Special report: Eric Stewart, Assistant Chief Executive of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, on how to make Scotland’s buses run better
Having worked in the private sector bus industry for 17 years and now in the public sector at SPT, Eric Stewart has developed a close understanding of the travel needs of passengers and how they view their transport services.
“It’s made me focused on delivering for the many communities who rely on buses, and over recent years have too often seen those services cut. On their behalf, I believe it is time to reconsider how buses are regulated.”
Deregulation in 1986 was aimed at creating a more vibrant market but it led to challenges for SPT – and other public transport authorities (PTAs) – who remain powerless to stop operators from engaging in behaviour that in too many cases is not in the best interest of the public.
“Deregulation may be good for competition but there is a downside too. At present, it’s perfectly legal for a bus operator to register a service just ahead of a rival’s service and, in many occasions, these simply abstract passengers rather than giving customers wider choice and growing the market.
“Again, over recent years, there have been very few genuinely new bus routes introduced and sadly the majority of those are variations or cancellations of a service.”
The Scottish Government has now launched a consultation on how the relationship between the market and transport authorities can be improved, so that the market can work more closely in line with public interest.
SPT’s response centres on what it calls its ‘ten-point plan’. Stewart laughs: “You tend to find yourself falling into these traps – our ten-point plan was its name at launch but it could become a fifteen-point plan before you know it. Let’s just say it’s our blueprint for a better bus industry.”
The essence of the submission is that the dynamic between bus operators and PTAs – of which SPT is the largest – needs to become more collaborative. At present, bus operators can change services with only the need to ‘inform’ the authority with 14 days’ notice. Part of SPT’s plan is to change that.
Stewart says: “You might already know that in Scotland almost all bus services are run by private bus companies. Those operators are required to cover their costs or indeed make a profit. The greatest potential for them to make money is in the morning and evening peak periods when passenger numbers are highest. They are less inclined to operate buses at night or on Sundays when there aren’t enough passengers to cover the cost of operating the bus. This doesn’t mean that people don’t want to travel at that time. It’s just that the operator says it’s not commercially viable.
“SPT gets money from local authorities to plug the gaps in these services but the dilemma is that we cannot cover every route where a bus is cut as the money doesn’t stretch that far.
“So the public sector has a finite amount of money and we find ourselves continually trying to engage with the bus industry but in legal terms, the Transport Act says that operators are required only to inform SPT of their plans – not actually consult with us.
“We firmly believe that the need to ‘consult’ not simply ‘inform’ – as is the case at present – requires a far stronger commitment from everyone to find a solution that has the ultimate aim of keeping the bus service running. That could mean changes are necessary, or that a financial top-up to the operator makes the difference to keeping the service running, or that exiting subsidised services can be varied to integrate better with commercial routes to provide an effective solution.
“To consult means we have a shared responsibility to keep passengers firmly at the heart of our discussions.”
For Stewart, part of forging a better relationship doesn’t mean changing the overall time afforded to bus companies to make changes. Rather, it is to give the PTA more time to consider the actual registration, extend its consultation with local communities, elected members and, where appropriate, other bus operators who may be able to review their service to help fill in any gaps.
“For nearly thirty years there has been a requirement to just let the public transport authority know about changes and service withdrawals and then essentially pass the responsibility over to the public purse to sort out. That has to stop and the Government’s proposals to give the public transport authorities and bus operators double the usual time to sort things out is vital.”
At present, it takes 70 days to introduce a new service, vary or remove a service completely and this will not change. But now, with up to 28 days to formally consult on any proposed change, 42 days remain for the required ‘technical stuff’ – everything from putting up bus stop information panels, to producing timetables, arranging driver rosters and positioning buses in depots.
These 42 days give authorities like SPT a reduced timeframe for implementing the ‘technical stuff’, but Stewart says he is willing to deliver against tighter deadlines in order to invest more time in designing services that meet the public’s needs.
Another key to improvement involves something Stewart describes as a ‘tick-box’ exercise on the bus service registration document.
“Up until now, once an operator has put in a registration to SPT and satisfied the mandatory 14 days’ notice, it is passed to the Office of the Traffic Commissioner for Scotland – the industry regulator. Generally, if the registration complies with necessary criteria, it is approved.
“A ‘tick-box’ would allow us to highlight any concerns to the regulator and provides a final opportunity for scrutiny of the registration proposal being submitted.”
Stewart is keen to stress that changes are incremental.
“Now this is just the first stage – it is not the be-all and end-all. This consultation is about engaging with both the public sector and the private sector at a better level. We are all agreed that we need to find more collaborative ways of working in the interests of passengers.
“The world has changed significantly and traditional bus services are not meeting the needs of many communities where access to employment, education and health services are very different from 20 years ago. Bus services need to adapt to give people the access they deserve. We are putting faith in the consultation to say – if this is approved, then it will be the first step in the right direction.
“It is very encouraging that the essence of SPT’s plan has been incorporated within the consultation. It means we are slowly making a difference. We have great experience at SPT – if we can combine that with that of the bus operator, it could be a powerful way of creating better service solutions too.”
SPT’s response to consultation on changes to bus registration in Scotland can be found at www.spt.co.uk
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