Thursday, 14 July 2016
GHA Coaches: Time to re-regulate our public transport
The overnight collapse of Ruabon-based GHA Coaches with the loss of up to 400 jobs and disruption to thousands of passengers, including school children, raises questions about the way public transport is provided in Wales.
Bus services in the UK were de-regulated under Thatcher - with the significant exception of London, where they remain under government control. Transport for London provides an oversight and degree of central planning that is the envy of the rest of the UK. It is also democratically accountable.
The result was a race for the most profitable routes, with bus firms competing with each other to pick up passengers, while less popular journeys were abandoned.
Local councils and later the Welsh Government found themselves subsidising those less-popular routes until UK spending cuts led to drastic reductions in those subsidies.
This transport chaos is unique in the world. Nowhere else believes that the market can deliver public transport effectively and the seeing Deutsche Bahn (the German state-owned train company) running the privatised Wales and Borders train franchise only adds to the irony.
Complex integrated public transport demands an overview and degree of planning that is not possible with a myriad of private bus and rail companies all operating to maximise profit and return for their shareholders rather than providing a good service at a reasonable price.
This mess is nothing new. Back in 2014, the respected Local Transport Today magazine described the Labour Government's public transport policy as a mess".
It said the Welsh bus industry is "stumbling from one predicament to another as a bewildering array of reforms comes out of Cardiff ... Funding has been cut, rules have changed and further reforms are mooted... Then there is the cut to concessionary fares reimbursement, which could yet end up in the courts."
Nothing has changed.
Anyone who uses public transport in mainland Europe - as many thousands of Welsh fans did last month - will be making very unfavourable comparisons with the Welsh public transport network in terms of cost, comfort and speed.
At present we have no integrated ticketing in Wales - again unlike regulated London. Manchester is about to have a Transport for London-style franchise with the UK Treasury pushing the Department of Transport to re-regulate. Why not Wales?
It's estimated that 40% of all bus journeys in Wales are concessionary, i.e. free or reduced fares paid for by the Welsh Government or local councils. That's almost half bus companies income being provided direct by the taxpayer without any input into where they operate and how much they charge.
With the collapse of one of the largest firms in Wales, surely now is the time to re-regulate our buses and make the case for public transport to be run in the public interest.
Until we do, Wales will continue to see a patchy public transport network totally at odds with the integrated public transport "vision" we are often presented with by this current Welsh Government.