The Competition Commission reverts to type

Greater Manchester bus

The Competition Commission is conducting a two year inquiry into the local bus market

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my fudge to come from Devon and contain clotted cream rather than come in the form of thousands of pages from the Competition Commission’s (CC) dithering economists.

Of course no doubt I would say that because the latest version of the Competition Commission report has made a sudden, unsignalled and rather undignified right turn away from high end partnership and franchising and straight back down the on-street competition cul-de-sac. Exactly why and how they justify such a sudden manoeuvre is unclear and the report doesn’t seem to feel it necessary to explain.

Indeed it’s a strange old process whereby, after a painfully long wait, the final draft report seems so disconnected from those that went before it and the remedies it suggests look thrown together with no explanation of how they might fit together as a coherent package. It’s almost like each report from the OFT and the CC starts again. The tone and the narrative are different and as for the bit that matters – the remedies – these always seem like last minute afterthoughts. Indeed, this investigation seems to take on more incarnations than Dr Who – minus a fully operational sonic screwdriver.

Stelios of easyGroup

The CC would like to encourage new entrants into the bus market to stimulate competition at the expense of quality and stability

Dreams of easybus

Now I realise that there are those who would forgive the CC anything for being mean about QCs. However don’t laugh too hard as it’s not just QCs that the CC has a certain distaste for, it’s also high end statutory and non-statutory partnerships. Because in reverting to type, the CC has a problem with any partnership that might exclude the theoretical possibility of low end competition.

However unlikely it is to happen, the CC wants to keep the dream alive that some day, ‘easybus’ will arrive offering a low price, lower quality alternative to partnerships based on quality and relative stability. That consumers will have a wide selectionof service choices which, before setting off, they carefully assess on comparethebusoperator. com delightedly weighing comparative matrixes and logarthyms of quality, price and journey time before finally, and in the bliss of perfect competition, head down to the bus stop to make their twenty minute journey to the GPs.

Now given the merest possibility that this nirvana may be attained in the space of one lifetime, qualifying agreements and higher spec partnerships are a worry to the CC because, by their very nature, such agreements are not primarily designed to encourage competition – and definitely not low quality competition. Passengers may like what such agreements bring them but, in the view of the CC, what they should like is as much on-street competition as they can get – and that’s what the CC wants to give them. Indeed that’s what all the potentially useful stuff in the report on ticketing, information and so on is about. It’s not principally about their obvious benefits to passengers, instead it’s that it keeps the CC’s fantasy alive that if the ticketing and information framework functions in an equitable and perfect way then it should encourage the new entrants the CC would sacrifice just about anything for.

Political realities

Now if they followed this logic to its conclusion they should outlaw QAs and high end partnerships. But this is where the politics kicks in as they know that unwinding successful existing partnerships is not something they can get away with. Instead they satisfy themselves with raising the same old uncertainties about what attitude the competition authorities took in the past to such arrangements.

Franchising gets the same treatment. They strike but they don’t kill. They blight what’s there now but they don’t build anything substantial in its place. So the end result is a clumsy set of remedies where CC ideology collides with political realities in the vague hope that somehow the magic wand of BSOG money will make everything alright.

Bus partnership in the West Midlands

The CC are wrong to cast doubt over partnership solutions that are working right now on the ground.

I suppose to be fair the clue is in the name with the Competition Commission. And, as they say themselves, they lack the social and wider remit that local transport authorities have in making decisions on public transport for their areas. What’s galling however is that, having accepted they only have a narrow perspective, they then go on to cast doubt over solutions that do work right now on the ground. Solutions that have been made to work by people who do have that broader perspective – high end partnerships, SQPs, qualifying agreements and franchising. And the CC does this in favour of a wholly unproven and unsubstantiated claim that their ‘package’ of remedies is superior. There’s still time for them to either prove or withdraw that claim in the final, final, final version. However, the danger is the CC will end up blighting what works right now in favour of the DfT spending years tinkering around in the shadows of the long grass half heartedly trying to stimulate more on-street competition. And what a waste of time that would be.

Jonathan Bray

This is an edited version of an article that originally appears in Coach and Bus Week.

Public transport projects in the Development Pool need your support

Up to the 14th October, the Department for Transport is asking for comments on ‘Development Pool’ transport projects. In this special guest blog post, Sian Berry from Campaign for Better Transport sets out why public transport projects in the pool need our support –  and how you can get involved.

Traffic tail lights

Some £897m of road spending is proposed across the pool

My work at Campaign for Better Transport is currently focused on the 45 ‘Development Pool’ transport projects that are bidding for Department for Transport funding.

We have analysed the final bids that were revealed in September and have produced a briefing which shows that, despite the benefits of sustainable transport, more than half of the schemes proposed by local councils are road-based, with a total of £897 million of road spending proposed across the pool.

The most expensive road schemes in the pool are the ‘zombie’ bypasses that have been dominating local councils’ transport strategies for decades, re-emerging every few years to grab at any potential funding, and crowding out cheaper sustainable transport proposals. Our analysis showed that the new roads in the pool cost more on average than other ideas, and have seen a greater increase in what councils are prepared to risk in ‘local contributions’ since the process of competing for the shrunken DfT pot was launched last year.

Journalist George Monbiot wrote about the plans in his Guardian blog last week and said that they “…should provoke equal outrage among those who oppose the cuts, those who want to protect the environment and those who are still waiting for the rational, integrated transport system we were promised 15 years ago.”

But there are some good ideas hidden amongst the ‘link roads’ and ‘distributor routes’ in the Development Pool: if you look carefully, you can find some really exciting public transport projects that will improve access to transport – and quality of life – for everyone in the local areas concerned.

Leeds NGT trolleybus

Leeds is the largest European city without a tram or metro - a trolley bus could fill the gap

The Leeds New Generation Transport project stands out as the most ambitious. Leeds remains the largest European city without a tram or metro network, and their innovative trolley bus proposal seeks to fill that gap.

The Manchester Cross City Bus project would add three new high quality bus routes to the north of the city, including bus-only sections of route, while the South Yorkshire Bus Rapid Transit northern route would create much-needed new transport links between Rotherham and Sheffield, complete with purpose-built stops and real-time information. Rochdale aims to rebuild and relocate its bus station closer to other links, with comfortable modern facilities and better information for passengers.

Some rail and tram projects also feature in the proposals. In the West Midlands, the first stage of the ‘NUCKLE’ network would begin with upgrading the line between Coventry and Nuneaton, including two new stations. In the South East, Transport for London and Hertfordshire County Council are bidding to move the terminus of the Metropolitan tube line to Watford Junction, properly integrating under- and over-ground services in the area at last. Metro in Leeds is also proposing to build two new railway stations at Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge, while Sheffield is bidding for new Supertram vehicles to improve service frequencies.

Sheffield Supertram

Sheffield is proposing to invest in the Supertram network to improve frequencies

These public transport schemes all show ‘high’ or ‘very high’ value for money, and the services provided will be available for everyone in these towns and cities to enjoy, not just people in cars. Public transport also has a much lower environmental impact – in both landscape and carbon terms – than roads through green fields that will only encourage sprawl and worsen car-dependency.

It’s no accident that the most ambitious public transport projects in the pool are proposed by TfL or one of the PTEs. As our briefing also points out, investing or borrowing on the basis of future fare income is far less risky than the road-promoting councils’ reliance on payments from out-of-town housing and business parks that may never materialise. PTEs, with their track record of delivering public transport schemes and long-term strategies based on continued investment, are in a strong position to make realistic plans – not gamble an area’s future on a few miles of tarmac.

Up to 14 October, the DfT is asking the public to submit comments on schemes they support (or oppose) in the Development Pool, and these comments will influence on ministers’ decisions in December.

You can help by using our interactive map to take a few minutes find and comment on the schemes in your area. Visit: http://bit.ly/roadsmap.

Sian Berry, Campaign for Better Transport

This is the age of the train…and the onward connection

The importance of the ‘end-to-end’ journey was frequently mentioned at the ATOC Rail and Integrated Transport Conference last week. This makes sense given that the amount of time actually spent on the train is often the shortest part of a person’s trip. As Transport Minister Norman Baker said on the day ‘This is the age of the train…and the onward connection’. Not quite as catchy as the original British Rail slogan and indeed ‘This is the age of the train, the journey to the station and the onward connection’ would perhaps be more accurate if less pithy still.

Role of walking and bus underplayed

Multi-storey cycle storage at a Dutch station

Multi-storey bike storage at a Dutch station - they had to build over the river to get enough room!

The day focused very much on cycling as a mode of travel to and from stations. We heard how, in this country, just 1-2% of people travel to the station by bike despite the fact that 60% of the population live within 15 minutes cycle ride of a station and the same proportion own a bike. In the Netherlands 40% of people travel to the station by bike- hence they need cycle parking of the scale pictured left!

The bus and walking were rather neglected, the latter being a particular omission given the sheer volume of people who use their two feet to get to stations. Perhaps cycling is just more exciting to talk about and there’s less scope to build shiny new things for walkers and bus users?

The somewhat disproportionate focus during the conference on the provision of cycle parking as a way to get more people cycling to the station certainly suggests that ‘building stuff’ continues to be a preoccupation. Whilst important, where to park your bike when you get to the station is just a small part of the end-to-end journey. What’s equally, if not more, important to many would-be cyclists is the quality of the journey to that point.

Leeds Cyclepoint

Leeds goes Dutch with Cyclepoint - a multi-service cycle facility

Leeds Cyclepoint, for example, was held up as a shining example of good practice, much admired both here and abroad, and rightly so. Situated right opposite the main Leeds station entrance it is attractive and highly visible and could be taken as an indicator that cyclists are valued and supported in the city. However, step outside the station perimeter and you’ll find that the environment for cyclists, whilst improving, is still far from hospitable. As was noted at the conference, partnership is key and local authorities in particular need to be brought on board to deliver the highway improvements necessary to encourage more people to take to two wheels.

More support needed for walking

In focusing on how the needs of cyclists can be accommodated in journeys to and from stations, we must remember that well over half of passengers (excluding those using connecting trains) actually travel to the station on foot. There was little mention at the conference of how we could support these passengers, get even more people to walk to the station and make the journey more pleasant for them.

People walking

55% of people walk to the station - we shouldn't neglect them

Walking audits, for example, as undertaken by Transport for London around their Docklands Light Railway network, are a great way to boost walking as a mode. These assess key walking routes into stations for safety, physical barriers and so on and identify ways in which paths can be made more attractive and usable.

More people would like to use the bus to get to stations

People travelling to stations by bus were also given less attention on the day. Some 10% of people access stations by bus but a further 40% would like to do so if bus services were more frequent and fitted in better with train times. It’s one of the reasons pteg is calling for more powers and responsibilities for local rail to be devolved to the PTEs – we can ensure that local rail networks integrate with wider public transport options. It was great to hear Anton Valk (Chief Executive of train operating company Abellio) express his support for more local decision making on rail at the conference.

Smart ticketing is key to joining up journeys

Ticketing can also help join things up. As the Minister pointed out in his speech, if people don’t just have a ticket to a railway station but a ticket that takes them up to their actual destination they will have the confidence that provision exists for them to make that onward journey.

Nexus Pop smartcard

Smartcards are the ultimate end-to-end journey tool

We heard about PlusBus (which enables rail passengers to add local bus travel onto their rail ticket) which goes some way to addressing this and provides a simple, low-tech, low-cost solution for now. However, ultimately, smart ticketing is the way forward – having one card that unlocks bus, rail and tram travel as well as bike and car hire with one touch has to be one of the best ways of supporting people to make end-to-end journeys as smoothly as possible. It also avoids embarrassing exchanges with bus drivers as relayed to me by one delegate who, upon presenting his PlusBus ticket to the driver was told, very slowly, ‘no mate, that’s your train ticket’.

Rebecca Fuller