More scrutiny of transport is expected

From Berwick station, linking all the settlements along the Great North Road through Northumberland, this route is likely to survive, at least in basic form.

From Berwick station, linking all the settlements along the Great North Road through Northumberland, this route is likely to survive, at least in basic form.

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The stranglehold of the Road Traffic Act of 1930 on the licensing of bus services began to be relaxed in 1980, with full de-regulation in 1986.

By this time county councils had had responsibilities for bus services thrust upon them (in 1974), which following de-regulation took the form of ensuring that services were adequate for the needs.

We may expect to see in the future some deeper questioning of matters such as the Department for Transport’s handling of railway franchising and the administration of concessionary travel.

Operators provided commercially viable services and the councils provided whatever else was needed, either by topping up the revenue on services which were almost commercial, or tendering for additional services. Councils obtained Government funding for most of what they had to spend, although the introduction of bus passes for the elderly complicated the sums.

This method worked fairly well until austerity, when the Government began to squeeze the councils’ budgets. In turn they had to squeeze those of the operators, with the result that bus services have been reduced at an alarming rate in the last few years.

The Government insists that councils receive enough money to keep services going, while operators complain that the councils do not give them enough money to do so. Councils insist they can only give what they receive, and while they all argue, passengers have to make other arrangements, with the irony that the elderly living in some rural areas are given bus passes which they cannot use because there are no longer any buses.

It is difficult for those in power, with chauffeur-driven cars, to understand the difficulties experienced by those on limited incomes living in areas where facilities have been closed down, and who now face the threat of withdrawal of their last-remaining lifeline to essential services.

Departmental Select Committees in Parliament were created in 1980 and hold departments to account. Since 2010 the people in charge have been elected rather than appointed by the parties, and are generally known as ‘Chairs’. Gwyneth Dunwoody, in charge of the Transport Select Committee, was addressed as ‘Chair’ by a member. She corrected them forcibly. “A chair is an inanimate object which is sat upon and remains silent. I am neither inanimate nor sat upon, nor do I remain silent. I am the Chairman of this committee, and will be addressed as such.”

The Committees act in a quasi-judicial manner. They do not invite people to give evidence, they summon them to do so. Chairmen have said they have more power than when they were Ministers. We may expect to see in the future some deeper questioning of matters such as the Department for Transport’s handling of railway franchising and the administration of concessionary travel (‘bus passes’).

The fact that the members of the committees are drawn from all sides of the house makes for a balanced approach. Very few operators have the resources or the ‘bottle’ to challenge the Government in the courts.

The shape of transport changed so much in the second half of the last century that it is now having to be re-balanced at huge, but necessary expense. Following the nationalisation of the railways and road haulage in 1948, the British Transport Commission lacked a leader with the vision to establish a firm direction for transport policy. Hindsight reveals that political and other changes of direction resulted in near-chaos likened to the herding of cats.

The modernisation plan of British Railways set up in 1955 is only just now, 60 years later, beginning to achieve its objective of full mainline electrification. The slow progress received a very welcome boost by Lord Adonis, Secretary of State for Transport in the previous Government, whose initiatives have been pursued by the coalition Government for the last five years.

John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ (www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available for £11.95, post paid and signed by the author, from the Herald office.