Saturday, 6 June 2015


It's very clear that bus re-regulation/franchising/quality contracts are on the agenda, with a Buses Bill due at some point in this parliamentary session; here is what the government says is the purpose of the bill:
"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
In some cases operators have tried and it hasn't worked out (Stagecoach Love Your X, LinQ) but at least they tried. There are other examples of improvements to commercial services in the Humber region both big and small as well.

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...


Anonymous said...

With North East Lincolnshire Council's track record for wasting money and screwing things up on a colossal scale, the thought of THEM being allowed to run riot with the Grimsby and Cleethorpes bus services is terrifying and will likely bring Grimsby to a complete shuddering halt.

Joe said...

I do like the way buses in the Nottingham area are run. The council buses are always being improved and is well run. That said, private company Trent Barton is just as great too.
Either can be well or badly managed and I think regulation must help surely.

Tom Irvin said...

On the flip side, in Grimsby we have what was the service 5 serving Bradley Park going from 4 buses an hour, alternating between Lincolnsire Road Car and Stagecoach / GCT, to now being an hourly service for part of the day operated by Stagecoach. I'm not sure that this sort of service collapse is just because of deregulation mind, the loss of competition will also have had an impact, though strangely it didn't on the 16.

You also make the point about disinterested councils being responsible for bus services. They won't be the only problem, I suspect that with more regulation, as council budgets become more and more squeezed, which I am sure they will, buses will be an easy area to cut.

Anonymous said...

If you were running a business would you want the councils telling you what you can and cannot do?.

We have a crazy system in the bus industry where people want bus services, councils don't want to pay, passengers dont have to pay, and bus companies have to make money.

The control of a bus service should be down to the operator alone.

If the council want a particular area covered by a bus service then they should be willing to pay, and if they sat we dont have the money then that is the end of it.

We have a crazy situation where more and more people expect buses to run 24/7 just in case they might want to use it, and in the case of OAP passes they want the bus because it's free.

Would supermarkets put up with all this regulation and would they be happy to supply goods free to OAP's then get a refund from goverment of a fraction of the cost.

Anonymous said...

I've just been catching up with your posts. I can't see franchising in the manner you describe coming to the Humber area. At most you're looking at Manchester and possibly the North East if the current law suit goes Nexus's way. The forthcoming Bus Bill is probably the most likely to affect the local area, not least as it could spell the end to BSOG, which could see further commercial cuts to marginal services as well as 20p single/40p return fares increases.

The problem the public at large don't grasp is that deregulation of the bus industry meant that the private operators operated wherever and whenever they liked on the premise that they'd run all the profitable services. Local authorities would then mop up with providing a small number of off-peak services that were unprofitable. However, they were never legally forced to. Save provision for home-to-school transport, there is no legal requirement for any local authority to subsidise or provide any local bus service at all.

So the 'nasty' private companies, big and small, run the routes that increase the profits and in times of austerity, no-one can afford to run anything else. Introduce something such as the Bus Bill and suddenly the profitable routes become less so and with shareholders' returns to maintain, suddenly anything that looks like it's becoming marginal will be dropped and there is no cash for local authorities to step in to ensure services are maintained.

Add to that the poor reimbursement rates for concessionary pass holder travel, very few new bus operators have sprung up in recent times. Small wonder why.

Which is all the more amazing that local authorities think they can do any better. The widely-held belief is that they'd reduce 10-min frequencies to 20-min and with the buses saved operate more services that they are unable to provide today using their own cash. Yet curling frequencies in two does not see the same level of patronage remain. You chop a 10-min frequency at you peril. The three buses per hour will not carry the same as the previous 6 buses per hour did between them.

Many of the larger bus operators have employee pension schemes, of which any local authority who thinks it can run the local bus network better will have to take on, maintain and contribute to.

If you sat down the average member of public and explained all this they'd understand. Except you can't and the mere mention of buses turns them off immediately. For many, travel by bus is a means to an ends. Very few actually enjoy it, save we enthusiasts and employees of the industry who enjoy their jobs. Many begrudge having to pay at all to travel to a place of work they detest.

It's a struggle to say the least, though the best way to approach it, in my experience, is the "don't wish for what you don't fully understand" angle. Yes, you may not like seeing Peter Shipp on the TV every evening or you may detest everything Stagecoach's founder stands for, but it's better the devil you know.