"The Bill would provide the option for combined authority areas with directly elected Mayors to be responsible for the running of their local bus services."Two key points to note are the word option - no area will be forced to move towards re-regulation - and that the powers are tied to a combined authority with directly elected mayor. Whether we get one in this region is an interesting debate on it's own. However sticking to buses, a few thoughts.
It's very hard to argue against the principle of devolution. If local communities want re-regulation and follow due process to get that, I don't think there are grounds to say no. Plus in some parts of the country there are probably very good reasons for trying an alternative approach to deregulation. Deregulation hasn't been a national success story, and it isn't perfect.
However there are places were deregulation has been, on the whole, a success. Free from the constraints of tender specifications and restrictions, operators have been able to innovate and take risks. Here in the Humber region there are many examples of commercial freedom leading to substantially improved services, such as:
- 6 and a half years ago there was an hourly Barton to Hull service. Thanks to investment from Stagecoach and EYMS the 350 Scunthorpe-Barton-Hull was doubled to half hourly Monday to Saturday daytimes with extra evening and Sunday services and relaunched as the Humber Fastcat. Then the Humber Flyer was also diverted via Barton to give three buses an hour to Hull Monday to Saturday daytimes
- The introduction of the X4 Wicstun Express by EYMS, initially as a fast service between Market Weighton and York, but latter extended to provide new York links from North Ferriby, Brough, South Cave, North Newbald and Sancton
- The introduction of an 'all-day' service from Walkington, Little Weighton and Skidby to Hull City Centre on the 61 by EYMS, and a faster Hessle-Beverley service on EYMS's X80
- The recent increase of Hull to Beverley services from 3 to 4 per hour Monday to Saturday by EYMS
- Last year's relaunch by Stagecoach of their North East Lincolnshire network
- An (almost) half hourly service for South Killingholme provided by Stagecoach, whereas previously the village had an hourly service at best
But very little attention is being paid to the successes of deregulation. Lessons are not being learnt. It's almost like those areas that want reregulation, and the national debate as a whole, is ignorant of deregulation's successes. That is down to politicians, but also to operators. Why aren't operators being more vocal about their successes? Why aren't places like Hull and Grimsby being highlighted as examples of deregulation, on the whole (in my opinion) being a success?
It also strikes me that the debate is largely based on deregulation with partnerships or full re-regulation. However is the best option something in the middle? Far tighter rules for bus operators, but still giving them the freedom to compete and innovate. Compulsory multi-operator ticketing, service level requirements (e.g. to operate 4 services per hour on a lucrative corridor, operators must also provide early morning and evening services), mandatory restrictions on service change dates, requirements on timetabling to enable connections to other services. How well this would work would be down to execution, but it's a shame that the debate is simply deregulation vs reregulation.
Oddly it's Manchester, that wants reregulation, that is considering something close to this approach as part of a bus priority package. In return for it's investment it wants guaranteed quality standards covering areas such as vehicle emissions, CCTV fitment, driver training, driver uniform and vehicle appearance. This sort of approach, but not necessarily linked to investment in bus priority, could form the basis of a new approach to stricter rules within a deregulated environment. Bus operators could be compelled to meet high standards and operate as part of an integrated network while still being able to innovate. Quite a few issues with deregulation could be solved with stricter rules, not whole-scale reregulation.
On another note, I have been to a few Hull Bus Forums. One got very heated after Stagecoach changes to services in Greatfield. Another got a large turnout after Hull City Council replaced the tendered service 50 with the 58, therefore no longer serving Holderness Road and it's popular shops and services. I don't see how councillors and council officers are necessarily any better placed to plan networks that commercial bus operators. All can misjudge things and sadly both councillors and bus operators may have their own vested interests.
Deregulation isn't perfect, and reregulation won't be. London isn't perfect. Ultimately it is for local communities to decide on the local operating environment for their local bus services. However deregulation hasn't been a massive nationwide disaster and it would be a great shame if it's successes are lost.
A final thought. Imagine a dis-interested council/transport authority in charge of reregulated bus services...