It’s not only Lon­don­ers who rely on buses and trains

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Lynsey Han­ley

The rail­way net­work is in melt­down. Bus use is de­clin­ing as routes are cut and fares go up. Most of us are breath­ing in dan­ger­ous lev­els of car-cre­ated pol­lu­tion. Heathrow is likely to get a new run­way even though we know air travel is lethal for the en­vi­ron­ment. The Econ­o­mist claims that pub­lic trans­port only “pro­vides a ser­vice for peo­ple who are too old, too young, too poor, too fear­ful or too drunk to drive or ride a bike”. But like the NHS, it needs to be for all.

For those young­sters who have grown up be­liev­ing the lie that only losers take the bus, let me take you on a jour­ney back in time. One of my ear­li­est me­mories is of clam­ber­ing aboard a mu­nic­i­pal bus to Birm­ing­ham from its out­skirts, aged five, and my mother dig­ging out a five-pence piece for her fare and two pence for mine. The West Mid­lands Pas­sen­ger Trans­port Ex­ec­u­tive (known to all as “Wumpty”) had just adopted a Fares Fair pol­icy – the name given to cheap, flat sin­gle fares first in­tro­duced in the cap­i­tal by the Greater Lon­don Coun­cil in 1981, which gave cit­i­zens the run of their city for a few pence.

Buses were pub­licly owned back then, run by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties on be­half of the peo­ple who used them. The GLC would have its Fares Fair pol­icy axed at the be­hest of an outer Lon­don Tory bor­ough, while a few years later all coun­cils in Eng­land were forced to trans­fer the run­ning of lo­cal buses to pri­vate com­pa­nies. In the Thatcher gov­ern­ment’s rea­son­ing, this would en­sure a race to pro­vide the best ser­vices at the low­est fares.

It didn’t hap­pen. Af­ter buses were dereg­u­lated in

1986, a wild west’s worth of pri­vate op­er­a­tors were free to run buses on routes they en­vis­aged get­ting a profit from. Some com­pa­nies grew un­til they were swal­lowed by the next-big­gest op­er­a­tor; oth­ers quickly fig­ured you can’t profit from a pub­lic ser­vice. Even­tu­ally, most ser­vices were run by four huge com­pa­nies, some owned by even big­ger com­pa­nies based else­where in the world.

Since dereg­u­la­tion, bus us­age out­side Lon­don has de­clined by more than a third, and fares in many ru­ral ar­eas are ris­ing far above the an­nual rate of in­fla­tion. In the cap­i­tal, how­ever, us­age has risen by 98% since 1986 – though it has fallen slightly in the last year – and pas­sen­gers en­joy a sta­ble flat fare of £1.50. (I pay £2.40 for a bus trip in Liver­pool, a city with me­dian earn­ings of £23,000 per worker, com­pared with Lon­don’s £35,000.)

What’s the dif­fer­ence? Lon­don’s buses are reg­u­lated, sub­sidised and in­te­grated with the rest of its trans­port sys­tem, which – as Cross­rail only high­lights – re­ceives vastly greater

amounts of in­vest­ment than any other area of the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to the think­tank IPPR, £33bn has been in­vested in Lon­don’s trans­port sys­tem by lo­cal and cen­tral gov­ern­ment in the past five years, not count­ing £30bn that would be spent build­ing a sec­ond Cross­rail – a plan an­nounced only days af­ter the trans­port sec­re­tary, Chris Grayling, can­celled the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of ma­jor rail routes out­side the cap­i­tal.

Yet Lon­don al­ready has an ex­ten­sive north-south rail ser­vice: Thames­link, which is cur­rently un­der­go­ing a £7.5bn up­grade of its own. Trans­port for Lon­don (Tfl) earns £4.8bn per year from fares, yet also re­ceives £2.6bn in an­nual fund­ing from the mayor of Lon­don and the De­part­ment for Trans­port (Dft), es­sen­tially to main­tain pre­cisely the reg­u­lated, con­ve­nient ser­vice that the rest of Eng­land lacks.

Any­one who tries to get a bus out­side the cap­i­tal knows that the dereg­u­la­tion since 1986 has set in train a hor­ror show of com­pet­ing liv­er­ies, fares, day tick­ets that can be used with one com­pany and not an­other, and op­er­a­tors’ ap­par­ently ran­dom de­ci­sions to cut ser­vices and change routes they deem un­eco­nomic.

Lon­don’s sys­tem is reg­u­lated and sub­sidised be­cause the cap­i­tal is too eco­nom­i­cally im­por­tant, as the na­tion’s cash cow, to have peo­ple mov­ing around it too slowly. Out­side Lon­don, all the keen-sound­ing talk about “re­bal­anc­ing” and “pow­er­houses” is pure cyn­i­cism while buses re­main un­reg­u­lated and un­der­in­vest­ment re­mains chronic.

The gov­ern­ment is well aware of this dis­crep­ancy but is in no hurry to do any­thing about it, be­cause to do so would draw at­ten­tion to it. The Labour MP for Wi­gan, Lisa Nandy, re­vealed ma­te­rial proof of DfT’s at­ti­tude to­wards this gap when she ob­tained of­fi­cial emails – one, in­deed, signed “Yours cyn­i­cally” – show­ing that it knew North­ern rail was go­ing to have to cut ser­vices years be­fore dis­as­trous timetable changes were in­tro­duced in May.

In Lon­don more than half of com­muters travel to work by pub­lic trans­port, sig­nif­i­cantly more than in the rest of the coun­try, where for many trav­ellers the ser­vice has be­come too hap­haz­ard to rely on. I’ve never learned to drive but I un­der­stand why peo­ple feel they have to: they have lives to live – school runs, rel­a­tives to care for, jobs in in­con­ve­nient places at un­timely hours.

But the fact that within Lon­don most peo­ple use pub­lic trans­port shows that it’s not by def­i­ni­tion a last re­sort. Pub­lic trans­port out­side the cap­i­tal suf­fers from a lack of in­vest­ment and reg­u­la­tion caus­ing fur­ther de­cline in use – the re­sult of which is more pol­lu­tion, par­tic­u­larly in poorer ar­eas where air qual­ity suf­fers most through poor plan­ning and traf­fic man­age­ment, and more iso­la­tion for peo­ple with­out ac­cess to a car.

I spoke to Dai Pow­ell, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Hack­ney Com­mu­nity Trans­port, which has grown since 1983 from a sin­gle minibus into the coun­try’s largest so­cial en­ter­prise pro­vid­ing trans­port, in­clud­ing sev­eral com­mer­cial bus routes on be­half of Tfl. “We al­ways say that our com­pe­ti­tion is not the other bus com­pa­nies, it is iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness. And un­til bus op­er­a­tors and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties re­alise that is what mo­bil­ity means, that is what the whole sys­tem should be de­signed for

… if we want to build an in­clu­sive so­ci­ety then buses should be cen­tral to that,” he told me.

There’s never been a bet­ter time for an am­bi­tious gov­ern­ment-in-wait­ing to put cheap, com­pre­hen­sive, pub­licly owned pub­lic trans­port at the cen­tre of its plans. The Labour leader, Jeremy Cor­byn, is a noted pub­lic trans­port user – go­ing as far as to sub­scribe to Rail magazine – and at prime min­is­ter’s ques­tions last week he be­came the first se­nior politi­cian in liv­ing mem­ory to make buses the fo­cus of a po­lit­i­cal state­ment. The party’s re­cent ex­ploratory eco­nomics doc­u­ment, Al­ter­na­tive Mod­els of Own­er­ship, held up workerowned bus com­pa­nies and coun­cils that re­tained con­trol of their buses – such as Read­ing, Not­ting­ham and Brighton – as po­ten­tial ex­em­plars of re­spon­sive lo­cal ser­vices that met the needs of the peo­ple who used them rather than the whims of those who might profit from them. We all need to get around, not just Lon­don­ers.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: BILL BRAGG

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