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Alexander's bandwagon


Will the new Road Transport Bill mean a fresh start for the urban bus?

For most people outside London and the South East, the bus is public transport. Yet despite accounting for 85% of public transport trips in the largest conurbations outside London, the national political and media attention the bus gets has generally been derisory compared with that given to heavy and light rail. To his credit transport secretary Douglas Alexander is trying to change that by sorting out the buses as a key priority. And it's certainly an area that needs some political attention.

Since bus deregulation 20 years ago, fares have nearly doubled in real terms, patronage has halved and the service cuts go on and on. Bus deregulation means anyone can start up a bus service, charge what fares they like and - subject to basic safety criteria - use what vehicles they like. Controls on reliability and service quality are rudimentary.

PTEs and local authorities do have some levers they can pull.

They can and do invest in smart new bus stations, bus priority schemes and real time information systems. But all they can do on service provision is - l gaps where no commercial service has been provided. Up until recently this laissez-faire policy had proved a highly profitable arrangement for the -ve large companies that - through interlocking local monopolies - now dominate bus provision in Britain. Not surprisingly these major PLCs have lobbied hard to keep things this way.

However, this is proving increasingly hard to sustain as the contrast between the decline in bus services outside London - and the growth of rail, light rail and the franchised London bus network - becomes ever more stark. Better bus services too are needed if wider government objectives of improving public services and tackling social exclusion are to be met.

It's hard too to see how public consent could be gained for the government's road user charging pilots without being able to guarantee the public transport fiofferfl to the voters.

Increasingly, regional cities are growing impatient with throwback bus services that don't sit well with their regeneration aspirations.

In December 2006 Alexander issued Putting Passengers First, which aims to give PTEs and local authorities more of the tools and powers they need to deliver their bus improvement plans. This includes making the franchising of bus networks a more realistic option. The detail will be developed as part of a draft Road Transport Bill, expected in May, with the full Bill expected in the Autumn.

The Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) has published its proposals for realising the aims of Putting Passengers First. Given that previous bus legislation was crippled by clauses that boxed in PTEs and local authorities - resulting in little change on the ground - it's important that this Bill doesn't make the same mistakes. Sorting out the buses may not be considered the most glamorous of legacies for a secretary of state - but if Alexander achieves it, then it will be one of the big public policy breakthroughs of recent years.

Jonathan Bray is the assistant director for the Passenger Transport Executive Group Support Unit

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