Tuesday, 26 April 2011

5 minute madness

I remember having dinner in Zagreb one evening, discussing the vaguries of the UK's deregulated bus system with friends from the SPUTNIC project (Strategies For Public Transport In Cities - yes, I know it doesn't fit exactly, but it's catchy!)
Over some intriguing meat dish, some of them couldn't quite believe that, here in Blighty, our operators have free-reign to design their own routes, times, etc. Of course, most of them had been to London and waxed-lyrical about the TfL operation, but it appeared that most hadn't been beyond the outer reaches of the M25 either.
I've often been asked what I think about deregulation. Is it good for the passenger? Have we been doomed since 1986? Of course, there isn't a simple answer - there never is. Whilst we raised a tipsy glass in that downtown Croatian restaurant to all that is great about TfL, let's not forget the excellent services that operate in places such as Brighton, Nottingham and Edinburgh. Lest we forget that these have been achieved in the deregulated environment so unloved by some.
I can't see much appetite from any powers that be for a form of re-regulationat present. There are bigger fish to fry, although the upcoming Competition Commission enquiry into local bus services might throw up some interesting scenarios.
I largely think the UK bus industry has matured in recent years, from those heady days of the late 80s / early 90s when cut throat competition was popping up all over the place. Passengers didn't really understand why one bus operator turned up 5 minutes in front of another one, then nothing for another half an hour. Worse still, you couldn't use tickets from one operator on anothers.
"The Blacon Pointer" in Chester is a great example of how two previously warring operators (First & Arriva in this example) can come together in the passenger's interest to offer inter-available ticketing, and a sensible use of resources so that both operators get a slice of the pie. Everyone is happy.
So it is disappointing that the worst example of deregulation is about to pop up in my native Black Country soon. One operator (not the biggest one, I might point out) has registered on a service operated by a small company on a 30 minute frequency, 5 minutes ahead.
Now, many of the users of said service are concessionary pass holders. It's hardly a huge money-spinner, and was abandoned by the aforementioned "biggest operator" back in 2008.
Why act in such a predatory way? If they must, why not go onto the alternate 30 minutes to create a 15 minute headway? (which I don't think the service can really sustain commercially anyway)
I don't suppose we passengers will ever know the true reasoning.
But in a world where the deregulated system has largely settled down, this kind of action will only serve to cause mild confusion for passengers and threaten the existence of the incumbant service.

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