Buses should be "connecting, not competing"

David's article published in the Newcastle Journal 26 August 2006

When the Tyne and Wear Metro system opened in 1980, it heralded a new era in public transport.

The system not only gave us a new state-of-the-art light rail system linking the major Tyneside conurbations, but - because bus services were publicly controlled - integrated bus services that avoided unnecessary duplication and congestion by linking a comprehensive bus network and Metro at interchanges across Tyneside.

This all changed, however, when the Conservative Government decided to privatise bus services outside of London and a free-for-all followed the scramble for lucrative public services that could be converted to big private profit.

I remember putting to the late Nicholas Ridley, who was then Transport Secretary, that privatisation had led to chaos with hundreds of inferior vehicles clogging our roads and city centres causing pollution and confusion. His response was to feign surprise that I should have the temerity to make such a point when "now, instead of people queuing for buses, buses are queuing for people".

Since then of course, and as expected, the plethora of new bus companies has gone and we now have just five major operators. And a very lucrative business it is too, as the major companies have been making a healthy return from a declining market. Buses account for 31% of the turnover of the "big five" but 47% of their profits. The competition Nicholas Ridley lauded has virtually disappeared.

The major disadvantage of privatisation was the deregulation that came with it and the loss of local control over bus services. The Labour government has gone some "small" way towards rectifying this by the introduction of "Quality Contracts", a sort of loose franchising system that would give local authorities like Nexus and the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Authority (PTA) some leverage over when and where services should be provided.

It has not yet been tried in any metropolitan area, but the new director of Nexus has intimated that he would like to have a go at introducing one here. I wish him well, but the system has too many hurdles and is too easy for the bus operators to frustrate or manipulate to their own advantage.

New legislation will have to be introduced in the next session of Parliament to enable the national free bus travel scheme for pensioners to be introduced in 2007.

I will be pressing the Government to include in the bill measures to restore local regulation of bus services by introducing a new and effective franchising regime where Nexus would decide on bus routes and times throughout the county and then invite operators to submit bids to run the services.

The sort of system I envisage would lead to: more reliable services with poor performance penalised and integrated networks.

It would have one brand, one network, one ticket, simpler fares, as well as clear and comprehensive information at the bus stop, and increasingly in "real time" by phone and internet.

There would be buses connecting rather than competing, operating as a single network, connecting with each other and with the Metro system. And there would be less pollution with operators required to provide newer, cleaner buses and to maintain them properly.

Finally, there would be more stable networks - with less frequent changes to fares, times and frequencies - and networks which keep pace with the economic and social needs of the areas they serve.

Franchising should provide good value-for-money, as any wasteful over-provision and excess profit generated on the busiest corridors could be used instead to cross-subsidise a better quality and more extensive wider network.

The realistic threat of franchising would also help Nexus to negotiate better services from operators, either in the run-up to franchising or as an alternative to franchising through partnership with a preferred operator.

Perhaps then we can reverse some of the cuts in services we have had to suffer, give better services to outlying communities and provide the kind of reliable and affordable public transport system that is so vital if motorists are to be encouraged to leave the car at home.

David Clelland is Member of Parliament for Tyne Bridge and a member of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and the Passenger Transport Executive Group of MPs.

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Promoted by Ken Childs on behalf of David Clelland, both of 19 Ravensworth Road, Dunston, Gateshead. NE11 9AB