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Deregulation: what now:

5th December 1981
Page 29
Page 29, 5th December 1981 — Deregulation: what now:
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

VHEN the Government first pro}osed to free the bus industry ram some of the fetters of the 930 Road Traffic Act, the reiction of the industry was condiioned by fear of the unknown, writes ALAN MILLAR.

Norman Fowler's ideas of raking conditions easier for the mtrepreneur went down well with a few vociferous small verators which wanted to cash n on a market which was served )y established operators, but the stablished companies could .iee their markets under threat.

From the very word go, there N85 a great deal of hypocritical talk about the network being unJer threat. Quite what constituted "the network" no one could say, and even those who were prepared to hazard a guess were unable to prove whether a network of routes really satisifed the needs of the public.

So, what have been the effects?

The removal of road service licensing for express services and tours, as any half-interested schoolboy will testify, has been of more benefit to the National Bus Company than the private sector. National Express, with its established terminals and booking agents, has been able to step up its services without fear of British Rail opposition, and its more regular services have brought in extra business and improved vehicle use to the benefit ofthe state-run concern.

If a nationalised concern has been hurt, it has been British Rail, which has had to cut prices on selective services to try to regain some of the economy passengers who have taken to coach travel. The rail unions, too, are faced with a changed market, in which their bargaining power must be undermined by coach operators' ability to step in at short notice.

Far from resulting in the network being thinned out to the more lucrative routes, the 1980 Transport Act has strengthened the strong, and made it possible for markets to be tapped.

Green Line, hitherto the limping commuter coach wing of London Country, has started to develop services linking London with Cambridge and South Coast resorts, and this winter has seen it become involved in the provision of direct coach links between Gatwick Airport and Watford Bristol. and Cardiff and The independents' gains have been less widespread, but notable nonetheless. British Coachways, the consortium of countrywide companies which set out to impersonate National with services radiating from a demolished goods yard in London, soon lost its youthful enthusiasm. The marketing manager who did much to boost the enterprise soon left for other fields, and the group has shattered into more successful fragments of its former self.

An upmarket approach has been the saviour of the independents, as the basic, skateboardwith-deckchairs service is still National's weak link. Cotter's started a hostess service on its London-Glasgow/Edinburgh coaches just before Christmas last year, Trathen's of Yelverton, which was in fast with a Plymouth/London route, is now working a premium service jointly with National, and Wallace Arnold runs a group of Pullman routes.

The London commuter market has proved elusive to most operators. Several pitched in from deregulation day, October 6 last year, but many found that, despite the price penalty, rail travel was still more attractive for the comparatively affluent market. Services to the Medway towns have been a notable exception.

But coaching, while the most obvious part of deregulation, is but one facet of the changes. The alteration in the burden of proof criteria to compel objectors to prove that a new service would be against the public interest has helped many new stage routes start up. No longer need an operator prove that his service will be in the public interest; if it doesn't make enough money, then that it his commercial problem, not the Traffic Commissioners'.

As case law stands now, county council public transport plans and subsidy arrangements are probably not valid reasons for refusing a road service licence. If an operator believes that his service is worth a commercial risk, then he can run it, regardless of its effects on established, subsidised services.

The widespread alarm in Cumberland over the grant, on appeal, of a stage service licence to Yeowart's for a Whitehaven town service, while Cumberland felt that the loss of town service revenue undermined some of its rural services, and it has gone ahead with plans to withdraw them.

The next move will prove whether the 1980 Act and deregulation can help the public. There is no logical reason why a private operator, with lower overheads to bear, cannot provide an alternative service in the rural areas, if there is a demand for such a service.

Indeed, the whole question of the future of stage carriage operation has been thrown under a spotlight. Busmen, forced back into much harsher economic trading conditions, may well be relieved of social responsibilities which rest much more appropriately with politicians, and are likely to adopt a more businesslike approach to their services. If routes do not pay, then they should be abandoned in tt same was as any other unpro table business activities are, s that they do not drain resouro away from those sectors whi4 generate maximum profit.

This may well result in pr sently uneconomic services b ing provided at lower cost thi at present, either by the exist't operators reducing the servi, to a more basic level, or I handing them over to small businesses.

If the former course adopted, it may be in tl operators' interest to take a le out of the road haulage inci try's book and provide a contre hire service to local authoriti( and run the buses in the colou of the authority which lays dov the required level of service ai provides the cash to do so. Su an arrangement would relie the operator of the public re tions problem of withdrawi services when revenue suppi is cut off.

It also would mean that, if operator were compelled abandon a group of services, would be free to dispose of it surplus vehicles then, and u the cash for other purposi And, if the authority came be later and wanted to restore t cuts, then it would be up to it agree either to financing the pi chase of new vehicles to do so to purchase clapped-o secondhand vehicles.

The deregulation story is, course, only starting. The fi enterprise philosophy will ha growing effects as mo operators take advantage of and the Government is emba ing on stage two by introduci legislation which will bring I vete capital into NBC.

That may help the state co pany to expand its termi facilities, such as London Vic ria, which are under he pressure now that traffic lev have shot up.

But even that may only start. Some in Government cies are known to favour cc plete dismemberment of NBC a bus operator, with parts go to private enterprise, and ps to local authorities, and wl such radical measures may

get far in the lifetime of the r sent Government, they may

more than a glint in the eyes fanciful right-wing theoris Watch this space ...

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