Several pressure groups are using the current situation and funding to call for greater long term regulation to be brought in to the bus industry. Knee-jerk reactions to such an opportunity to make sweeping changes would almost certainly deliver disasterous results as such things need careful consideration to ensure they are fit for purpose. In my opinion, new public transport regulation needs to be treated like a doctor. It should first do no harm.
One of the problematic drums banged by pro-regulation groups is that subjecting all network decisions to political scrutiny would not deliver a network that addresses public demand. It would address the councillor(s) and campaigners who shout the loudest. This is, and always has been, a truly terrible idea.
Here is my manifesto for constructive progress which could deliver better results than any Cornish disaster could ever do, at a fraction of the cost.
Since 1986, local transport authorities have to a varying extent been prevented from regulating tickets and fares. Even now, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) exercises heavy control over how bus operators can co-operate with multi-operator ticketing. A few years ago, operators in WECAvon were broadly in agreement that all existing single operator day tickets should be replaced by multi-operator tickets. This would have been the biggest game changer ever seen in ticketing in the area. It was also popular amongst operators and council officials until one operator’s legal team decided it was against CMA regulations, thus rendering it dead in the water.
Whilst WECAvon’s recent consultation advocated many things, it was depressingly short on solutions which would enable commercial innovation by all operators rather than just First. I firmly believe that the key to such a progressive environment is to have a fixed ticketing system for all operators with no operator specific ticketing. Single fares would be the same over common sections of route regardless of who was providing a service (based upon journey distance or fare zones). Day and season tickets would be interavailable with all operators on all routes within a given zone at the same price. Although there is precious little direct competition left in our area, where operators cannot consider competition on price, then the key will become addressing customer demand and the development of new markets. The decision of any operator to withdraw from a service would be far easier to replace as the existing ticketing products would remain seemlessly valid through with a new operator.
All ticket prices would be set to 50p or £1 units, with realistic single fares based upon distance travelled, ideally with as few zones as possible. If the whole of Flemish Belgium can have a flat €3 fare for any journey, one fare zone for the city of Bristol should be achievable. It should also be noted that the Belgian network makes buying any ticket other than a single fare remarkably difficult as you have to visit a retailer (and often a bus station office) rather than being able to purchase them on the bus.
Local transport authorities should be able to commit funding to such schemes in order to reduce ticket prices if they so desire, but no additional groups should receive free travel at the point of use. Such facilities only serve to devalue the service provided.
With ticketing all sorted out, local transport authorities would be left to arrange pragmatic funding for services which don’t generate enough passenger journeys to be viable, whether these are existing supported contracts or new innovations. Long term funding should be made available to an annual kickstart scheme which would encourage operators to explore new markets by making funding available for pilot schemes running for up to two years. This would replace any big expenditure nonsense like Metrobus, which currently seems to be set up to alienate as many passengers as possible along existing corridors.
As demand develops, commercially savvy operators would be able to follow demand to provide the bus services that people actually want and use, with available funding to support innovation. Services would develop organically rather than the rip-it-up-and-start-again mentality that so many advocate. Councils could devote infrastructure to existing services rather than dreaming up hugely expensive schemes with negligible benefits. It also means that councils don’t have to go to the expense of setting up their own bus companies, which would likely become a Bristol Energy sized millstone around their necks.
If the resulting network serves the public well, does it really matter who makes the decisions or who owns the buses?