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19 January 2016

We need a new approach to British transport

The old approach - beloved of the Conservatives - simply doesn't work, says Lilian Greenwood.

By Lilian Greenwood

The cost and quality of public transport services is rising up the political agenda – and I will be proud to lead an opposition day debate called by Labour on public transport later today.

Transport operators, and the politicians who help fund them, strike an agreement with passengers that is represented by the timetable, the fares charged, and the promise of improvements to come. The anger expressed over recent days by Southern rail commuters – and parliamentary colleagues including Chuka Umunna and Peter Kyle – reflects a wider and growing sense that the compact has been broken.

Commuters returning to work a fortnight ago were greeted by another increase in the cost of their rail fares, which have risen on average by 25 per cent since 2010. The figures can be startling: the price of an annual season ticket from Birmingham to Euston has gone up by almost £2,000 to just over £10,000. The cost of travel between some stations in the West Midlands has risen by 38 per cent.

Bus fares have gone up by 26 per cent on average over the same period. Prices have risen even higher outside our major cities, including in rural areas that do not benefit from the collective voice of organisations like the Urban Transport Group. In the North East, which has the highest number of bus journeys per head of any region, fares have consistently gone up by 3 per cent above inflation.

Rising bus fares and the loss of bus routes have not attracted an equivalent level of scrutiny, despite the heroic efforts of organisations like the Campaign for Better Transport and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Bus services are not, generally, regarded as newsworthy outside of the regional or local press. They rarely occupy the national headlines. They are often passionately supported by campaigners and the passengers who rely on them. But they do not receive the political attention that is proportionate to the number of people who use them.

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I believe that this is a mistake. Two thirds of all public transport journeys take place on buses. They are more convenient and accessible for many passengers than other modes of transport. Bus services are important to the people who use them, and they are used by every segment of society, but they are especially important for the young, the low paid, disabled passengers, and people out of work.

Like rail, buses are heavily subsidised, with 41 per cent of industry income ultimately derived from the public purse. Yet the problems in the bus industry receive remarkably little scrutiny from Ministers. Bus usage outside London is in long term decline. Following severe cuts to local authority budgets (and a 20 per cent reduction in direct subsidy) more than 2,400 routes have been lost, downgraded or altered since 2010.

It would be wrong to mischaracterise the bus industry: many providers are community transport organisations, municipal operators, SMEs, and family run businesses that often run essential services on tight margins. But it is impossible to resist the conclusion that reform is needed. The Competition Commission found in 2011 that direct competition between companies – which was the entire premise of the 1985 Act that deregulated the industry – was rare. Operators have no obligation to provide a comprehensive network. Despite the significant taxpayer subsidies that keep buses on the roads, some of the largest bus companies report operating profits of 13 per cent, or more, on their operations outside of London. Meanwhile, despite investment in new buses, the trend of service cuts and dwindling passenger numbers continues.

In the last parliament, Conservative (and Lib Dem) ministers barred local authorities that pursued bus regulation from funding awards, and, shamefully, they failed to utter a word of protest when the head of one of the largest operators branded Labour’s councillors in the North East as “unreconstructed Stalinists” for pursuing bus reforms.

Yet Labour in local government – in the North East, Sheffield City Region, and Greater Manchester – have won the case for the change. It remains to be seen how deeply Government’s conversion to bus reform runs, but Labour will continue to make the case for meaningful change as the long-awaited Buses Bill progresses through Parliament.

And on the railways, we have a recent and successful model for how services can be changed for the better. East Coast was run under public operation between November 2009 and March 2015. In that time it achieve record punctuality and passenger satisfaction scores, and reinvested every penny of profit into the service. But instead of seeing East Coast as an example to be emulated, Ministers rushed through its privatisation – and then recently salted the earth by winding down and outsourcing its parent company too.

It is clear that while funding reductions have made a huge difference, the absence of meaningful reform is also failing passengers. As long as ministers act as little more than defenders of the status quo, they will not persuade increasingly pressed passengers that they are on their side. The examples to follow are in front of us.

All change, please. 

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