Off the buses

Back in the 1980s, when the Conservative government wanted to break the hold the Labour-held northern councils had over large swathes of England, they came up with a couple of wheezes. Firstly, they would abolish the metropolitan councils (and Greater London Council). Then they would make the ex-councils sell off their bus operations.

Thus it was that on Sunday 26 October 1986, Yorkshire Rider came in to life, born from the former MetroBus operation of West Yorkshire County Council / West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive.

It’s an important date for me for two reasons. Obviously, I’ve just left the remains of WYPTE / Metro / WYCA after almost 16 years. That’s the non-bus part of the former WYMCC transport operation. We were responsible for financially supporting those routes that no operator wanted to take on commercially, administering a county-wide, zonal pass (MetroCard – now MCard). We tried to work with operators to fill in gaps in service and manage complaints. They contributed towards the costs of timetable production and MetroLine.

It’s also important because I’d just started my degree at TASC. The first thing I did on Media Production was location recording – interviews. Wanting to do something topical, I and another student took a Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder down to Swinegate1 to interview Bill Cottham, head of Yorkshire Rider.

Has deregulation been a success? You’d expect me to say no, and you’d expect right – but it isn’t as simple as that. Metro, at the end, was a lean organisation, especially compared to similar PTEs – so splitting off the bus operations was not such a bad thing. The newly-independent bus operators, sadly, were almost all bought out and made parts of larger groups. So each depot has to contribute to the profits of the region, of the sector, of the parent group. That helps push marginal routes out of profit much more quickly. And larger groups means less competition, so deregulation, in the sense of promoting greater competition, has failed miserably.

And it creates confusion in the mind of the travelling public too. Why can’t Metro/WYCA do anything about an operator that keeps not running a service during the day? Probably because it’s a commercially registered service – talk to the Traffic Commissioner instead. They won’t accept MCard? They’re not obliged to take part in a regional ticketing scheme. Rude drivers? We don’t employ them, the bus companies do.

Perhaps then there ought to be competition *for* the market, since there’s very little competition *in* the market – but that thought leads us towards Statutory Quality Bus Contracts, which didn’t go down so well when Nexus/NECA tried it in the north east. I started work on QBS in around 2010, and we quickly got nowhere, fast.

But 30 years after deregulation, we don’t have the competitive market the Act was created to bring and we don’t have happy bus passengers either. I’m not entirely sure that the bus companies are overjoyed either. So something does need to be done, and soon – buses are still a major economic driver in getting people to jobs and leisure activities. Without our buses, what would we do?

  1. Swinegate in Leeds was where Leeds City Transport had been based, until it became part of WYPTE in 1974. Then it was the Leeds HQ for MetroBus. Then it became the main office for Yorkshire Rider. Now it’s a Malmaison. []

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