If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it so we can fix it.
EVEN the Government's Economic Survey, a publication dedicated to the portrayal of the bright side of things, has to admit a decrease during 1957 in the use of public transport services, a decrease that is attributed mainly to the growth in private motoring. The decline of the passenger transport industry has, in fact, reached the unwanted distinction of inclusion in the list of problems, national and international, that appear to have no generally acceptable solution.
No doubt the Government could settle the matter, if they had nothing else to worry about, by means of a subsidy either direct or indirect, through, for example, relief from fuel tax. This is what has happened in many other industries and services. It must still remain a mystery why the satisfaction of what in these days is a universal need cannot be achieved on a sound economic basis. There is no foreign competition, and often no alternative form of transport, nor is there excessive warfare among operators themselves. In some ways, the industry appears sheltered and protected. The situation ought to be the usual one of the willing buyer and the willing seller. In spite of this, the people who want the service are unable to come to terms with the people providing it.
At first glance, it may seem strange to suggest an investigation to discover and analyse the facts. In contrast with road haulage, the road passenger industry make available a good deal of information about themselves, mostly in statistical form. Much of the material that the Ministry of Transport hope to obtain from their survey of road haulage this month • is commonplace to the passenger operator. NeVertheless,•there may be scope for a different kind of inquiry, to seek the real cause of the ills of passenger transport. and to see whether a lasting remedy is possible.
• Although it is reasonable to assume a common cause for the difficulties that are plaguing road passenger operators all over the country, there are regional differences in emphasis, particularly between the problem in large towns and in rural districts. An attempt to relate what is happening in London to what is happening in Northumberland would only confuse the issue. Investigations should be made, first of all at least, in specific areas.
Some of the work has already been done. The most interesting recent survey was that carried out by the Northumberland Rural Community Council, into the plight of 13 country bus operators who provide the stage-carriage services for a population of 16,000 in 330 sq. miles of• mid-Northumberland. The council's report seems to confirm that the private car has played a major part in making road passenger transport a distressed industry. Between 3.1? and 40 per cent, of the families in the area had cars, and the good-neighbourly practice of giving lifts was widespread.
The council had only lukewarm support for the various remedies that have been put forward, either by operators or by the authorities. Relief from fuel tax for rural services was regarded as no more than a short-term solution. The council preferred a 31(1.-a-mile subsidy for non-paying services, although, for reasons that scarcely seem adequate, they would restrict the subsidies to the small operator, and deny it to the larger concern that is expected to balance unremunerative rural work with profitable town services. The council do not find much support for the small bus. Their advice on this point has not been taken. The Ministry of Transport have now issued the regulations that will enable utility vehicles, built to carry 12 seated persons, to serve rural areas. The vehicles are cheaper than the normal coach or bus, but cost very little less to run.
Merely to sanction their use without looking at the rest of the road passenger problem may make the problem worse. Lack of passengers is the simple cause of most of the difficulty. With the new competition from utility vehicles, the present rural operators will lose even more of their stage-carriage traffic, and perhaps also of their privatehire work. The Ministry's latest move would make sense if there were a large reservoir of frustrated passengers in country districts, more or less waiting at the bus stop for something to be done. There is no proof that this is so.
Because it is largely concerned with the existing situation, the report from Northumberland does not attempt to solve the puzzle presented by the present state of the road passenger industry. A further inquiry might seek to find out what changes have taken place in the circumstances over the past few years. Although the private car may be partly responsible, it should not bear the whole blame. The situation has deteriorated almost as much in the towns, where the private car is nothing like so serious a competitor as in the rural districts. It may well be that, because the increase in the number of cars has coincided with the growth of the passenger operator's problem, there is too easy an assumption that the two events are complementary.
The equivalent of the private car on the goods transport side is the C-licensed vehicle, and, although the British Transport Commission frequently grumble at the growing use by the trader of his own transport, there has never been a complaint from the independent hauliers that lawful C-licence competition threatens their livelihood.
It would help to discover whether or not this is true on the passenger side. There are more similarities than differences between the two services. Their aim is to satisfy an existing desire rather than to create a new one. The demand for seats in buses, or space on lorries, is not, one would suppose, something that can be stimulated or encouraged like a taste for old paintings or for the newest kind of lipstick. The fact that there is a bus route does not make people long more ardently to get from one place to another. It merely enables them a little more easily to gratify whatever longing they may have in that direction.
Somehow or other, it has happened either that the demand for buses has slackened, or that the services offered no longer correspond to the demand. We are faced with the paradox that, during the rush hours in London, passengers cause such congestion that the authorities are forced to plead for emergency measures such as the staggering of working hours; whereas, at the other extreme, rural communities are in danger of isolation because there are not enough prospective passengers to make it an economic proposition to run a bus service. If the present system is breaking down, drastic remedies may be needed. They should not be put into force without a more careful examination than it appears the Ministry have given to the likely effect of the 12-seater bus.