John Prescott and representatives of the industry have agreed the first national targets for reliability and for reducing the age of the 76,000- strong UK bus fleet.
Under the proposals, no more than 0.5 per cent of services should be cancelled for reasons within the control of the operator. In practical terms this means a passenger using a bus service twice a day should see an average of only two cancellations a year.
The Government and operators have also agreed to reduce the average age of the fleet from the present nine years to eight years old by autumn 2001. This would entail the purchase of 8,500 new vehicles a year - 14 per cent up on present levels of investment - so that one in ten buses would be new by the same deadline.
Addressing the "bus summit" yesterday, Mr Prescott also undertook to back regular "customer satisfaction" surveys to ensure that the plans were working.
In return for co-operation with these targets, the Government has assured bus companies that they will continue to receive rebates on fuel duty so that costs will remain stable. This year the government spent pounds 50m on the rebate.
Mr Prescott has already promised local authorities pounds 700m over three years for "bus support measures" to set up special lanes and traffic lights giving priority to buses.
The image of the bus as a "second-rate, second-class form of transport" must be left behind, Mr Prescott told representatives of local authorities and bus companies.
As part of the launch he disclosed that Yorkshire and Humberside had started the first regional public transport hotline that gave information about train and bus timetables. He also gave his backing on the development of a new "passengers' charter" developed by the National Federation of Bus Users and the industry.
Mr Prescott said: "The Government's top priority is to put passengers first, by ensuring that good quality, comprehensive services are available across the country. Buses offer the cheapest, most comprehensive and accessible form of public transport in the UK, but they too often fall short of passenger expectations."
The time had come for the industry to turn its back on an era characterised by "poor marketing, poor quality buses, confusing networks, inflexible ticketing and constant timetable changes". He said that buses should be the "first choice", not the last resort.
TIMETABLE OF PUBLIC TRANSPORT SUMMITS
Mr Prescott called a national meeting with Railtrack, train operators, the Rail Regulator and unions. It agreed an "immediate action plan" to deliver short-term improvements in punctuality and reliability. Solutions included an increase in the number of drivers, more trains, a "joint hit squad" to identify and tackle the worst problems and a national "trouble- shooter". The participants decided that another session should be convened in February to include passengers groups.
The new summit agreed a "spring clean" package for the railways. Passengers would be put first and there would be a better-integrated rail service. It was represented as a "new start" for the railways. The Deputy Prime Minister said that the companies were finally acting as an industry rather than engaging in the "blame culture" which, he said, had characterised the industry since privatisation. A Shadow Strategic Rail Authority was then formally established.
In response to the Paddington disaster yet another summit, this time to improve safety standards throughout the network. Mr Prescott established a new national safety group. New driver training standards were to be introduced and a confidential system where employees could report problems. There was also to be an accelerated introduction of the Train Protection Warning System, which would have averted the Paddington disaster.