First Bus are set to hike the price of a standard bus fare in Glasgow by an inflation-busting 7.5% from Monday, taking the price of a single ticket to £2.15, while other fares and day tickets will see similar rises.
The announcement comes on the same day that a report surfaced alleging that bus services in the west of Scotland are experiencing “market failure”. The report, commissioned by public body Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, outlines that the number of passengers using bus services in the region has fallen by 22% in a decade, equivalent to 49 million journeys.
You don’t need a degree in transport economics to figure out that there might be a connection between these two stories. Bus fares have soared since a price cap was found to be unlawful in 2008 and now – as this latest report shows – it turns out that passenger numbers have nosedived. Tomorrow, SPT will discuss their brave new strategy to turn things around – the creation of a glorified talking shop called the “Strathclyde Bus Alliance”. Quite what it hopes to achieve remains unclear, but a small army of private consultants are no doubt already rubbing their hands together at the prospect of a well paid round of meaningless strategising.
Meanwhile in the real world, bus users in Scotland’s largest city will suddenly find themselves forking out even more for a service that has been continually rolled back over recent years. As if they needed it, those with the option to will have a further incentive to take other means of transport – of 63 UK cities, Glasgow saw the steepest decrease in commuters using public transport over the ten years to 2011. Given the huge level of road building that took place over this period, the statistics are hardly a surprise.
When it comes to buses though, public bodies like SPT are effectively powerless, as the network, routes and fares are entirely unregulated. In an FAQ on their website, Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland say “bus fares are a matter for individual operators who use their own commercial judgement as to the fare structure”. They add that they already throw “£66.5 million to the bus industry” every year to provide services that wouldn’t be otherwise sustainable, as though chucking loads of public cash at First and Stagecoach somehow makes their exorbitant pricing more bearable.
Traditionally, any announcement about rising public transport fares comes with a careful caveat that firmly lays the blame on rising fuel costs. No such luck for First this year, however, with the price of diesel at a six year low. Yet strangely the fare rises have still come.
Buses are a public necessity and an essential part of urban and rural infrastructure, yet users find themselves beholden to effective corporate monopolies. The idea that market competition can drive down prices is a myth when it comes to public transport networks. Indeed, the SPT report notes that that “the number of bus operators in the west of Scotland has reduced from around 120 five years ago to about 60 now”, with the implication being that smaller operators have been swallowed by the likes of First and Stagecoach, who both employ aggressive tactics when it comes to squeezing competitors.
With no public say – or even “consumer choice” – when it comes to bus services, it’s little wonder that the operators are continuing to ramp up fares, even as their operating costs fall. A downward spiral emerges, where the resulting decreases in passenger numbers are offset by price rises for those who remain. In contrast, Edinburgh’s publicly owned Lothian Buses saw record highs for passenger numbers in 2013 and 2014, while London’s regulated network has nearly doubled in usage since 1986. Lothian Buses employ a flat pricing system of £1.60 for a single on all routes.
Any efforts to regulate Scotland’s buses on a similar model to London – where bus routes and fares are set by TfL and tendered to private operators – has been continually rejected by the Scottish Government. Last October, then Transport Minister Derek Mackay reeled out the excuses – it would cost too much (though apparently there was still plenty of money for the unnecessary tendering of CalMac!) and they are doing lots anyway, like “writing a strategy” and “taking up quality bus partnerships”, whatever these things actually mean (hint: fuck all).
Of course, it’s not news that in the pre-2007 days when the SNP were in opposition, reregulating Scotland’s bus network was actually SNP policy. Then a certain Brian Souter donated £500,000 to the party and, right enough, the pledge was missing from their next manifesto.
It’s probably time for a change, but everyone knows you don’t get any change on Glasgow buses.