Many of the controversial new policies announced in this week’s Queen’s Speech have been subject to intense debate and analysis. However, the new Bus Services Bill largely seems to have slipped through unnoticed.
On the surface this seems like a well-intentioned move. The bill sets out a vision for creating more user-friendly bus networks in major cities outside London, providing services to needy areas and enticing motorists onto public transport. Nothing disagreeable there.
Similarly, the bill presents itself as an exercise in devolution. As part of the ongoing move to bring power closer to the people, regulation of bus services will pass from government traffic commissioners to local authorities. Sounds good.
Unfortunately it’s the implementation of these aims that presents more cause for concern. The bill gives selected local authorities in major centres the power to franchise their bus services.
To provide a little context, The Transport Act 1985 deregulated local bus services in England, Scotland and Wales. Prior to this, most services had been under direct municipal control, following a period of nationalisation and regulation during the post-war consensus years.
The act meant that bus services throughout the UK (except London and Northern Ireland) were now subject to competition. Any operator could now start a new service anywhere. A short notice period was all that was required.
While some authorities elected to retain municipal systems, these operations now had to be kept at “arm’s length” from the council. The authority had no power to prevent other operators competing, meaning their services were held to standards of reliability and value for money by other providers.
A good example of this continues in Ipswich, one of the few cities to retain a municipal bus operator. There, First Group compete openly with Ipswich Bus, leading to higher service frequencies, lower fares, better standards and a thriving industry.
However most of the councils which retained municipal systems ended up privatising them later, one example being Northampton Transport. This passed to GRT, later First Group, while competitor Stagecoach took over the long-distance United Counties services.
Before long, Stagecoach were starting urban routes within Northampton town. Stagecoach invested heavily, offering lower fares, newer vehicles and access to a wider network. First struggled to compete, wound down their operations, and were eventually driven to leave town completely.
But competition survives in Northampton, and Stagecoach are still held in check by the upstart UnoBus operation and other independent companies. A Stagecoach Northampton day ticket still costs less today than the last First one did when their services ended three years ago.
London, unfortunately, was another matter. Here a different system emerged, with London Transport being broken into a number of separate companies which were then privatised in the mid 1990s. But instead of open competition, a franchised system has emerged.
Transport for London, or ‘TfL’, has complete control over bus services in Greater London. Routes are set by TfL, then operators invited to bid to run them. The monotonous, or as many prefer, ‘traditional’ red livery is mandatory. While operators could once customise this to some degree, that is now limited to a small logo above the door.
Bus travel in London is nothing short of tedious. The network may be integrated and coordinated, but it is far from convenient. Services take forever to get anywhere, and while London’s gridlocked traffic hardly helps, the routes are designed to provide high-density coverage, not useful end-to-end connections.
Deregulation in London would bring the possibility of faster, direct services, alongside local coverage. Operators competing for custom would soon identify the highest demand corridors. The same has happened in major cities across the country.
The deregulated system allows for those lower trafficked routes to be catered for. Authorities can contract additional services, with minimum standards set. They can pay operators to re-route existing services through less profitable areas. But the higher demand corridors attend to themselves, and this is where modal shift is best achieved.
The Bus Services Bill aims to institute London-style franchising into cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. In these cities, centrally-planned networks will replace the demand-sensitive deregulated system. Competition will become stagnation as the facility for operators to experiment and innovate in the pursuit of custom is removed.
This all comes under the pretence of offering a better service for passengers. But that is exactly what a private operator is best placed to do. Centrally planned networks have very little to do with the needs of the travelling public. They’re about an overall vision of where buses should sit in a strategic plan for a city.
Transport exists for the purpose of providing the journeys that passengers need. Centrally plan a network and passengers will come, because that’s the only option they’re being provided with. But minimise regulation and expand the capacity for competition, and only then will buses offer the best solution for the majority of the travelling public.
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