Insider Insight: Transport De-Regulation – Has it worked?

Patrick Warner Looks into the world of de-regulated buses and wonders if they deliver…

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I might know a thing or two about it being a former Director of a Municipal bus operation, but I started turning my mind to writing an article I couldn’t have predicted a week ago. Two senior government ministers have given interviews with two colliding perspectives that helps define where we find ourselves nearly thirty years later since transport deregulation. Just recently, Minister of State for Public Transport, Norman Baker declared a desire to see the motorist banned for town and city centres all over Britain and then later in the week, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, Eric Pickles slammed councils for persecuting motorists by using CCTV cameras to issue parking fines.

A deregulated transport system in Britain was like so much government policy during the late Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as PM, supposed to free up the market to respond to the needs of the customer, enable competition to help ensure operators always fought to win the loyalty of passengers and reduced the need for government to continually pour tax payers money into the preservation of an outdated transport network that was becoming incapable of responding to the changing times and needs of the passenger.

Council undertakings like Northampton seen here, bristled with civic pride but were often run with little or no commercial awareness before De-Reg came into force.
Council undertakings like Northampton seen here, bristled with civic pride but were often run with little or no commercial awareness before De-Reg came into force.

Regardless of your views on party politics, whether you want to see everyone wearing sandals, eating muesli and using public transport for every journey or whether you think that we should retain the right to drive gas guzzling motor cars at limitless speeds wherever and whenever you like, the difference between our choices in 1986 and 2013 could not be more different.

Prior to 1986, car ownership was rising sharply as people became more prosperous and public transport of all types was tired, worn out and in many cases, pretty unpleasant. In the intervening years, car ownership has ballooned with many households keeping two or more cars, youngsters race to get their hands on the keys to their first car at the age of 17 and cars are now far better built and more affordable or attainable with the variety of different finance packages available.

Simultaneously the bus industry has undergone a somewhat less obvious transformation. Outside the capital, gone are the once common, tired apple green or poppy red national bus company single and double deck buses with their smoke filled upper decks, gone too are most of the once proud municipal operators who would now face a real struggle to remain profitable with staggering increased costs of operation unless their market area was so large, the economies of scale still work in their favour. First came an army of brightly coloured minibuses buzzing around at high frequency, then as passenger numbers have grown steadily over the years, so have the buses with some busy operators now running 70-80 seat double deck buses at frequencies of every five minutes, like Go Ahead group subsidiary, Brighton & Hove just along the coast here from my home in sunny Sussex by the sea.

Many group companies now operate at local level with local identity  - this has increased patronage.
Many group companies now operate at local level with local identity – this has increased patronage.

Over the years, big UK groups like Go Ahead, Stagecoach, First and Arriva have become global forces to be reckoned with, not only have they transformed their operations throughout Britain, but exporting their proven business models throughout the globe. Partnership working with local authorities, big employers and destinations, and user groups have seen the introduction of modern, bright and airy buses, equipped with free wi-fi connections, Cafe Nero styled interiors, real time information which not only keeps passengers informed of next stops whilst travelling but also publicises the frequency of services to members of the public via easy to read street signage. New technology is revolutionising the way buses work, are managed and what impact they have on their operating environment.

GPS technology means that buses which become snarled up in traffic jams, can be diverted around an issue when needed ensuring that the service remains reliable for the majority of passengers and the company is able to make the best use of its valuable assets. Smart and digital technology means that we have moved from the vast majority of ticket sales having shifted from conductors with hand held Almex wind up handles ticket machines with cash bags through weekly journey tickets bought from the driver each week, to pre-paid smart cards or even now smart phone ‘apps’ that enable payment for travel to take place completely off bus, thereby reducing down time for buses as passengers board and helping reduce journey times. Then there as also been the revolution in engineering technology. Low floor buses make travel easily accessible for wheel chair users and parents with pushchairs and hybrid technology cuts fuel usage and harmful emissions into the environment. Back in 1986, you could probably not have believed how much things would change.

Now fast forward to 2013, the economic climate dictates that unless you are well off, simply can’t manage without your car for work or the most hectic of lives with multiple jobs, interwoven with child movements between the home, nursery and schools, you may very well be one of a number of people who stop, think and make a choice before travelling. The advent of free travel throughout England and Wales for pensioners have changed the travelling habits for my parents generation. Whilst they both still own and enjoy using their cars, if they are taking a trip into town or spending a day out in Brighton, they almost always hop on a bus. I too will happily take a bus into town when time permits, saving myself the hassle and cost of parking whilst getting me straight to the centre of town with the minimum of fuss.

Bus travel is unrecognisable to what it may have seemed once. Those mad times of intense competition where everyone bought a bus and had a slice of the action has settled down into survival of the fittest. Cleaner greener buses offering the public a choice rather than merely a service has proven the only way to showcase local public transport – the days of warm leatherette, chrome holding rails and condensation streaming down the window panes have no place in the current world we live in. The once fiercely aggressive bus groups who would regularly run a rival off the road have matured into transport solution companies that all four corners of the globe look upon as ‘the standard’ – not a bad thing.

Whatever your view, whether you agree with Norman that a heavy handed approach is required or you share the opposite view that things have gone too far as raised by Eric, the chances are, you will now be far more aware that you have a choice. You are empowered with the knowledge, the technology and a wide selection of world class products, be they marvellous motor cars or brightly coloured, well marketed, frequent and easy to use buses. You choose!

On this basis, I’d say that the Transport Deregulation Act of 1986 has delivered.

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10 thoughts on “Insider Insight: Transport De-Regulation – Has it worked?

  1. I have to disagree , buses now are very expensive, only generally serve cities in any frequency.

    Bring back the municipal bus services like Brighton Blue.

  2. Interesting Spencer

    Expensive in relation to what exactly? how about if you were to head into town alone, and spend on 4 hours in a car park?

    Nip to the cinema and have a pint or two afterwards? – what would a taxi cost or what would be your personal cost for drink driving?

  3. I am in two minds on this one. Deregulation brought about the return of the “bus wars” that Nationalization sought to resolve. Effectively, what we have now is essentially a small number of excessively large private companies (not necessarily even British owned) instead of the UK government controlled companies.

    Yes, this has produced results in some areas, but has also resulted in other areas losing their services. The question is, what do we actually want from our bus services?

    We can dream of a fully integrated transport system, or we can dream of a public transport system that pays for itself and doesn’t require subsidy. What would you prefer – a profitable 5 minute frequency bus that runs a mile or so away from where you live that doesn’t quite go to where you need to get, or an hourly service that does go where you want it to go, but has to be subsidized as a result (or just makes less money for the company).

    On balance, I have to say I don’t think it has worked. We have seen Stagecoach in particular running legitimate competition off the road in order to gain market share. OK, this was a failure of the government in allowing this to happen, but it was always on the cars.

    Maybe London has got it right. Free competition amongst any company that wants to run each franchise, but the routes dictated at a higher level in order to provide a balanced level of service.

    Discuss…….

  4. The cost of Buses seems to vary greatly depending on the operators and where you live. For example in the West Midlands the biggest operator National Express West Midlands, in some cases is pricing themselves out of the market. I have a relative who doesn’t drive and until recently used the bus to go shopping each week. She only travels three stops a distance of a quarter of a mile, does her shopping and gets the bus home. Since the last price hikes on short hop fares she now walks to the shops and gets a taxi home as it’s cheaper, which is ridiculous!

  5. I have first hand experience of this, and I’m glad I’m out of the industry, because quite frankly, its finished. The industry was struggling before the free pensioner fiasco, and now it’s on its knees. Fares have had to sky rocket to offset the pensioner freebies, simply because local authorities do not have the money to pay what they rightfully owe to operators, and operator insurance is now at insane levels thanks to the ambulance chaser claim culture we now live in. Where I live, fares are stupidly high for even short journeys, one major PLC operator has pulled out of the town, and the 2 main ops left are at each other’s throats, with pointless tit-for-tat wars, which keep ending in stalemates. Most areas have no buses after 1830, and none of the outlying villages have a service at all after that, or on a Sunday, and from November more routes are for the big axe! I know now in York it is also cheaper to park in city if there are 4 adults in the car, than use the park & ride as well…Go figure!

  6. I think the question of whether De-Regulation has been a success depends on who you are and where you live. If you’re name starts Sir Brian or Sir Moir and you can stand in places like Aberdeen, Manchester or Sheffield and see buses running for global transport companies you’ve created then I think you’d be quietly satisfied with De-regulation. If you live in Greater London and you have a integrated transport system with lots of brand new buses supported by massive subsidies you’d probably say ‘What’s de-regulation…?’

    However for the rest of us De-regulation has been a mixed bag. Whilst many towns and cities continue to have their buses provided by more or less the same companies – think Lothian, Blackpool, Reading, Nottingham et all, others have fared not so well. Most have seen either a reduction of services or in other cases services abandoned all together.

    I stay in Glasgow and services there are in the main provided by Firstbus. Whilst the core network survives and has frequencies comparable with tramway days or better, other areas of the city and outlying districts have been left to other operators running a mixed bag of minibuses or even tendered services.

    So has De-regulation been a success? Possibly. But with a few buts…..

  7. Out here in north Wales the bus services are mainly free of the large firms, especially since Arriva (who had bought Crossville) announced the closure of its depots in north and mid Wales.

    The main companies are now the local compaines like GHA in wrexham or Lloyds down in Machynlleth who can be much more flexible with regards to demand. For instance arriva always ran Enviro2000s on all their routes, including the late night ones. GHA now serve the later routes with smaller buses, saving themselves fuel costs

      1. I’m not sure Mike, they just happen to run the pub special bus from rhyds towers in to the bright lights of Bala.

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