With the recent headlines dominated by the future of local buses and trains, The Week In publisher Stephen Rodgers averted his gaze from the more obvious attractions of the French Riviera to see how local transport is working there.
You will no doubt have read about the successful ‘Big Choices’ bus meeting that The Week In organised recently. The very next morning, with thoughts still fresh in my mind about local buses and trains, I set off for a long weekend in the South of France.
My destination was Nice, a city I first knew in the 1970s through my work and where I first met my wife. I had not actually spent set foot in the city centre for almost 40 years – and boy, hasn’t it changed. The Nice metropolitan area has roughly the same population as the West of England Combined Authority, and yet for the last 15 years the city has had three separate tram lines, one linking to the airport.
A regional train service connects the city with Cannes and Antibes in one direction and Monaco and the Italian border in the other. Trains run every 30 minutes from 5am to midnight SEVEN DAYS A WEEK. Fares are laughably low and every train I caught was busy. Almost every station I stopped at seemed to have a passenger lift for wheelchair and pushchair users, not to mention the local buses which connected with them.
It’s not a Shangri-La – nothing ever is. Central and regional government is under significant financial pressure like everywhere else and so funding of the network is still a matter of considerable debate. But the fundamental difference is one of investment in infrastructure, rather than returning a profit for investors. In this country we chose the latter. The 1985 Transport Act effectively ended licensing of bus routes, and with it, Government subsidy. From then on, private bus companies could run buses where they wanted and any routes deemed necessary but not commercially viable became the responsibility of the local councils. Rail privatisation followed 10 years later.
So now we have the major bus companies claiming they are having to operate with 75% of pre-pandemic fare revenue and a nationwide shortage of bus drivers which has left our local bus companies as much as 150 short. ‘Reviewing their network’ actually means only operating services they can deliver and run profitably. Meanwhile, improving our local rail network is more akin to pulling teeth. While the long-awaited 30-minute train service from Keynsham Station looks like it may finally happen this autumn, the saga of the Portishead line is now almost 20 years old while the first mention of Saltford Station reopening was a decade ago.
When public transport was privatised, the aspiration was that competition would lead to better and cheaper services. Many across the political divide now seem to accept that it was a mistake. There is no magic wand or rewind button. If more people are to be persuaded to switch to public transport, there needs to be a service for them to switch to.
Regional Mayor Dan Norris’s recent initiative to get local people talking about bus services has gone some way to helping people actually understand what the problems are. There are still popular misconceptions out there that bus operators have an obligation to run services or that if they can’t run them properly then they shouldn’t be in business. We cannot simply rewind the clock to pre-privatisation days.
But what more people are beginning to accept is that if you want a truly ‘public’ public transport system, then it needs public funding. While the supported bus routes locally are still funded in part through council tax, it is clearly not enough as things stand. At the recent bus meeting in Keynsham, the idea of a council tax precept for transport, similar to the ones added for police and fire services, was clearly understood.
There is more than £600m of funding on its way to the West of England from next April but with strings attached. The money awarded to the West of England Combined Authority is for new initiatives and this has been one of the main reasons for canvassing local opinion on what type of service we want to see in the future. And crucially, how to get more people out of their cars and onto buses in the first place.
There is no easy fix and even in the South of France, where vast amounts of public money are diverted towards local buses and trains, the car is still king. One outing last weekend on a busy bank holiday took three hours each way by car because of the heavy traffic. When I pointed out that the same journey by train took just over an hour, I received the typical Gallic shrug from my in-laws. It won’t be enough to simply have a good bus system – achieving that by taking road space away from cars is still one painful obstacle we have yet to encounter.