Running a Bus company must be like having a licence to print money. Profits at Stagecoach’s UK Bus division were £151m last year, while First Group achieved £149m in the same period. National Express’ profit of £28m while small is based on a much smaller turnover. It seems that once you get into a dominant position, with the ability to cut costs and increase fares, the money will just keep rolling in.
However, the passenger gets the raw end of this deal. Operators can cherry pick routes and schedules to suit themselves. If a route doesn’t make money after 6pm, cut the service. If an area is too poor to afford the high fares – don’t bother serving it. If competitor moves in, run your busses just in front of theirs to crush them.
But, just as we licence taxi operators, so we should licence bus operators. If a company wants to run busses in an area, they should be required to provide services that the public need, even if that is at a loss – the right to run the profitable routes will pay for it. If one operator doesn’t want to do that, another surely will. Councils could require operators to accept each other’s tickets, if that’s what the travelling public say they want. Fares could be capped, routes set out serving disadvantaged areas, or frequencies at particular times of day could be maintained. Timetables could be required to run in connection with trains, providing a truly integrated public transport system – vital especially for our rural areas.
All of this the bus companies could do, in return for the right to run highly profitable services across Scotland. The cost to the taxpayer would be negligible – the administrative costs of running the system could be met by a licence fee, as is done with taxi operators now. Bus operator profits would be restricted, but then they would be providing a true public service.