Time for a people’s bus service
John Ruddy says re-regulation of Scotland’s bus services could deliver a whole range of benefits for passengers, but we could go even further and deliver a truly radical shift in transport use, help revitalise local communities and change many lives for the better.
Public transport in Scotland is in need of a revolution. While there is justified focus on the performance of ScotRail and whether it would perform better as a nationalised operator, arguably more attention should be paid to the state of bus services and their integration with rail and other modes.
Nearly 400 million journeys were made last year in Scotland by bus, while 94 million went by rail. Yet rail receives over £730 million in subsidy from the Scottish Government, while the national concessionary bus fare scheme costs a mere £180 million – and even that has had a cut.
Reverse the decline
Bus patronage has been declining in Scotland for a number of years, and while fares have been lower than in England this has now begun to reverse, with recent Scottish rises higher than those in England and Wales. Meanwhile the overall cost of motoring has been reduced in real terms, in part due to the freezing of fuel duty since 2010. Train usage has nearly doubled in Scotland since 1994, and more trains mean a more congested network.
Rail services in Scotland (and elsewhere in the UK) are highly specified. Government dictates how many trains should be leased, to what specification, what times they should run, and how frequently. Performance and standards are regularly monitored and fines imposed for non-compliance. But bus services are left to vary at the whim of operators, with little attempt at co-ordination, either with other operators services or with rail and other modes of transport.
Regulate to accumulate
The case for regulation of buses is clear. After the 1986 Transport Act was enacted by the Tories only London still regulated its bus services. While bus ridership has fallen across the country, in London it has risen – since 2004/5 by over 30%. Increasingly this has meant pressure on local authorities to subsidise routes, but with council budgets under unprecedented pressure this has meant that overall bus mileage in Scotland is down 21% since 2007. Only by regulation of bus services, with pooling and sharing of revenues across the network rather than cherry picking, can this be turned around.
But we need to go further. We need to implement the equivalent of Ken Livingstone’s ‘Fare’s Fair’ policy of 1981, and the later introduction of the Travelcard. Scotland has lagged behind London when it comes to the SmartCard too. Oyster is 15 years old, yet our own “Saltire Card”, launched 6 years ago by Nicola Sturgeon, still does not cover all rail journeys and tickets, let alone bus journeys. Meanwhile, London has moved onto contactless payment, with your bank card acting as your Oyster Card and automatic caps ensuring that users are not over-charged where a day ticket would have been cheaper.
Set our buses free
With regulation, not only can timetables be integrated, but so can ticketing. Fares can be simplified or reduced. It should also be a goal to provide local bus travel for free to residents. In Wales they have trialled offering free bus travel at the weekends. But we should go further, just as in Estonia where residents can get free bus and tram travel all day every day.
Such a policy would transform both bus services and the lives of those who use them most. People in the bottom 20% of income use buses 5 times as much as they use trains, and a freeze on rail fares would benefit the better off most. If we want to be truly radical and redistributive, a policy of free bus travel would help those who need it most – whether to get to work or to have access to public services that are becoming increasingly centralised.
The cost of this need not be prohibitive either. Currently, bus operators in Scotland take £370m in revenue through the fare box. If the Government were to replace that, then the total subsidy for bus passengers per mile would still be half that for rail users. Removal of wasteful competition and the use of cross subsidy from the more profitable routes onto the less profitable ones will reduce costs.
Such a policy would not only cause a modal shift in transport use, but evidence suggests that it will also drive additional footfall to high streets and other commercial areas, helping to boost employment. Ultimately, passengers in Scotland see our public transport system as fragmented, with confusing and expensive fares, and with timetables and services that don’t join up. The Government has attempted to join up the various modes with websites such travelinescotland.com but to little effect. Only a radical overhaul of our transport system will deliver the changes we need to see.