Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A Question of Quality Contracts

Who's best placed to have control of local bus services?
Like most things in life, the answer is far from straightforward.
In most of Britain, it is the operator who decides most elements - the routes, the times, the fares, etc. With 56 days notice to the Traffic Commissioner (who is mostly duty-bound to accept any changes), the bus company is up and running.
Good idea?
It's been that way since 1986, and whilst the debate has simmered since those days of Thatcher and Ridley (the then Transport Secretary), the answer ultimately hasn't been forthcoming.
A tool in the box - as yet unused - is "Quality Contracts". This effectively hands the Local Authority the power to decide the routes, times, fares, etc, and invite private bus companies to bid for exclusive powers to operate them - a franchise, if you like. This is what happens in London, where Transport for London (TfL) decides most aspects and the operators win contracts to operate them.
In many ways, London is unique. A "free for all" as such as happens everywhere else would bring chaos to the streets of the capital. Undeniably also is the quality of London's bus network. It is held up around the world as something very good. When I represented the UK on a European Union-sponsored project about public transport in Cities, everyone had heard of London's transport system, but precious few understood the deregulated environment outside of it. London's way of doing things is very "European".
Does it work? Undoubtedly. Is it expensive? Most definitely! It is the subject of much debate during the current Mayoral hustings - the rest of the country's local councillors and politicians would kill for the same interest in local bus services!
So Quality Contracts remain in the box - but for how long?
How do we suppose that we'll see one outside of London? How do we prove that we need one? Why might we need one?
All eyes in the bus world are currently watching the North East. It is here that Councillors are pushing the Passenger Transport Executive Nexus (their equivalent of Centro) to introduce a Quality Contract.
But on what grounds?
Although I wouldn't profess to be an expert, on the 2 occasions that I've been to Nexus-land in recent years, I found the local bus services to be really effective. Go North East, one of the major operators, is seen as one of the UK's best operators.
The company, alongside other operators, is pushing for more "Quality Partnerships" between Nexus and the bus companies. It quotes a figure of around £140m to operate the local network. Interestingly, the same councillors pushing for the Quality Contract have also ruled out a London-style congestion charge to raise funds - so who pays?
I'm all for more and better funding of local bus services, but with lack of London-style Mayors (for now at least), is returning control of our buses to local politicians the way to go?
In the main, bus operators know their stuff. As commercial businesses, they have a good handle on where the majority of people want to travel. Of course there will be demand for services that aren't commercially viable, but the system currently allows for this, with tenders for such services deemed necessary. It isn't perfect and there are losers, but with public money and public control would this necessarily be any different? If anything, public scrutiny of money spent means that loss-making services would be even more under the public eye. This is exactly how it was pre-1986. Then we were managing decline - now we need innovation in public transport more than ever.
I have no idea if the North East is failing so badly that its councillors feel the need to take control. What I do know though, is that the "Quality Partnership" approach that is taking place on my doorstep here in the West Midlands appears to be gathering pace and improving our lot locally.
Slowly, things are improving all the time in the Centro area. We have seen several "Network Reviews" which, whilst being extremely comprehensive and maybe unsettling for some, have generally improved local networks (appreciating that there will always be winners and losers in such moves), we have much improved facilities such as top quality Interchanges, operators have responded with new vehicles. The new Oyster-style smartcard is, we're told, almost there. But one of the biggest innovations is the continued evolving of the "Network West Midlands" brand. In a few short years, it has become ingrained into our psyche as a well-recognised brand that makes our large, often complicated public transport network more coherent.
I don't believe that all of this doesn't have its problems to address and issues to resolve, but it's all been done through a spirit of partnership between the public and private sectors, and it is us, the passengers, that reap the benefit.
There is always more to do, and our public transport in the West Midlands is by no means the best around, but it is on an upward curve, without the need to "bang heads together" in a Quality Contract.
I'm by no means dismissing the requirement somewhere for a QC. But the best bus services - be they in Brighton, Nottingham, Edinburgh or elsewhere - always feature a spirit of co-operation between the operators and the local authority. A "shared vision", if you like.
In these economic times, all money - especially public funds - needs to be spent extremely wisely. In transport, where more investment is always needed, a true public-private partnership that works well is always a good solution.

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