Interestingly, with the local elections coming up, it is remarkable how many people now seem to be blaming local government for the increasingly bad local bus service.
People seem immured in the past and unaware that most services outside London have long been ‘commercial’, and those that are not have been continually cut by central government’s contention that buses outside London are usually unaffordable and that there is no money.
The irony is that now they have proved to be more affordable – though only in fits and starts – for the government susbsidy that was due to cease at the end of March is now to last for another six months.
On current performance I doubt very much that a six month subsidy will be sufficient – indeed locally buses are in crisis and I very much doubt this situation is unique.
Never mind the financial deficit (which merely concerns a commodity created out of thin air by humanity) there is a serious deficit of bus drivers. The operators have increased pay and improved conditions but still struggle to provide services – even the much reduced timetables they have instituted.
You can double their pay tomorrow but without both the requisite training and conditions sufficient to retain that labour then a deficit of drivers is the only deficit of concern. Without them, bus companies cannot operate.
Recently released figures for Stagecoach South West (which covers all of Devon – though it shares Plymouth – and bits of neighbouring Somerset and North Cornwall) show that there were 1,014 drivers in Feb 2020 – now in March 2022 there are 833 – getting on for 20% fewer. There were 400 buses on the roads in 2019 now in March 2022 there are 324 – and 71,071 less miles are being covered than 2 years ago. In March they increased fares to pay for their higher overheads – mostly wage and fuel costs.
That’s hardly an expanding business – and the lower the journey frequency the less likely you are to increase patronage. If you have to pay more for the privilege that is even less encouraging.
They are in a spiral to the bottom. Fine, if that is their business model that could be regarded as their problem.
But it is actually a problem for all of us. In order to improve air pollution – never mind save fuel, we need fewer cars on the road.
We are seeing that, left up to Stagecoach, that will not happen.
While it seems to me that local bus services should be municipally controlled – particularly when so many think that is the current system, so there is a ready made feedback response – it is only the money issuing government that can get us out of the financial mess, and together with the local skills that would come with local authority owned bus networks they can both then start sorting out our traffic pollution.
But, to do so, they do need seriously to cut the deficit of bus drivers…