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  1. Politics
10 January 2000

On the buses, it’s a nightmare

New Statesman Scotland - Christopher Harviesees private companies that delight the City but

By Christopher Harvie

A few weeks ago, like many an academic, I got off the diesel at Leuchars Junction en route to St Andrews University. To find out that the Stagecoach bus to town had swept out of the station forecourt five minutes earlier. “It wis stupid to close the railway doon,” said one of St Andrews’ philosophical taxi drivers, pocketing his eight quid.

Scotland is presently supplying bus services to the world in the way that it used to supply tobacco or opium. Brian Souter of Stagecoach and Moir Lockhead of First Group are big, big names, fighting it out for control of services that are at least partly in the public domain, from Scandinavia to Hong Kong. Meanwhile bus use in the old country has been going down the Swanee. Over the past decade or so bus miles run have gone up by 25 per cent and passenger miles down by the same amount. A 1 per cent increase in the past year becomes a triumph for an industry that City analysts consider a near-miraculous cash cow. Why the paradox?

Road transport has been so little the domain of the political scientist, or even the historian, that why all this came about remains a bit arcane. Assets flogged off by the Tories at rock-bottom prices, yes, but my hunch is also that the rationalisation of middle management, through e-mail and the Internet, has brought the sort of economies that have attracted investors, primarily the ever-ambitious Scots banks.

But why, after all the hype, is the product so crappy, in contrast with almost any urban area in Europe? Most Scots buses are still generically “Tannochbrae specials” – high-platform, single-entry, of a type unchanged since the 1920s and painfully slow to load and unload; bad news for shoppers, mothers and the disabled. Nearly all fares are still paid on the bus – even greater delays – and in Edinburgh you have to have the exact fare, which must be wonderful for all the city’s foreign visitors. A bus stop with an intact timetable, litter-bin, glazing and a network map is the nearest that Lanarkshire will get to Shangri-La.

They do things better in Europe? Indeed. Tubingen, arguably the St Andrews of Germany (the universities are contemporary in their foundation) but with a population closer to the 80,000 of, say, Motherwell and Wishaw, carries about 35 per cent of local traffic by bus. Cars take 30 per cent, the rest go on foot, by bike, or by a growing local railway network. The bus system has increased by a factor of three, in terms of routes and density, since the mid-1980s. And the vehicles are full, with an annual rate of increase of about 10 per cent. Why this success, in a region deeply dependent on the business of building cars – Mercedes, Audi, Porsche?

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First, the buses: these are new, quiet, low-floor and multi-door. Hence they load and unload fast and far fewer of them are needed: just over 60 for the entire urban fleet. Second, ticketing is 80 per cent by season ticket, so passengers can board the bus at any door, cutting time at stops. Third, there are bus-only lanes at strategic points throughout town, so schedules are observed. Fourth, every bus stop has everything a Scots bus stop hasn’t (see above). Fifth, early and late, there are dial-a-bus services: effectively taxis at bus tariffs.

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But, above all, there is a strategy. The bus companies are in the private sector but timetabling, bus acquisition and subsidy policy are done by the Tubingen Town Transport company, which is predominantly municipal. The subsidy is 15 per cent, but another 35 per cent comes from direct payments by educational authorities, the university and other employers.

The crux of the matter is that huge passenger categories are simply annexed by making them an offer they can’t refuse, and tailoring the service to fit – which, in Tubingen, means students. They get a semester-season for DM70 (approximately £23) a year, involving a 30 per cent subsidy from the university – and more than 10,000 take up the offer. Similar terms go for hospital and local authority employees. In other towns, where, for example, there may be considerable visitor traffic, free public transport comes with a hotel booking or tickets for a theatre or art gallery. And the remarkable German Railway Weekend ticket – any destination you like in the republic, for up to five people, so long as you use non-express trains – now throws in free local transport in most cities.

So you can imagine the jaw-dropping sensation that any return to Britain involves. Some of the schemes being prepared to cheer us up, all over which are the fingerprints not of best practice but of bus capitalism, are even worse. Edinburgh is about to start construction of a “guided busway” to Turnhouse Airport at a cost of around £30 million. This involves buses running on a concrete track, kept in place by horizontal guide-wheels. Beyond a couple of shortish lines in Essen, no German transport company will touch a guided busway with a bargepole. Dieter Ludwig, head of the amazingly innovative Karlsruhe transport undertaking (a high-speed tram network that covers an area equivalent to Central Scotland), believes they are problematic. Guided busways might work as a means of getting cars out of city-centre streets, but the Edinburgh-Turnhouse corridor could as easily be served by the existing railway and bus services along the existing lanes which are subsidised and co-ordinated, as in Tubingen.

In the course of three years’ mockery of this scheme, I haven’t found a soul outside the local authority to defend it, but on it continues, like some armour-plated dinosaur, detracting both from an efficient bus service and from the badly needed creation of an effective railway system for central and south-eastern Scotland. At least Brian “Stagecoach” Souter was straightforward when, back in 1995, before becoming a railway magnate, he touted the busway as a means of getting rid of railway lines. It was the same Souter who equated the Scots’ dependency on buses with their (lethal) eating habits. Edinburgh is contemplating transport’s equivalent of the deep-fried Mars Bar. Kick the habit, please.