Road to Better Future? in the Second of Our Features Marking the 20th Anniversary of Bus Deregulation, Political Editor Zoe Hughes Speaks to Bus Operators about What the Future Holds

Article excerpt

Byline: Zoe Hughes

FOR almost half a century before 1986, Britain's bus network was run by state-controlled companies content in the knowledge that they had a virtual monopoly over services.

Marketing was almost unheard of, operators were interested in managing their routes and schedules and not necessarily customers' needs and there was little impetus for change.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 transformed that and by 1986 the Transport Act had come into force removing with it all restrictions on competition in the bus industry.

Literally overnight, the face of Britain's bus services changed dramatically.

Among some of the more forceful arguments against deregulation is the right of operators to cherry-pick the most lucrative routes, to hold passenger transport executives and local councils to ransom over the least profitable services and of the failure by the private sector to stop passengers leaving the network.

These are accusations bus operators fiercely dispute, but as Go-Ahead North-East's commercial director Martin Harris and Arriva London's managing director Mark Yexley explained re-regulation in the future may not be the panacea to all the problems of today.

Ironically, they both argue, the insistence by re-regulationists at looking to the success of London could be one of the main obstacles.

Under the Transport Act 1985, which came into force on October 26,1986, London was excluded from the deregulation model and allowed to franchise services out to private companies.

Since the election of Ken Livingstone as London mayor in 2000, things have gone from strength to strength with London the only area of Britain seeing increases in passenger numbers.

The capital though should be considered a special case, according to bus operators for not only does it have lower car ownership levels than anywhere else in the country, it has also seen the introduction of congestion charging helping push people off the roads as well as seeing population growth at a time when most cities and large towns, especially in the North, are witnessing declines.

However, most importantly for both Mr Harris and Mr Yexley the key factor has been Mr Livingstone himself- and the fact the mayor has backed his promise of improvements in public transport with a substantial annual investment of almost pounds 560m for buses alone.

"There needs to be the political will to see public transport working, for it to be supported wholeheartedly and to want to make it attractive. But to do that you also need the money behind you.

"To replicate what you have in London is going to be very expensive," said Mr Harris, who warned it could cost taxpayers in Tyne and Wear alone an extra pounds 125 a year to mirror London's level of subsidy.

What he feared though was that re-regulationists were promising 'everything' with no certainty the Government would provide the extra money needed. …


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