Buses: Are they a service or a business?

A local bus in Perth.
A local bus in Perth.

The enigmatic bus is a paradoxical form of transport, loved and loathed according to its location and activity.

However, it is gradually disappearing.

It seems that every year, when local authorities review their budgets, their financial support for bus services is reduced.

The need for financial support at all is due to the gradual reduction in demand and the gradual increase in costs.

Alert readers will have noticed that the word ‘gradual’ has appeared three times in the last few lines.

Bus services fall into two main categories.

There are those where supply and demand are nicely balanced, and income from fares is sufficient to cover the costs of operation.

Then there are those whose existence is deemed to be socially necessary and worthy of financial support from public funds.

In the first category, the operators have to watch the financial balance carefully.

If revenue reduces, they have to increase revenue by raising fares, or reduce costs accordingly. Of course, raising fares may cause the passengers to grumble, and some of them may use the service less often.

Reducing costs, however, usually means simply a reduction in frequency, and only when things become really critical are operators forced to consider total withdrawal.

At this point the local authorities may step in and just top up the operator’s revenue in order to keep the service going.

However, none of these measures is likely to arouse the ire of the passengers substantially.

And the ‘commercial sector’ generally just keeps calm and carries on.

Things can become massively different in the ‘supported sector’ when the people who never use buses themselves realise that they are paying through their taxes to keep some of the services going.

There is a fundamental difference in attitude to public transport between this country and most others.

Here in the UK, our politicians have always regarded public transport of all kinds as a business, and as such, they believe it ought to be financed totally by the people who use it.

However, in many countries around the world it is regarded as a service that should be provided for the benefit of the community.

If we were to apply those principles to public transport in Britain, we would then require the various train operators, as a condition of their franchises, to provide bus services to and from all of their stations, serving the surrounding areas.

This could be either done directly themselves, or through sub-contracting.

And it would overcome the present difficulty of people’s horizons being restricted by the tendency of many bus services to operate only during the working day, rather than the whole of the waking day.

In a town in the Netherlands, the main line electric trains roll in every half hour, from around 5am to 2am, and every bus route in the town runs to and from the railway station every ten minutes at a very basic fare.

In Britain, with this in mind, the writer asked a friend in a bus company whether he could give him an introduction to the railway operators in the same area.

They were, after all, in the same group.

However, he was told that no, he could not as he was not allowed to talk to them.

They were supposed to be in competition.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport — a Will-o’-the-wisp?’This book is priced at £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation at £11.95. Order through the author’s website at www.john-wylde.co.uk