Decision Time

The West of England Combined Authority is probably the most important body in the area where transport is concerned. The “Metro Mayor” as the leader of it is therefore a very important person in the lives of public transport passengers and providers as their policies will set the tone for the direction that WECA takes. In May 2021, we will be offered the choice between four candidates to take over from the hopeless Tim Bowles (Con) who has failed to demonstrate any understanding of transport issues during his tenure in the post. Lets take a look at the candidates and their policies to see how much of a choice we have.

Samuel Williams (Con)
I will introduce a digitally enabled and integrated transport network, meaning that for the first time all of us can cut through the confusion of bus times and rail timetables, putting your travel plans into your hands. Launching new ‘on-demand’ services will offer personalised transport for you, when you need it.

I may be wrong, but i believe the “digitally enabled” policy is merely a commitment to the BODS scheme, which is already being enacted. As for “integrated”, as ever my response is: Talk to the CMA, because they’re the stumbling block to willing operators.

Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) is a very fashionable policy for the Conservatives at the moment, i assume because it benefits light commercial manufacturers who also just happen to be car manufacturers. It’s just a shame that all modern implementations of DRT are smart and mobile technology based, which block access to it to a significant section of the poplation. DRT is not true public transport in any sense, especially to the occasional user.

Former Brighton & Hove MD Roger French has documented the failures of the high profile Lincolnshire scheme on two occasions when he’s tried to make (what should be) simple journeys using it. If a person with the experience that Mr French has in catching buses (along the listening ear of the MD of the service provider) can’t manage it, then what hope is there for the user new to the travel mode? We cannot be advocating a faulty mode of transport as a collective solution.

Dan Norris (Lab)
Dan Norris will work to genuinely improve local transport. We need to unclog the roads and get people out of cars. Active travel must be a priority as we tackle the climate emergency.

Former MP Dan Norris has barely anything on his website relating to public transport aside from the vagueness above, so it’s pretty impossible to know what his policies are. Bus franchising is mentioned as a power available to a Metro Mayor, but not advocated.

Stephen Williams (LibDem)
“Taking back control of our bus network so we can have new bus routes (and new train stations) with non-polluting buses and new routes around our cities, towns and villages.”

Where Dan Norris is short on policies and details, Stephen Williams has a lengthy manifesto which is overflowing with them. Sadly, he’s clearly taken very poor advice on how to deliver his ambitions in the most economic and productive way possible, instead opting for the faulty socialist mentality of franchising being the only solution. There are other activists within the LibDems locally who are far more willing to listen to less damaging ways of providing services which may also favour engaged local businesses instead of faceless PLC corporations. Sadly, we’re left with a candidate who i find unelectable as his headline policy favours costly regulated, lowest common denominator public transport provision. This is far from the “light touch” politics that other party members favour.

Jerome Thomas (Green)
“I will work to improve the regions transport options. From improving and subsidising public transport, securing funding for development of active travel, and working to ensure safer, easier roads.”

From the information on their websites, Jerome Thomas has the most balanced and progressive policies on public transport. Although he talks about trams and community transport in his manifesto, he also cites “enhanced partnerships” with bus companies rather than franchising. There is even talk about subsidy for buses in rural areas, which is pretty revolutionary stuff from a modern politician to advocate maintenance of such things rather than a rip-it-up-and-start-again mentality which seems to be in vogue from every other party.

The Elephant in the Room
In many areas with Metro Mayors, there is a line oft trotted out about how “bus deregulation has failed”, which simply isn’t true. It’s a bit like saying that your dog has failed if you don’t feed it, then expect it to jump 5cm higher every morning. Deregulated bus services have ceased to be viable in many areas because local authorities have stopped spending on transport because they don’t have protected funding from central government.

Meanwhile, bus operators are facing increasingly higher barriers to providing services. Buying and maintaining public service vehicles has increased in cost far above the rate of inflation and the administrative burden on the bus operator has escalated dramatically. Both of these aspects are a result of legislation by central government (regardless of which party is in charge) who are now beating operators with the convenient stick of CBSSG funding.

What is needed is not “Bus Back Better” nor “Rural Transport Challenge” nor whichever soundbite bit of nonsense has been dreamed up for this parliamentary term. Consistent, protected, long term funding will provide stability which is far more of a driver for public transport use than short term gimmicks and the associated crash in usage when the funding for unsustainable fanciful schemes runs out.

I maintain my long held view that the key to improving the passenger experience is to level the playing field on ticketing. If we were to get to a situation where ticketing is standardised across the board, it doesn’t matter to the passenger who is providing the service. It is then possible for operators other than the dominant local player to provide services which are complimentary to their competitors. It is also far easier for services to change between providers without the regular passenger being inconvenienced by having to change season tickets.

Even if government were to completely cover the costs of setting up such a ticketing scheme (including hardware and licensing costs) for the whole of England, they would most likely still have significant change left over from the bill for franchising in Manchester, without paralysing the transport system for a major city in the process.

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