Buses: a public service, not a ‘business’

This is a letter to the Swindon Advertiser following a debate sparked off in their letters page.  

I don’t know whether John Forster-Heatlie has heard of climate change, but his view that bus companies which do not make a profit should be allowed to go “out of business”, would have the result of pushing more people into cars. Perhaps he doesn’t think there is a threat to the environment and society. Yet he must know that the state of Swindon’s roads is worsening, and is threatened by government imposed housing targets. He bemoans the very idea of “subsidies” but doesn’t appear to mind us all choking to death as a result of pollution, whilst the roads become ever more congested.  

Historically, government’s of whatever political stripe, have always tended to differentiate between subsidy and investment; the first being viewed as bad, the second being seen as virtuous. In reality, road transport has been given massive state subsidies which the tax payer has had to pay. The railways, for instance, have to pay the full cost of their infrastructure, whereas the private motorist and transport companies have never had to pay the real cost of the infrastructure they use. That, in part, is why the railways have been unable to ‘compete’ with the car. Yet the big increase in rail passenger numbers has resulted from the terrible congestion created by increasing road transport, despite the chaos caused by privatisation of the railways. 

In the case of the buses, privatisation was a disaster, precisely because the industry was transformed from a public service into a profit-oriented one. This led to a decline in services and, with the exception of London, a decline in the number of passengers. Since 1995-6 local bus journeys outside London have fallen from 2,660 million to 2,315 million. In London they have increased from 1,193 million to 1,810 million. The increase in passenger numbers in London, taking people out of their cars, has resulted from the dreaded subsidies (£550 million out of contracts worth £1.4 billion), and of course, because driving there is a nightmare. The average road speed in London is 11 mph. 

So called free-market competition has been revered like a God, at least since the days of Thatcher. ‘New Labour’ adopted this ideology, endeavouring to turn everything (even health provision) into a commodity. In real life, however, contrary to the theory competition does not lead to increased ‘efficiency’. The free-marketeers only measure efficiency by profit levels. But every economic activity, or the absence of it, has social and environmental consequences, and costs. Subsidising roads rather than buses and trains has had disastrous environmental and social consequences, and we pay the costs.

 What we need is not for Thamesdown Transport to go ‘out of business’ but an improved public service; more frequent, more reliable, and cheaper buses. In order to achieve that we need an end to the de-regulation of buses. What’s the problem with subsidy for a socially useful and beneficial purpose? In order to tackle the environmental crisis we need to make a big shift from road to rail and buses. 

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Swindon TUC

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