The SNP has missed the bus so let's change route

The SNP has missed the bus so let's change route

by Liam Kerr
article from Thursday 30, March, 2017

THE NUMBER of bus journeys being made is at a near-record low, having fallen dramatically under the SNP.

From a peak of 487 million in 2007 when the SNP took office, passenger numbers fell to 409 million in 2016. That means, despite SNP commitments to ‘encourage people out of their car’, the number of bus journeys has fallen by 16 per cent since the SNP came to power a decade ago.

Greener Journeys suggests a link between increased investment in bus services and improvements in health, education, skills, employment and income.

Thus, reduced bus usage is a “bad thing”, and ought to be reversed. The usual suspects call for the usual dogmas to be applied. But we in the Scottish Conservatives think innovatively about how bus usage can be reinvigorated.

What’s left of “Scottish” Labour calls for “re-regulation” – it is difficult to establish what this precisely means but it seems to be councils compelling operators to run both profitable and non-profitable local routes with control over routes, fares and integration of bus services.

Professional bandwagon-jumpers, the Greens, agree, suggesting bus companies are cherry-picking profitable routes, which must be stopped.

Unite the Union blame it all on deregulation and demand bringing the buses under public control.

As with the railways, they don’t understand that just owning something does not a great service make. Often the reverse is the case.

In any event, can your council afford to own a bus company, given their lack of budget and budgetary freedom? Would you be happy for the next Scottish budget to pull money from the NHS and education to own and operate a bus company?

And how confident are you that your council can operate a bus company… better than a bus company can?!

Blanket franchising, re-regulation and/or public ownership would be a massive unnecessary cost and risk to taxpayers. It won’t make buses cheaper, run faster or serve new areas. And those local companies who fail to win a franchise will be put out of business with an attendant impact on jobs.

Furthermore, such interventionist measures would reduce competition, investment and beg questions around what happens when your council’s buses cross into a neighbouring area’s regime.

Of course, there are examples where some degree of franchising – based on good local competition – does work, with London being the highest profile example. The UK Government is currently legislating to provide such an enabling power to other local areas and it is worth exploring how this could be done in Scotland and to what extent.

A key part of building a sustainable future for the bus industry is to encourage new passengers. So how do we do that? There are important lessons to learn from the rail industry here, and one might ask: why has rail patronage doubled in recent decades?

The answer is that it has reformed itself, through competition, to become a fundamentally better service.

Furthermore, whilst average speeds for rail, cycling and walking have remained consistent for half a century, speeds for buses have plummeted. The respected industry specialist Professor David Begg estimates that we would have 50% more people travelling by bus if speeds had remained consistent.

In Edinburgh, people take the bus as, alongside reasonably priced fares, it is frequent, comfortable, has Wi-Fi, an easy App to track the route, to purchase and use tickets. Above all they are fast.

Taking a car to Edinburgh city centre will be slow, cost a fortune in parking (if you can find a space) and requires a hazard-avoidance ability the Stig would be proud of.

So we must make the bus the right, and first, choice for passengers. 20th Century models won’t work. People have an abundance of choice in their travel options (particularly now given the relatively low cost of car ownership) and demand more return for what they pay for. The rise of internet shopping gives an easy alternative to a trip to the shops so the trip to the shops must become a desirable choice.

And this means making our buses quick. Our councils should be encouraged to ensure bus routes outpace cars with upgrades to traffic signaling, congestion free route planning and improved bus infrastructure. The bus industry in Scotland has invested millions in improvements such as low emission buses, mobile tickets and real-time information, but whilst compromised bus speeds remain, modal shift is unlikely to follow.

Better information and journey planning options are required – catering for the younger market as well as the old.

It works. Learning from our neighbours, 6% growth in bus use has been achieved in Galway and 6.6 per cent in Cork, through simplified networks, higher frequencies, maximising access to the network and comfortable Wi-Fi equipped buses.

When the usual suspects start tinkering around the edges, worrying about ownership instead of dealing with the underlying reasons for decreasing bus usage they miss the point. Ownership and regulation represents a failure to look beyond ideology and dogma.

Crucially, revisiting the regulatory framework will not deal with two key causes of declining bus usage. The first of these is the tightening of local government funding as a result of SNP cuts, which has meant local authorities do not have sufficient cash to invest in improving current services and structures. The second, very much linked to the first, is that restructuring the regulatory framework does not deal with the key issue of congestion.

Passengers want regular, punctual, reliable services; all of which are undermined by congestion. Councils and the Scottish Government must think better about how we use and designate road space, to benefit the travelling public the most.

While there are some circumstances in which franchising may be the right answer at the right time, it is not the be all and end all. We need to think innovatively about how we deal with congestion, all the while encouraging investment in smart-ticketing, co-ordination of timetables, and installation of free Wi-Fi.

Bus services can be the key to unlocking economic growth, and we have seen that a great deal can be achieved through working together. For many, the bus provides vital access to friends, family, schools and hospitals. They have the potential to dramatically improve quality of life – now we need local authorities and bus operators to work together to grasp that opportunity.


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