Bus Reregulation?

One of the most striking aspects of the Labour Party’s new bus travel proposals to give all young people under 25 free travel, is that, interestingly, they have been costed for the entirety of the UK, even though transport is devolved, because Labour seems to think that everyone will want the same proposals. I’m sure that is a fair assumption.

A further interesting angle is that they have said the scheme will be available only to councils who either run their own municipal bus service or who adopt the franchising scheme. This seems to be the same franchising scheme which has, since its inception in 1986, allowed bus travel in London to roughly double (while outside London in the same period bus travel has roughly halved.)

This proposal would undo the dogmatic, specific prohibition of the Conservative government’s Bus Services Act  (“A relevant authority may not, in exercise of any of its powers, form a company for the purpose of providing a local service.”) on councils starting their own municipally run bus services.

I don’t, however, agree with the shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald, when he says “We’ll encourage local authorities to take back control of their buses so they can provide a better and more sustainable service to young and old alike, wherever they live.”  It is not the ownership, but the system that is much the more important. It is true that there are some excellent municipal operators such as Reading and Nottingham but there are also some rather less good ones such as Warrington or Swindon’s Thamesdown, which threw in the towel last year.

The scheme will not be a quick fix because setting up either a bus company or a franchising system is quite an administrative task and of course in going down the franchising route the council will incur the revenue risk previously borne by the bus operator, unless the proposal is to have a hybrid franchising system, where presumably a commercially run route could be ‘franchised’ on the basis that there would be no other operator.  But this would preclude the real advantages of franchising. It is to be hoped that Labour is aware of this, as there is what looks to be a generous UK budget of £1.4 billion, allegedly taken from Vehicle Excise Duty, with that shortfall made up from borrowing for road infrastructure from the National Investment Bank. Of course these central government costings are (as we know) unececessary, but local government, as a mere currency user, is not so secure. Thus Transport for London is likley to be using some of the income from the Congestion Charge to make up for the unexpected shortfall in current revenue when even tube journeys have declined. It is not difficult to see that other councils might institute their own congestion charges in order to improve the quality and quantity of the local public transport. Mind you, with a fully fledged franchising system, councils might make some unanticipated, additional economies since so many operators seem skilled at gaming the system. Thus a busco can announce decimatation of, say, evening services hoping that the resulting outcry will result in councils picking up the cost of running the entirety of a route’s evening service. Franchising the complete day long service might well end up being cheaper.

Major improvements are made possible with a franchised network – most obviously: integrated ticketing, an integrated network and common standards. This all ends up as both a better offer to passengers and a much better marketing opportunity to get people out of cars, promote greener travel, co-ordinate timetabling with trains or trams and of course improve congestion and thus air quality. All in all a pretty impessive range of advantages.

The proposals should represent a quick electoral win since it gives goodies to another cohort of youth and especially those that do not receive student grants (though of course some may do). Apart from the time to implement it, the real problem with ‘free buses for youth’ is that the rural voter is likely to be disenfranchised. Now there are fewer rural voters (and perhaps even fewer in winnable Labour seats) so in one sense it won’t matter much, but actually for the country and the environment this is more important. I’ve looked, rather dispairingly at rural transport before here and I now note that all PostBus schemes in the UK or on the Continent have been completely separated from the Post networks as so much more of the postal work is now in fact parcels, so rural transport solutions are still more needed. Perhaps there is hope in the fact that a new development in rural Mid and West Wales seems to have attracted increasing numbers of passengers. These bus services seems to be a variation on ring and ride but with a better computer programme? There may also be encouragement in a recent venture in Kent by Arriva, although the area is not strictly rural and it seems to be a bit like ‘Uber with a fellow traveller’ as it were, but with the advantage of a propely salaried driver.

If rural transport seems to need even more innovation, at least Labour are addressing some transport improvements where they are deperately needed. Because the UK bus market outside London is certainly an exemplar for market failure, where competing bus companies rarely actually compete with each other but instead carve out local monopolies which remain very largely unchallenged. This explains how fares outside London come to be higher than those within it. The bus market outside London is a veritable parable on how markets don’t work without properly coherent rules and regulations. In this case there is no market to provide lots of competing bus routes because the market is actually transport by bus, bike, car, tram or train. There can, however be a regulated market to provide the buses that serve on bus routes.

It would be good to think that, with both over 65s and under 25s allowed free bus travel, that we might perhaps be tiptoing towards buses as a Universal Basic Service, which when last ProgressivePulse had a look was a Universal Basic Service that would be both workable and advantageous.


  1. David Howdle -

    Actually, given some of the statements made in recent months by Corbyn and his Scottish branch manager Richard Leonard, it’s entirely possible that they don’t know that transport is a devolved matter in Scotland!

  2. Sean Danaher -

    When I got a job in Sheffield in 1981 it was still in the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire days with amazingly cheap public transport; 15p anywhere in the city. The service was so good and frequent car journeys were amongst the lowest in the country. Congestion was low and economic studies showed that subsidising public transport was almost a “no brainer” in that the benefits far exceeded the costs. Yet another example where neoliberal dogma has failed the UK.

  3. Peter May -

    Spot on!
    I feel, however, that the municipal moment has passed and because, as they say, we are where we are, that we need to embrace franchising as providing a diversity of supply with some sort of greater unity of provision.

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