On the buses

Written by on 25 September 2013 in Interviews

Iain Gray on why he hopes the mood is changing on his plans to regulate buses

Compared to their predecessors, modern-day bus services are a class apart.

Where the money has been invested, timetables can be accessed by smartphones, live information on delays can often be sent directly to bus stops and in some areas, new low-carbon buses have been put onto the streets – complete with free wi-fi.
Yet despite a modest rise in passenger use since 2011, the last half century has seen a huge decline in bus journeys as people switched away from public transport to their own cars.

In 1960 there were nearly 1,700 million passenger journeys in Scotland, but by 1975 this had been cut almost in half to 891 million. The most recent figures from Transport Scotland showed that there were now 439 million passenger journeys on local bus services for 2011/12.

As efforts are made to cut congestion on roads and – perhaps more pertinently –reduce carbon emissions from road transport, one of the single greatest contributors to climate change, there is an increasing urgency to get people back onto the bus.

In the previous parliament, former Labour MSP Charlie Gordon, who was his party’s spokesman on transport, tried to get a member’s bill passed on introducing an element of reregulation of buses.

Bus services were deregulated in the 1980s and many of the routes in Scotland are run by large companies like First and Stagecoach, but Gordon’s bill wanted to give local authorities more powers over bus routes. However, failing to win cross-party support, it fell at the first hurdle. Now, though, Iain Gray is trying again, and told Holyrood the need to change was just as strong as ever.

Consultation on his Bus Regulation (Scotland) Bill was due to end in August, but he extended the deadline until 11 October, asking the opinions of passengers, councils and bus companies, and would let local authorities bundle together profitable and subsidised routes allowing them to require certain minimum standards and have a say in the way public transport is run. And while it is still a case of an opposition MSP hoping to get other parties to support him, he believes there is a move towards winning support.

“The differences between what I’ve put in and what Charlie was suggesting are relatively technical, to be honest, but why I think there’s a difference this time is because the climate has changed.”

In 2012 bus services in East Lothian and Midlothian received a blow when First Scotland East announced it would be discontinuing the bulk of its routes and closing a depot.

Gray, who is MSP for East Lothian, said the issue – just before a council election gave the issue “an added air of crisis and urgency”.
“I think that has convinced the Scottish Government in general, but Transport Minister Keith Brown in particular, that really, we do need to do something about buses and give them a bit more attention.”

Brown formed the Bus Stakeholder Group, a forum bringing together government and the bus industry and Gray added: “There’s a sense here of bus services being in more trouble than they were and an understanding from government that they should at least be considering what the response to that should be.

“When Charlie brought his legislation forward, the Scottish Government just completely refused to countenance it at all. I’ve had exchanges in parliament but also a meeting with Keith Brown about my bill, and while he’s not said he’ll support it, I’ve found him pretty open-minded.
“He wasn’t dismissive of suggestions out of hand and on top of that, I know that he’s taken his own discussions about the industry forward.”

Gray is keen to stress that the bill is not a proposal to return to the 1980s and renationalise all bus services.
“That was not the case for Charlie’s and it’s not the case for mine either.
“It is about looking at the situation those bus services are in now and trying to find a way to build a virtuous spiral of more passengers, better services and more income –rather than a downward spiral which many find themselves in – with fewer passengers so they cut their services or put their fares up.
“There’s still fewer passengers, so it’s obvious where that ends up.”

One of the arguments against his bill is that there is already legislation, dating back to 2001, that allows bus operators to enter into Statutory Quality Partnerships or Statutory Quality Contracts – which sees transport authorities agree to commitments like new shelters or bus lanes and bus providers committing on frequency of routes or quality of service.

“Until relatively recently there had never ever been a partnership or contracts. I think that’s a sign the legislation was flawed. If you have a law that is never, ever used, you have to wonder why it’s there and what’s wrong with it.”

There are now four partnerships operating in Scotland, with the longest-standing being in Paisley but Gray says “there’s never been a contract and there never will be because as it turns out, I think the legislation – and I was part of it – is so flawed that you could never really invoke the contract.”

But he adds: “Bus companies have begun to enter into partnerships and I think that’s a sign that the industry is beginning to say that there is a benefit in working in a stronger partnership with transport authorities.”

Earlier this month, Gray spoke at the Confederation of Passenger Transport conference in Crieff and while he said he wouldn’t claim that bus companies are supporting his bill, he still said there was “an astonishing appetite” for more partnership working.

Companies are finding it tough, he says, with fuel prices rising as well as the inevitable impact on passenger numbers if people who take the bus to work lose their jobs.

Gray says: “There are places in Scotland where bus companies are providing services which are reliable, regular and affordable with decent quality buses and are putting extra passengers on. So it is possible to turn this round.
“What I’m proposing is quite a modest proposal, it’s a discretionary power for local authorities – they don’t need to use it.
“What this would mean is local authorities, if they wished, would be able by bundling up commercial or subsidised routes and would get a say in the most important routes in their area.
“Partnerships are a good thing, they are better than nothing, but this is an additional power which local authorities would be able to use.”

He admits that it would mean councils choosing to use the legislation would have to put more money in, although the previous claims that it could cost billions of pounds would only be if the public sector was to buy up the private firms, which he is not advocating.

While he says this might be considered “the worst possible time” to get the legislation through, with councils facing their own financial problems, he says it means that a council with the resources in the future would have the powers at their disposal.

Gray has told the story before that buses “kind of run in the blood”. His grandfather was a coach-painter, his father was a vehicle examiner for the Ministry of Transport and Gray was a bus conductor on his holidays from university.

While bus passenger numbers have fallen since their pre-1960s heyday, there are still five times as many people travelling by bus than train daily across Scotland and 16 per cent of people use the bus to get to work.
“There’s a big prize there if we can start to turn those numbers around,” he says, “if we are serious about trying to get a transfer from cars to public transport.
“In the parliament we give a lot more attention to rail. The ScotRail franchise is worth £300 million and that’s before you start looking at infrastructure investment. But what is the result of that? Passenger numbers are going up.
“If we could give the same attention and maybe a bit more financial support to the buses, I think we could increase bus numbers again.”

There is still a lot of work to do if he is to get the bus companies onside. When his proposed bill was put out to consultation, it was heavily criticised by Stagecoach who said it was “unnecessary, based on depressingly flimsy evidence, with uncosted proposals which would damage the quality of bus services in Scotland and increase the financial burden on Scottish taxpayers already struggling with rising household costs.”

“What frustrates me,” says Gray, “is their core argument is that if there’s anything wrong with bus services and the way bus companies operate in Scotland, it’s that they don’t get enough public money.”
He says: “I actually agree with them. Rail gets more money than buses, even though there are five times as many bus journeys.

“What I’ve said to the bus industry is, if you look at rail then it gets far more money than you do, but look at what the politicians get in return.
“They get a franchise agreement, which means every so often they get to stipulate what services are going to be run, the frequency, a degree of control over fares and fare rises and control over the quality.”

But this is not just about giving people access to services. Gray says climate change and Scotland’s emissions reduction targets of an 80 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 provide a new imperative to reduce cars on the road and increase use of public transport.

“We know that unless we get some sort of change in transport use then we can’t achieve our climate targets.
“I don’t think this issue is going to go away, but even if it did in terms of what people would like from their services, the issue of climate change isn’t.”

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