London Bus event hears the naked truth

The Centre for London, an independent think-tank, hosted an event to look at how the London bus network can meet growing demand with reducing public subsidy. The answer it seems, is to have a plan. Meanwhile, some Labour politicians believe that operators are deliberately pricing people off buses. .

In early April the Centre for London hosted an event to discuss the future of London’s buses. I normally avoid these talking shops, but this one caught my eye, if only because former Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis [pictured] was a speaker.

One of the key themes that emerged was a need for a bus strategy for London, because buses play such a large part in the capital’s economic and social life.

This puzzles me. Sure, buses in London undoubtedly play a huge role in the capital. But I couldn’t work out why we need a strategy, because with the bus market in London being regulated, it seems to me that Transport for London (TfL) already has a de facto strategy in place through its contracts with the operators.

These contracts specify the routes that must be run, the level of fares, the timetables and so on. And, in drawing up these aspects of a contract, TfL presumably also has in mind how the bus network fits in with the rail network, the management of the road network and so on.

So, what would a ‘strategy’ deliver that can’t already be delivered? Perhaps we don’t have a 250-page document that central planners can point to and call a strategy. But do we really need such a document – which normally ends up gathering dust, and normally becomes out of date within five minutes of publication?

I suppose there might be a case for some kind of strategy that looks at what the market requirements might be in, say, 10, 15 or 20 years’ time. I can see some sense in doing something that looks well into the future so that long-term social, demographic and economic factors can be assessed.

But I didn’t get the sense from this event that this is what people had in mind. It seemed to me to be much more a short-term agenda item. Something for local authority and TfL planners to keep themselves occupied. I think TfL’s current powers in a regulated market already provide it, with all the means to effectively implement a strategy without having to write a 250-page think-piece.

I was talking to some Labour chums the other day who were bemoaning the decline in bus patronage, using the usual argument that deregulation was to blame.

I took great delight in showing them the recent Passenger Focus survey. Passengers are happy – very happy – with the services they are getting, I said, which to be fair they recognised the survey showed.

After a while they even conceded that regulating a bus would not have any impact on the reliability of the bus – and it’s reliability that most people are concerned about – since reliability is largely down to highway management issues.

But, needless to say, they pointed out that the survey highlighted that passengers were unhappy about the cost of bus travel and operators are obviously pricing people off buses.

Forgive me, I said, but these operators are private companies. Why would they want to price passengers off the bus and deliberately deter them from using their services?

Bus operators want to develop fare structures that encourage bus use, not discourage it.

Name me a private company that deliberately tries to discourage somebody from using their services or from buying their products, and I’ll run naked down Whitehall.

I am a man of my word. Fortunately, thus far, they have not found such a company!