The political spat concerning the proposals to consider a Quality Bus Contract in Tyne and Wear, played out in last week's Journal, will prove to be a minor skirmish compared to the reaction of the bus companies if the Integrated Transport Authority (ITA) does decide to introduce a more regulated bus service in the area. Wherever this proposal has been proposed bus companies have gone to war to try and stop it happening.
The current arrangements see three main bus operating companies providing services with very limited influence from the transport authority or local government - despite these companies receiving a total of over £62m in public subsidy each year. Bus services are the most used passenger transport service in Tyne and Wear, with more than 139 million journeys each year (the Metro accounts for 37 million journeys).
All is not well with the current set up. Passenger numbers are in decline, fares are growing faster than inflation at a time when wages are squeezed, there is insufficient consistency of service provision with some routes under-resourced while the busiest routes endure competing bus companies and last year the Competition Commission exposed restrictive practices between two bus companies in the region resulting in higher fares and poorer services for passengers.
It is absolutely right in these circumstances for the ITA to consider the introduction of a Quality Contract, the goals of which would be to increase patronage, improve the route network, get better quality of services and increase value for money. These arrangements are in place in London, where bus services are incredibly popular with Londoners and visitors to the capital and are under consideration in West Yorkshire too.
For passengers there are clear potential benefits. There would be much more stability over pricing, plus clearer linking of ticketing between different transport modes to support jumping between Metro and buses, and much more consistency in service provision, these factors alone should help to increase passenger numbers. Plus there would be greater leverage over quality improvements.
There is clear and unequivocal opposition from bus operators, the reason for this is pretty obvious. Under a Quality Contract they would be bound to respond to the demands for service provision and ticketing arrangements laid out by the ITA, answerable to local councillors and thus the general public for bus services. There would still be considerable money to be made, but there is risk of reduced profits, an understandable cause for concern and one which trade unions would have to ensure wasn't passed on to bus drivers and other staff, but bus companies would still make a profit, as they do in London, albeit with greater passenger numbers.
This would produce a greater impetus for bus companies to concentrate on quality to attract increased passenger numbers and that would do no harm for the hundreds of thousands that use buses on a daily basis. There's much to be gained, the ITA needs to stay focused on the key priorities.
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