Surprised and not surprised to read that First Bus will withdraw so many services in East Central Scotland, it seems from my reading of Buses that there’s been issues for a while and First refer to the withdrawal of regulator conditions. The service changes are fairly extensive and although the Musselburgh and Galashiels ones are complete withdrawals there are also cuts in Stirling, Fakirk and Clackmannan.
Obviously it’s a big effect on the local communities concerned and the hope is that an other operator can get a fair price and take over operations. There are jobs at stake and issues of community and local public transport in a mainly rural area.
I’m old enough to recall Eastern Scottish, it split in the 1985 Scottish Bus Group reorganisation to form Eastern and Lowland, before the 1986 deregulation of bus services. Lothian were the only really big competitor in the area, but Eastern was sold to employees in 1990 for over £9 million and then to GRT in 1994 for just over £10 million. In 1989 Eastern made a profit of just over £1 million. Lowland was sold to employees for over £3 million in 1990 and to GRT in 1994 for £2.4 million.
The question is this, the public purse received about £12 million for Eastern and Lowland at privatisation in 1990. At today’s prices that’s likely to be a far higher figure. Was it worth it? Can it be?
It may well be that Lothian buses step into the gap or that another operator such as Stagecoach does. First have retrenched in Glasgow also as a result of the CMA regulations being lightened. As a private company subject to shareholders it has to return the best it can from resources and assets, it has operating licences and can be held to account by regulators, but if it needs to close an operation, it can.
The Scottish Bus Group was a product of its time, many Scots used it. It operated outside the main cities, it took the brunt of services to the schemes outside the cities, it ran to the industrial towns, it was urban and rural and also ran the London Express services. Progress was seeing First and Stagecoach take over and along with some city operations in Glasgow and Aberdeen modernise the buses, the services and improve some, withdraw from others. My impression is that buses, routes and services have changed hugely from when I was young.
There’s upsides and downsides, but who can say.
Would a public sector, Eastern Scottish or Lothian Scottish have survived in the same way?
Would it have had the management or ability to withstand change?
Some competition comes from improvements to the Railways, some came from deregulation and a city bus company that was municipally owned.
Can we ever know?
Could it be analysed and taken in context, year by year or key decision by decision. It probably couldn’t.
There are bigger issues across Scotland, monopoly operation in certain communities, public subsidy for night time and weekend services, buses running empty, the supported schemes for Elderly and Disabled people, connections in rural communities, Green buses, school transport, modal connections. It could be a bigger list. First and Stagecoach are headquartered in Scotland too.
There are ‘better buses’ and ‘reregulation’ campaigns. I’ve seen London’s buses with the ‘built for the city’ New Buses for London/New Routemasters/Boris Buses, it’s a franchised route system giving a route or package of routes to an operator for a fixed period at a fixed cost based on a specification per hour/day.
But, can this type of system be transposed across into Scotland where deregulation was applied and competition and where bus wars happened?
There’s no doubting the quality and frequency in London. With an Oyster Card it’s simple and easy to use, the services mix in with Rail and Underground. We have places in Scotland where we cannot even integrate Bus and Rail connections.
I don’t think there’s a chance of buying out routes from existing operators, I think a reforming act can harm as much as benefit operators if there’s an imposed regulation of services. How is it defined? Route by Route, Council area by Council area, which routes create profit, which wash their faces? Our Councils and Regional Transport Partnerships know the services that need subsidy. Our communities know where they are fleeced. Small operators know the routes where they can and cannot compete.
Is a starting point to look at what is already subsided and say that local companies are created to take that on? It would remove public money from existing operators.
The existing legislation would need modified to allow the municipal/council ownership of bus concerns. The packages would need to make sense to maximise vehicle usage, to ensure no wasted mileage or inefficiency. Vehicles would need to be modern, environmentally clean and suitable for services from schools to late night. Could that be brought together locally and nationally as a network using shared resources where necessary, say in terms of vehicle buying, engineering and locally in terms of operation and flexibility.
Should the public sector involve itself directly and take a position like this? Should the Scottish Government intervene in this regard, take a direct position in a market due to the needs of communities, to create the initial steps toward a multi mode system.
Can the sort of money involved in a larger intervention be spent in better ways, dedicated road sections, priority measures, vehicle grants, inspection schemes to ensure running to time, dedicated school buses, operator pacts with authorities?