by franklittle on 21 July, 2010
I had a very nice card yesterday from residents, thanking me for having the early evening service from Neath to Cadoxton restored. In case any public transport user is unaware, the 158 service leaving Neath at 18:05, which used to go straight to Aberdulais, now stops in Cadoxton. This fills a need for people who work or shop after 17:05 and would otherwise have a nearly two hour wait for a bus home. (What made the wait worse is that there is no town centre cafe open after about 16:30, which I often hear fellow bus-passengers complaining about. There is surely an opportunity for an enterprising business person here.) In truth, First Cymru’s oversight was so clear when I explained it to Steve Colinese, Neath Port Talbot’s passenger transport manager, that he needed no persuasion to request the restoration of the service.
However, it does give me the opportunity to air a couple of grievances about public transport which have been niggling at me for some time. Both result from the competition – and anti-subsidy – culture of the Thatcher era, when the system of regulation by Traffic Commissioners, built up over many years under both Labour and Conservative governments, was done away with. Municipal and regional bus undertakings which received a subsidy were sold off. A market, or pseudo-market, for bus and train services was introduced. The subsequent Labour governments improved matters somewhat by making community-owned transport easier and restoring subsidy of individual bus routes where there was a clear social need, but also passed the Competition Act 1998 which, among other things,
“forbids agreements between undertakings,
decisions by associations of undertakings or concerted practices that
may affect trade in the United Kingdom and have as their object or
effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within
the United Kingdom;”
This has tended to be interpreted very narrowly by the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission, so that bus companies are inhibited from discussing between themselves cooperation over route coverage and coordination of timing, which would benefit passengers without necessarily increasing fares. The same would apply to train operating companies. A LibDem activist in Oxford complained: ” real progress in integration is on the whole severely hampered: like through fares; buses waiting for trains and vice versa; national bus and train tickets, etc, etc. Anything that ordinary people expect from a transport system is ‘Not Available'”.
The lack of integration is my first gripe. The second is that bus companies operating a service under subsidy are restricted on how they may promote it, in case it is seen as unfairly competing with an established operator. This can lead to the paradoxical situation that only the people who requested a service may know about it, but any steps to make it better known and more used, reducing the subsidy and possibly leading it to be viable without subsidy, cannot be taken.
One can understand the aim of the Competition Act to outlaw cartels. However, when the Act clearly operates against the public interest, there must be something wrong with its interpretation. Perhaps Liberal Democrat Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker, could get together with his opposite number in Cardiff, and Business Minister Vince Cable, to hammer out a greener advice note for the Office of Fair Trading.
Incidentally, there should be a transport forum in Port Talbot civic centre in the autumn, and I would welcome any points that Cadoxton residents would like me to put to representatives of transport operators then.Leave a comment