Expand to Survive

A couple of weeks ago, i stayed up late watching an awkward film on BBC Two. Dennis Quaid and Zac Effron starred as father and son of a dysfunctional family whose business centred around corn and farm machinery in the American Mid-West. During an opening movement which showed the business to be under threat (and Effron’s son character was involved in some odd sub-plot around motor racing), the motto “expand to survive” kept getting booted around.

The past week has seen the Buses Bill get shoved ungraciously through Parliament (so that the Blues can claim it as a “success” in campaigning for the election) and we shortly go to the polls for a Metro Mayor of Avon. This means for those of us running buses in the area, heavy handed regulation is coming. I know this because all of the candidates for the Metro Mayor post are promising it. This is apparently how democracy works.

Having seen how Bristol City Council mis-manage their bus service contracts, this will almost certainly mean extermination for several local businesses in the area, mine included. I’m currently working my way through sixty plus pages of mind-numbing questionnaire for North Somerset, and similar is likely to follow for Avon. This will probably be enough to put some operators off. We will then have that awkward phase of splitting everything up between operators through tendering. This will mean truly ridiculous specifications for buses, as councillors and council offices get carried away with what their budget can purchase. This which will bar anybody without a few million in the bank.

Even if an independent local business did manage to get the finances together to meet vehicle specifications, we would need to seriously consider how likely it is that we would be successful. The dominant local operator (First) will not want to reduce the size of their operation. This would mean they would be likely to bid upon work they don’t normally have an interest in, in order to retain an economically viable workload.

Then we have the likes of Rotala Wessex and Hackney Communist Transport (CT Plus) who would see it as an opportunity to expand their empires of poorly delivered services. Stagecoach might want a bite of the cherry too, seeing as they are moving further and further in to Bristol with services from the north.

None of the larger operations in the area would go in to the tendering process with the intention of losing work and the total level of service that Avon will be able to afford will mean fewer buses in service overall, a situation which politicians, activists and campaigners seem incapable of getting their heads around.

So what will be left for the rest of us? Those of us who actually pay Corporation Tax rather than pass ourselves off as being a charity? Those independents who have been plugging away at some services for pushing 30 years? Because modern tendering is set up to be a “one hit cure-all”, there will be no crumbs left under the table. The regulated society will make sure there are no opportunities to innovate with a new commercial service, even where the regulators have made oversights and mistakes.

Speaking of the regulators, where are all these experts in our bus networks going to come from? Experience suggests that local government can’t deliver them. The skills required are simply not found in the public sector. When bus services were tendered in Bristol during 2011, the council specifed a service with a 38 minute journey time on an hourly frequency which would have required three buses due to having 50 and 54 minute turnarounds at each end. Is this the sort of competency that is going to be demonstrated regulating the industry, whilst in turn destroying local businesses who look after their customers?

Sadly i don’t have the resources to publish glossy irrelevant nonsense such as HCT Group’s “Practical Bus Franchising“, so i have to satisfy myself with this blog. Perhaps those resources come from passing your organisation off as a charity.

Those who can, expand to survive.

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