The 1985 Transport Act was classic Thatcherite legislation which turned municipal transport departments into arm’s length companies and opened up local authority ‘bus monopoly areas’ to private sector operators.
As a result of this competition there are just 11 publicly-owned bus companies left in the UK, the largest and, up to now, most successful of which has been Lothian Buses.
More than 30 years later, despite a free market, it has managed to retain its virtual monopoly in Edinburgh through providing an efficient and intensive level of service – and produce a profit year on year.
But fears for the future of this rare example of municipal entrepreneurship – 91 per cent owned by the City of Edinburgh Council – have been raised again.
Following calls within the council chambers earlier this year for LB to make a £20 million ‘contribution’ to the cost of taking the existing tram line down Leith Walk, last month councillors voted for Lothian Buses to be ‘integrated’ with the umbrella quango, Transport for Edinburgh, which some see as ‘Edinburgh Trams’ by any other name.
Last week, understandable concern raised by LB employees and the wider Edinburgh public (who retain a genuine affection for ‘their’ buses) led to an all-party statement from the city chambers insisting that the move was about no more than pursuing efficiencies between the two forms of transport.
“Day-to-day running of Lothian Buses is – and will continue to be – the responsibility of the Lothian Buses board and management team,” the statement concluded.
Do I see just a wee bit of mendacity in this form of words?
The management may continue to be responsible for “day to day” running but that does not imply overall control either of operations or finances.
Integration with TfE could mean Lothian Buses will no longer be an arm’s length company operated on private sector principles – the structure that has enabled it to provide a profitable public service for the past three decades.
Some critics of TfE ‘integration’ fear that this is the first step towards privatisation of the company. That may indeed happen some way down the line but the most pressing concern is not privatisation but ‘traminisation’, i.e. retaining ownership of the buses but as a milch cow for the trams.
Consider the sheer difference in scale and financial status of Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams. One serves the entire city and its environs and returns an annual net dividend; the other operates a single eight-mile corridor, the revenue from which is unlikely to cover annual operating expenses plus the costs of maintenance and repair.
And that’s not taking into account the £270 million overspend on construction and equipment.
So would a transport quango with power over both and answerable to a local authority which appears committed to trams regardless of cost, not be a teensy, weensy bit tempted to…..well…..rob Peter to pay Paul?
As someone once said: “If something quacks like a duck and walks like a duck…..it’s a duck.”
SOUNDING OFF IN THE QUIET COACH
From trams to trains and a controversial summer what with the Jeremy Corbyn seating controversy and disruptions to services in Scotland and Southern England.
At least the current problems are one of too many passengers rather than too few, as in the last days of British Rail, which some have come to view with nostalgic, rose-tinted spectacles.
Yet even today some BR-type idiosyncrasies still exist as I discovered recently when, for the first time in yonks, I travelled first-class by train to London.
Booking online I choose two seats in the ‘quiet coach’ where making and receiving mobile phone calls are not allowed, audio headphones have to be worn and general conversations kept low.
However as the train pulled into Waverley I noticed that the quiet coach comprised only half a carriage, the other half being the buffet car. And on boarding we found our reserved seats were in the middle of the carriage – i.e. flush with the buffet car.
So we were adjacent to a constantly opening and shutting door as ticket collectors and other passengers made their way to and fro’.
Even when the door was closed we could still hear the many goings on from the buffet, including some loud – if good natured – banter between catering staff, who to be fair provided an excellent service otherwise.
In other words, our position in the first-class ‘quiet coach’ was in the loudest part of the entire train. Eventually we were able to move to another coach but it would have been better had Virgin’s ‘train planner’ (or whoever was responsible) been aware of the problems this set-up might have caused in the first place.
Still on transport, I note that Edinburgh Airport has decided to introduce a ‘fast-track’ system through passport control for arriving passengers willing to fork out a fiver.
Perhaps a better way of speeding up the system would be targeted profiling rather than presume that every arriving passenger may be an illegal immigrant or terrorist.
I recall landing at the airport on a flight from Tenerife at 1.am and being subject to a long queue at passport control.
Despite a typical passenger profile of a white, Scottish-born, middle-aged to elderly person, desperate to get home to suburbia and into bed, everyone had to be examined by a po-faced immigration officer.
Meanwhile, standing on a raised pedestal were two hefty ‘Edinburgh polis’ with sub-machine guns at the ready.