Call a halt to bus system

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I WROTE in this column a couple of weeks ago about buses in the town.

I would like to write about them again – like buses, you wait for a while for one and then two come along at once.

Parliament returned this week and one of the first debates was about competition in the bus industry.

It is clear that there is no effective competition in the bus market in Hartlepool or elsewhere across the country.

In the main, passengers cannot register their dissatisfaction with a particular bus operator, whether that is because of high fares, poor punctuality or dirty buses, by going to another bus company.

Most places across the country, including Hartlepool, tend to have one dominant bus company.

In our town, it is Stagecoach which operates the vast majority of services.

That is also the case in south Manchester, where Stagecoach has about four out of five of all bus services.

It was stated in the Parliamentary debate that other big bus companies – the likes of First and Go Ahead – also tend to have about 80 per cent of market share in different areas like Oldham and Brighton.

It is striking across the country that the big bus companies tend to respect each other’s territory and don’t compete against one another on any significant term.

I’m not suggesting that bus companies collude with one another so competition is restricted – I have no evidence that this is the case and it would be illegal – but it is odd that we don’t see greater competition in even the profitable routes.

The Parliamentary debate also showed how the big bus companies often play the system.

A Greater Manchester MP said how Stagecoach had altered a commercially viable bus route which was making a small profit.

The company had split the route into two and then had gone cap in hand to the council for not one public subsidy but two.

In the Parliamentary debate I reiterated the points that I have mentioned in this column before.

There is acute market failure in the bus industry and competition simply isn’t working.

The people of the Burbank estate or the villagers in Dalton Piercy or Elwick don’t see competition in the bus industry. Indeed, they don’t see any buses at all, because there is no market in their area.

You have a situation in Hartlepool and elsewhere in the country where a single large company provides the bulk of bus services.

This crowds out small and medium-sized bus companies.

It allows the dominant company to cherry-pick the commercially profitable routes at the expense of providing a more integrated and socially responsible public transport system.

The moment the taxpayer subsidy stops, the bus stops and the current lack of regulation allows that to happen.

The lack of competition also fails to see a rise in performance.

Punctuality is very poor – the target for the number of buses being on time is 95 per cent, but in Hartlepool the figure is 81 per cent.

I certainly think it is time for the current system to end.

I wonder whether some sort of franchising, like in the railways, should operate, so that a particular bus company wins a competition to provide all bus services in the town.

In return for having the profitable routes, they must provide those vital social services as well.

Whatever happens, buses should be run for the interests of passengers.