Monday, 23 May 2011

Transport Under The Microscope - Good News For Users?

To us regular riders of all things public transport, the organisation and regulation of it is rarely fully understood (apart from the more "enthusiastic" amongst us, who actually spend our evenings reading things like the Competition Commission Inquiry into Bus Services - little wonder I'm not married....)
Most aren't really interested - after all, public transport is a means to getting somewhere else (again, apart from the more enthusiastic amongst us who know our Routemasters from our Enviro 400s...)
However, 2 recent heavy tomes have been published which take a detailed look into how our buses and trains operate - and could have long-term implications on those of us at the bus stop and/or station platform.
Britain's deregulated buses and privatised (but still heavily regulated) trains have been under the microscope - but what's in it for us?
First, the buses.
The Competition Commission has published its initial findings into how our mostly private bus operators carry on. One industry pundit proclaimed that all the report really does is "state the bleeding obvious" - and I can't really disagree with that sentiment.
But nevertheless, it lays bare some of the shortcomings of the industry - such as wasteful anti-competitive head-to-head competition (something I was moaning about in a previous blog post) - whilst not mentioning at all the biggest issue facing bus passengers - traffic congestion. Never mind competition (or lack of it) between bus operators - what about acknowledging the true competitor to the bus: the private car?
Yes, the report is correct to highlight the need for more multi-operator ticketing - and the need for that ticketing to be competitively priced. And if we finally get some action on reckless operators registering 5 minutes ahead of another, it'll be worth it.
It's interesting how the report highlights the dominance of the 5 major bus operating groups. Again, stating "the bleeding obvious", but this isn't always a default "bad" situation. Large, or semi-large operators in an area can bring stability and a decent network, although the report acknowledges that complacency can set in given these scenarios.
But what, eventually, will all this mean for us passengers?
We notice when the bus is late. This investigation does nothing to address that. We notice when the bus is untidy and dirty. But if we had more competition from different bus operators on a route, would we really wait for a more tidy bus?
There are many within the industry who didn't want this investigation. And in many ways, the jury on that is out until the final recommendations come through in quite a few months time. Ultimately, we'll have to wait and see if Transport Secretary Philip Hammond accepts and implements the final offering to see if our lot at the bus stop really is improved.
For rail users, McNulty is the man on people's lips. Well, within the rail industry anyway.
His investigation into Britain's railways has certainly got the unions into a lather for various reasons. But Beeching he is thankfully not.
For all sorts of strange reasons, rail is enjoying a boom time the bus industry could only dream of. Strange in that the whole collective of UK rail commuters appears to be united in getting hot under the collar about "eye-watering" fare prices, overcrowding and ridiculously complicated ticketing. And yet we're using more trains more times than ever since the halcyon days of the 20s.
McNulty proposes all sorts of remedies to arrest the cost of running the railways - which is apparently far higher than our European neighbours and much more than when it used to be good old British Railways. Curiously, he also didn't even consider any form of renationalisation - even on a hypothetical basis.
Instead, there are proposals to get more of us using the dreaded automated ticket machines and reduce human beings in ticket offices - something London Midland recently proposed - and was met with a barrage of opposition.
Some ideas seem decent - longer franchises mean that train operators will have more incentive to invest - but plans to raise some off-peak fares even more?
We must avoid at all costs a scenario where the railway at certain times becomes entirely pre-booked. Cheap Internet fares can be good, but the whole fare structure needs simplifying once and for all. How have we got to a situation whereby I can ask the ticket clerk for a Wolverhampton to Manchester return in peak hours and by asking for it to be split at Stoke on Trent, I can save over £20 simply because I'm "in the know"?
Scrutiny of our transport systems can be a good thing if it leads to genuine improvements for the millions of people who use it every day. Let's hope we do see better public transport as a result of these reports and that it's not a box-ticking exercise.....

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