London versus…

Sunday 12th May 2019

IMG_6658.jpgThe Guardian newspaper ran a high profile series of articles last week comparing London with the rest of England across various quality of life parameters under the theme “London versus…”. “The price of a standard pint of Carling lager in Wetherspoon’s pubs across England varies by more than £2, depending on where you order it.” On obesity: “the people of Barnsley are the country’s heavyweights and residents of the City of London and Richmond upon Thames the lightest”. Not surprisingly the extended feature reported “house prices are the great divider between London and the rest of England – a two-up, two-down near Burnley station sold in January for £39,000, £20,000 less than in 2006. In London, a two-bed flat in Notting Hill sold last summer for £1.24m, up from £570,000 in 2005”.

And so it went on ….. but the biggest feature, including a front page headline, was all about buses and bus fares. “Scandal of ‘unfair’ gulf in bus fares in England” screamed the tabloid style headline in the, ahem, tabloid sized Guardian.

IMG_6657.jpgHelen Pidd, the newspaper’s North of England editor has been digging around and come up with a number of outrageous claims which I’d been expecting one of the newly appointed communication bigwigs at the supposedly resurgent Confederation of Passenger Transport to counter with some factually based rebuffs to the feature’s underlying mantra of ‘public control of a regulated bus network in London = good; privatised deregulated rest of England = chaos and bad’,  but sadly nothing appeared on subsequent days.

IMG_6659.jpgRather, the letters page on Thursday contained more of the same biased viewpoints including a lead letter from Mike Parker, Director General, Nexus (Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive) 1994-2006 lamenting that the practice of turfing passengers from Gateshead heading into Newcastle off buses at Gateshead Interchange and enforcing a ride on the Metro to complete their journey ended at deregulation because the nasty bus companies were free to offer choice and an option of staying on the bus to complete their journey, which unsurprsingly proved quite popular.

Stagecoach Manchester Operations Director, Matt Kitchen provided a sterling response to some of Helen’s claims on Twitter – and even engaged Helen in a reply – but otherwise there’s been a noticeable silence from any high profile personalities in the bus industry and their trade organisation which I thought was supposed to be adopting a much higher public profile following its recent controversial reorganisation.

IMG_E6661.jpgSadly this means some of the Guardian’s reporting will be taken as factual and accurate. So, just for the record here’s a few ripostes from me ……

As a result of her research, Helen Pidd claimed Britain’s “most expensive five-mile journey found was in Hampshire where a ticket from the Broadway, Winchester, to Matterley Farm, Tichbourne costs £5.65”. Not surprisingly Helen compared this “massively unfair” fare to the cost of £1.50 for a similar distance in flat fare London.

First point on this is to observe Stagecoach’s route 64 between Winchester and Alton has an unfortunately coarse fare structure, which Helen has rather taken advantage of to make an extreme point. It’s true the single fare from Winchester for the 4.4 mile (not 5 miles) journey to Tichbourne is £5.65, but that price also applies to every bus stop thereafter right through to and including Alton which is 19 miles from Winchester, but that wouldn’t have made for such a dramatic comparison. As the map below demonstrates you get a bonus of 14.6 free miles added on for your journey at no extra cost by travelling beyond Matterley Farm (shown) all the way to Alton.

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.10.29.pngFurthermore, I doubt the bus stops at Matterley Farm are particularly busy as aside from the farm to the north, and a smattering of three or four cottages there’s nothing else there, except for the “A31 Burger Van” – marked by Google, to the right.

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It’s also pertinent to point out that the previous stop on route 64 is some considerable distance back towards Winchester, on the outskirts of that city, at the Science Park, where guess what, the single fare is a rather cheaper and a more attractive £2.25 single and £3.70 return – which is much more comparable with a £3 return fare in London.

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Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 18.26.33.pngA Stagecoach spokesperson was quoted in the Guardian defending its fare “the reality is that boundaries between zones have to be set somewhere”. It was also pointed out that the weekly ticket offers much better value.

A return price for a £5.65 single works out at £7.30 whereas a weekly ticket bought on a smartphone for Stagecoach South’s whole operating area costs £23 (and £13.10 for the Winchester city area including the Science Park) which compares well with London’s weekly cap of £21.20. And as the Stagecoach spokesperson pointed out whereas their route 64 runs subsidy free “the cost of operating London’s bus network is £700m more than the income TfL receives from fares. If London operated like the rest of the UK, where fares reflect the true cost of running services, pricing would be far different.”

It’s important to make this distinction as politicians love jumping on the London bandwagon, not least Greater Manchester’s metro Mayor Andy Burnham who is quoted in the Guardian feature saying outside London bus operators had created a “fragmented, incomplete, overpriced, fragile” network of services that could be withdrawn at any time with no consultation, where single fares in some of the most disadvantaged areas cost up to £4.40. Buses are “fundamentally not run in the public interest”, he said. “How do you best illustrate the transport divide, north v south? It’s as simple as the price of a bus ticket and the price of daily travel. It’s massively unfair. Why did everyone else get bus deregulation and London did not?”

Which led Helen on to her next dramatic claim……. sticking with a Hampshire and Manchester theme, she wrote ……. “in Hampshire 33 bus providers compete, while in Greater Manchester there are 47, including for schools and cross-boundary operators. They have no duty to coordinate with each other and can charge whatever they like.”

The idea that 33 bus companies are competing head to head on Hampshire’s roads is of course complete bunkum. Matt Kitchen rightly publicly challenged Helen on Twitter for the source of her research for the quoted numbers of operators in both areas, pointing out the majority are school journey providers, where in Manchester for example, the operator will simply be contracted to charge the fare set by Transport for Greater Manchester.

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Helen responded she’d seen a list of Hampshire bus companies on a map produced by the County Council but didn’t have it to hand. She’s right about that, Hampshire County Council does indeed produce a wonderful network map which helpfully lists all the operators and the routes they run – in stark contrast to TfL who can’t be bothered to even produce a netork map online let alone in print to show where their bus routes go.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 20.23.43.pngIt’s worth a quick analysis of Hampshire’s listing alongside the list of bus routes operated across the county – this exposes the rather unhelpful fact for Helen that there are actually just seven bus companies running Hampshire’s network of commercial routes across the county. You see Stagecoach and Go-Ahead both own five of the companies listed individually (Stagecoach has Portsmouth; South Downs; Hampshire; Hants & Surrey; Swindon)) (Go-Ahead has Bluestar, Damory Coaches; More; Salisbury Reds; Unilink) and Reading Buses has, or about to have, three (Reading Buses, Newbury & District and ‘soon to be’ Courtney Buses); which with First Bus, Xelabus and Wheelers Travel make up the six main companies with the seventh bring Bournemouth based Yellow Buses who reach the western corner of Hampshire with their hourly route to New Milton. The other 27 companies listed comprise seven Community Transport operators, four coach companies, three taxi companies all of which operate a handful, if that, of infrequent tendered rural routes (some just one return journey in a week) and the remaining three operators in the list of 34 don’t currently run a bus route. Hardly the hot bed of bus competition offering “fragmented and fragile” bus routes Helen and Andy Burnham would have you believe. In fact, Hampshire has a tidy and attractive network of bus routes which is well used, and its tendered routes were overseen until his recent retirement by the hugely experienced and much respected Peter Shelley.

A couple of other points from Helen’s feature which could have done with a little more in depth research:

She stated “anyone can apply to set up a bus company in most of England. It only requires giving the local authority £60 and 28 days’ notice before applying to the traffic commissioner which regulates and licences buses.” Looks like she overlooked the small matter of obtaining a Certificate of Professional Competence and the rather hefty financial requirement to provide the necessary financial backing running into at least five figures to satisfy the Traffic Commissioner.

The feature wasn’t all bad news for deregulated buses though……

“So is everything better with buses in London?” it asked.

“Not everything. The quality of some services outside the capital exceed those in London: some operator’s offer free Wi-fi, better seats and charging points; and some routes can work out better value per mile.”

That’s good to see; it’s a shame this point didn’t feature more extensively – perhaps with an illustration of one of Stagecoach’s swish new double decks introduced in November 2017 on the subsidy-free route 64.

IMG_7748.jpgIt’s also a shame that instead of quoting historic passenger journeys: “London experienced years of growth from the late 1990s to 2014, while the number of journeys elsewhere slowly fell across the same period, with a sharper decline since the start of the decade”, a more up to date assessment of the situation since 2014 wasn’t included when the wheels have well and truly come off London’s growth as bus frequencies are now being continually cut in a desperate bid to square the financial circle of frozen fares, falling passenger numbers, increased journey times and less buses. Not a happy situation. “London versus” indeed.

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Roger French