Kevin Carr: It's time to dispel some myths about the plans for our buses

The boss of Go North East responds to Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes after the vote to proceed with radical plans for the buses

Last Tuesday morning, I had the pleasure of collecting on behalf of Go Ahead Group an award at the Journal Top 200 event for the region’s largest plc.

That afternoon, I witnessed the North East Combined Authority take a decision that could severely damage the very business that gave birth to the group in the first place.

The Combined Authority voted to press on to the next stage of their bus contracting scheme, and Coun Nick Forbes took the opportunity in last Friday’s Journal to tell you why he thinks it’s a good idea.

It’s time, however, to dispel some myths.

Coun Forbes says that bus use is in long-term decline. As with all politicians, that depends on the statistics you choose to use. Coun Forbes could equally have used Department for Transport figures to show that, actually, more people use Tyne and Wear’s buses today than did 10 years ago – but that doesn’t fit his argument.

Nor does Coun Forbes tell you that, while bus patronage has remained stable for the last decade, ridership on Metro, controlled by local councils through Nexus, has fallen to an all-time low.

Coun Forbes suggests that the contract scheme will “shake up” the way bus services will operate. It may well do so – but it won’t put a single extra bus on the road.

Between July 2013 and October this year, Nexus has scaled back its bus contract scheme proposals. Last year, it promised eighteen extra buses – this year, they’ve gone. Last year, it was going to save the councils £7m a year – that’s been scaled back to £5m. Last year, it needed a £78m ‘contingency fund’ to underpin it – it now needs £80m. Taken together, that’s £40m of passenger benefits that have been taken out of the proposal in just 15 months.

Coun Forbes suggests that bus operators have not been able to sustain a network that meets the needs of its customers.

This is a strange assertion to make, because as anyone in any business will tell you, the customer is always king.

Go North East’s success is built upon listening to customers and providing them with services that run when they want to use them, where they want to go and at a fair price they are able to pay.

Customers ‘vote with their feet’; if they don’t use buses, it’s because we’re not running them where they want to go. So, like any business, we’ll ask them what they want and try to provide it. That’s what ‘market forces’ means – it’s about doing what customers want, and doing it efficiently. Businesses put customers first, and only if customers buy can we make a profit. Try to chase profit rather than customers and no business will succeed.

Coun Forbes suggests that bus services are fragmented, complex and not straightforward. Again, everyday experience does not bear this out. If that were the case, people would be deserting buses in droves, but, as I know, this isn’t the case. Buses are easy to use, with a range of attractive fares that are some of the cheapest in the country, and far cheaper than in London.

Coun Forbes talks about the quality of buses, but what he doesn’t tell you is that by the end of the contract scheme the entire bus fleet will be much older than it is today.

Coun Forbes tells you about cheaper fares for 16-19 year olds, but doesn’t tell you that 22% – almost one in four – people will pay more for bus travel than they do today under the contract scheme. If you read the ‘small print’ buried away in the scheme, you’ll see that Nexus and the councils will be able to put up the fares at any time, as high as they like – just like their predecessors did back in the 1980s that they seem to remember so fondly.

Read further and you’ll find that Nexus can cut bus services by 10% – just like they did in 1982.

Nexus doesn’t tell you that the scheme will run at a loss during its first two years and rapidly run out of money at the end. After ten years, they’ll need to find about an extra £11m a year from somewhere. That’s why we say that this scheme will bankrupt the bus system and lead to higher fares and reductions in bus services.

Coun Forbes says that he has given ‘carefully consideration’ to the partnership proposal from the bus companies.

But I do wonder as I’ve been asking for meetings with the seven council leaders since the start of this year, and all these requests have been refused. When we were finally granted one 40-minute slot for a presentation, only three of the seven leaders were present – for a meeting held the day before the reports were published.

Nexus has now been instructed to stop work on a partnership proposal. This would have put 50 extra buses into the Tyne and Wear network and provided cheaper tickets for 16 to 18 year olds next year. Those young people will now be denied cheaper fares.

Go North East will press on with other fares offers, including a new ‘Bus2Bus’ ticket.

We don’t think it is right to deny people the best possible value. We will also work tirelessly to demonstrate that the contract scheme is expensive, flawed and doesn’t deliver any real benefits for anyone.

  • Kevin Carr is managing director of Go North East

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