's mind, or change our government.

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