Time to end Wait and See

The plan by First Group to quit its UK bus operations could release one of the building blocks needed to create a more integrated transport network across Wale.

There is a tendency in Wales in economic matters to wait to see what happens, an expectation that external agents will always determine what happens and that the limit of Wales’s influence is to try to ameliorate any ill-effects. Yet, what is needed very often is a much more pro-active approach whereby the initiative is taken in Wales to shape what happens, in the best interests of those involved.

Just such a case has occurred with the announcement by First Group that it is considering selling its UK bus operations to concentrate instead on the US market. Now, it just happens that First Group for better or worse runs the buses in Wales’s second city, Swansea, having inherited the operations of the former South Wales Transport and United Welsh, the two previous operators of the bulk of services in the area.

Aberdeen-based First (also operators of the Great Western Railway franchise) has made its intentions to quit the UK bus market following pressure from an activist investor, unhappy after a series of bad rail investment decisions hit profits. In West Wales First Cymru runs local bus services not just in Swansea, its operations extending across to Neath, Port Talbot, Bridgend and Maesteg in the East and Haverfordwest, Tenby and Carmarthen in the west, plus express services to Cardiff.

Various bidders will no doubt emerge for First’s operation, including those in Swansea, but it is doubtful if any of them will come from private sector companies within Wales. So, as Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price pertinently asked in questions to First Minister Mark Drakeford in the Senedd early on June 4th, does this not provide an ideal opportunity to extend within Wales the principle of public ownership of transport services? This could create another building block towards the creation of an integrate transport system in Wales, which could bring together control and management of rail, road and other public transport services. After all, the Welsh Government has taken a step in this direction with the acquisition of Cardiff Airport.

Firstly, however, it is worth offering some background. Britain’s bus services were deregulated under the 1985 Transport Act, with the promise of bringing lower fares, new and better services through greater competition, and, in consequence, increased usage. Previously, scheduled bus services had been run by National Bus, (which had brought together a patchwork of state-owned, semi state-owned and private companies), municipal bus companies and a small number of private operators.

At the time of deregulation more than threequarters of bus turnover was in the hands of the public sector but to raise revenue for other purposes many local authorities took the opportunity over succeeding years to sell off their bus operations to private sector companies, principally Arriva, Stagecoach , First Group, Go-Ahead and National Express. Only 12 municipal operations remain, including Cardiff Bus (UK’s third biggest) and Newport Bus. Three other local authorities run buses in Wales, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire but only on a very limited number of routes where no alternative provision is available.

The Government held back from deregulating bus services in London. Instead, it vested overall transport powers in Transport for London, which directly runs London Underground, London Overground and Docklands Light Railway, and franchises bus services to ten private operators, including German state-owned Arriva (Deutsche Bahn), Dutch state-owned Abellio, and French state-owned RATP. It is also responsible for Crossrail and London’s roads.

Deregulation has failed to deliver its promises and the London model, whereby services come under the office of the Mayor and the London Assembly, has proved much more effective. The 30 year plus period of private operation outside London has created private monopolies rather than genuine competition.  The Competition Commission noted in a report the emergence of “geographic market segregation” whereby the big five operators (Arriva, First Group, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach) leave each other to operate in their chosen territories, undisturbed by competition. [1]

The companies are free to cut services as and when they choose in this unregulated environment and have increasingly been doing so as subsidies from local authorities for uneconomic routes are withdrawn, leaving many parts of the UK, including Wales, with limited or no provision. Services have, nevertheless, been mostly profitable for the operators and fares have increased since1995 by more than 150 per cent against a rise in the cost of living of not much more than half that figure.

 The Welsh Government recognised  in the case of Cardiff Airport that it was important the facility was in the hands of an operator with a strong public service mission and First Minister Mark Drakeford in his reply to Adam Price indicated there was no current intention to sell the airport back to the private sector.

There is an equally strong case for an early approach to be made now by Welsh Government to establish whether First Group would be prepared, preferably in advance of the wider sale of the subsidiary, to divest First Cymru to a Welsh Government-owned not for profit entity.

The price First Group might demand is not clear and will depend on the profitability of the Welsh operations and the value of the assets (the bus fleet, engineering workshops and depots). First Group might also not want to break up its business before or at sale time, though the transfer of assets between transport companies is an established practice. Though It may not be the best yardstick as it was a much smaller company, ComfortDelgro acquired south Wales bus operator, NAT, which now runs services in Cardiff, Newport and the Vale of Glamorgan, for £14m in 2017.

The mechanisms by which such a transfer to the public sector could be achieved and the structures required will need to be explored but the opportunity has been created for Transport for Wales to be given the wider responsibilities that its title implies. As set up, its remit as a not-for-profit company is to provide support and expertise to the Welsh government on Welsh transport projects. Unlike Transport for London it does not own or manage such projects on a day to day basis. Its role is merely to plan, commission and arms-length manage. It employs only a relatively small staff.

It has a very limited bus remit, its main workload being in the rail sector where it was responsible for procuring the most recent Wales and Borders rail franchise (won by Keolis Amey of France/Quebec. It is also charged with bringing forward the South Wales and North Wales Metros. A current task is to investigate the causes of the decline in bus patronage in Wales, with the aim of proposing a range of solutions and exploring what has worked elsewhere. [2]

Transport for Wales would need to be reconstituted to take on an executive role but a new body with statutory powers could represent a first step towards creating a provider that could work much more effectively to integrate transport in Wales across buses, rail, airports, seaports and roads. Alternatively, as an intermediate step, the Swansea Bay City Region could be given the task of running bus services, putting it on a similar footing to the English cities that have accepted devolution deals, and which now have transport responsibilities in their portfolios.

The example of Cardiff Bus and Newport Bus, both of which run modern fleets could be adduced as evidence of how good public service provision can work and produce returns for the taxpayer rather than profits for the shareholder. Public pressure for moves towards clean air technology is also much more likely to be effective when directed towards operators within the public sector than to those operating as private companies. Since acquiring NAT, ComfortDelgro has chosen to recycle some of its older London buses for use as school transports in Cardiff. Wales, is of course, already familiar with cast-offs from rail companies and the London Underground on its rail network.
There is also a wider economic case. Large sums of money are spent by the Welsh Government subsidising public transport in Wales through the concessionary fares offered to bus pass holders. Bus companies also qualify for a UK Government fuel rebate to help keep services viable. Except in Cardiff and Newport, a proportion of Government bus pass funding is finding its way into the profits of companies based in England, Scotland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore. It would be much better if this money was recycled in Wales in the creation of better overall transport provision.

The expertise question will no doubt arise, but it has already been demonstrated by the comparative success of Cardiff Airport since it was acquired from its absentee Spanish ownership that public sector control can work in commercial areas. (Local authority-owned Manchester Airport is the prime example of this, turning the northern city into a commercial and financial powerhouse). And unless Wales tries and risks failing, it will never acquire skills of this sort.

If Wales fails to acquire First Cymru in one form or another, the business might well be acquired by Abellio, Arriva, or RATP. Would it really make more sense for Welsh bus operations to be owned by the Dutch, German or French governments than by the Welsh government?

Rhys David is chair of Nova Cambria, the Welsh think-tank

June 1st, 2019

[1] Where competition has occurred, it has usually involved a new entrant seeking to undercut on existing routes rather than developing new ones. This has resulted usually in the incumbent having to cut less profitable services to protect revenue and profitability. In Cardiff Singapore-owned New Adventure Travel, (NAT) has been challenging the municipal operator. Cardiff Bus has recently reported losses and has been forced to re-order its services and schedules.

[2] Keolis Amey Cymru trades under what is in effect a fig leaf name -Transport for Wales Rail Services – which is the branding that has now replaced Arriva Trains Wales on Wales and Border Services. This carries the suggestion of a stronger public sector involvement than is the case.

For better and worse

Consideration of the US ought not to be all about Trump. There are some respects in which they do less well than us, but others surprisingly where we could still learn some lessons, writes Rhys David

How much more would you like to pay? That’s the message on the screen when the salesperson in a US coffee shop or restaurant, or a small shop owner, pivots the till point credit card reader around to face the buyer after swiping. The technology is new, but it represents a sideways development rather than an advance, adding an inefficiency into US transactions that has been largely eliminated in the UK, and much of the rest of Europe, through the widespread adoption of contactless payment.

The new devices – about the size of a small tablet computer – overcome the embarrassment on both sides of asking the purchaser whether they want to add a gratuity. Instead, the till does the job, asking the customer whether they want to add another 15 per cent (the starting point), 20 per cent or even 25 per cent. There is the option of making your own choice – 30 per cent perhaps or 10 per cent, or, perish the thought, no tip at all. (Anyone who has watched Larry David (no relation) arguing with the maître d’ and getting his car blocked in the car park in comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm after refusing to supplement the tip that had already been added will know this step is taken at your own peril.)

As the tip must be added after the amount has been rung up, it means contactless is much less widespread for small transactions, such as the purchase of a coffee or a newspaper, than in Britain. To authorize the extra amount that the customer has added it has become necessary to move away even from chip and pin (the predecessor of contactless in Europe). Instead, after you have added your tip on the till, you need to add a digital signature to authorise the extra amount being collected using a finger on screen or special pen.

There are other ways, too, in which the US – birthplace of so much modern technology – seems behind the times. Amtrak trains are large, comfortable, staffed by cheery conductors in crisp uniforms – and slow and infrequent. The 215 miles from Boston to New York takes four hours, admittedly having to cross several spectacular and presumably slow-speed long bridges over estuaries on the way.

The 220 miles on to Washington takes a further three hours, in both cases rendering air travel a preferable option for the time conscious. By contrast the 250 miles from London to Newcastle can be accomplished in 12 minutes under three hours and the 170 miles to Leeds in two hours twenty minutes, and British railways are not even very fast by world standards. My journey from Boston to New York took nearly five hours because of that familiar railway issue – signaling problems. Nor are the trains very frequent. The Boston-New York service runs at two-hour intervals, two trains leaving within five minutes of each other, one slow and the other slower, followed by a two-hour gap.

This journey between populous cities – Boston is 4.5m, New York is 8.2m and Washington is 7.4m, with other big cities en route – would clearly be highly suit able for the equivalent of Europe’s or Japan’s high speed trains, reducing the journey to New York from the two other cities to 90 minutes or so, less than the time it would often take to travel to the nearest airport, check in and wait for a possibly delayed take-off. The vigorous opposition of the airlines to any competition brought about by private sector seed funding, as would be needed in the case of new railway infrastructure, has made this politically impossible in the free market US. It is not a fight Donald J. Trump is going to take up.

One battle he has engaged in, however, is trade, seeking to punish China for what he sees as unfair practices, rewriting agreements with Mexico and Canada, and lamenting the large trade balance in Europe’s favour. This does ignore the extent of US ownership of European assets and the scale of US-owned manufacturing in other countries, including in Europe. These operations generate substantial income for the US from repatriated profits. The US is also the world’s biggest provider of financial and other services and its technology companies – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – dominate in their fields.

Nevertheless, the extent to which US manufacturing has retreated can come as a shock. In places like Saco, once a centre of textile machinery manufacture, the once US industry has left only vast mills converted to apartments and offices in its wake, and has lingered on for only a couple of decades further south in the Carolinas and Georgia where much of it moved post-war. Most recently it has been the turn of the US-owned motor industry to suffer a similar fate.

The US industry’s output is still huge, as is to be expected in a market of nearly 18 million units a year, but sales of cars by foreign manufacturers, from Europe, Japan and South Korea, from their US plants and imported vehicles now exceed by roughly 2m. units those built by the US big three – GM, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler America. The average US content of even these suppliers’ vehicles is only 38 per cent. Ford has thrown in the towel as far as supplying passenger saloons is concerned, deciding that in the US market it will concentrate on trucks and SUVs.

Whether a switch to electric vehicles will bring a return of US manufacturing through the arrival of new carmakers such as Tesla, and the possible emergence of other new entrants into motor  manufacturing, such as the technology companies, Apple and Amazon,  is unclear but the traditional US carmakers appear to be behind their international competitors, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and BMW among others,  in developing battery alternatives.

Yet, as the restrictions placed on Chinese phone technology group, Huawei, shows, when it comes to action designed to protect US business interests, US administrations can and will act with a decisiveness for good or ill, that other governments would shrink from.  The US may yet see an upturn in manufacturing, whether driven by reshoring – the repatriation of activities previously dispatched overseas that has already begun – or trade barriers. The American public will ultimately decide whether the extra costs this is likely to impose on it are acceptable.

If some weaknesses in processes and some chinks in US commercial invincibility – particularly in older industries – can now be discerned, there are many respects in which in ordinary life the US does get it right.  This is why it remains such an attractive country. The friendliness and levels of service provided  by customer-facing businesses remains impressive, extending even into fields such as car hire, where the European experience – overstretched booking clerks, less than satisfactory vehicles, phantom damage appearing later as large additions extracted without consultation from debit and credit cards – provide a much better experience for the visitor.

In New England, and perhaps in other areas too, the problems faced in Britain by the residents of many rural areas – closure of shops and other facilities, making necessary a visit to a supermarket many miles away for even necessities – appear to be under better control. Remoteness in some parts is admittedly responsible for keeping the chain stores at bay, and rendering home delivery too expensive, but their absence has allowed the ubiquitous village store to appear to thrive. Unlike the British Spar, Premier, local Co-op or independent, these stores manage to offer a range of services to the community and to be focal points for meeting up and exchanging news and information.

The village store is where you might go not just for a loaf of bread, a pint of milk, or breakfast cereal but to actually buy and eat your breakfast, cooked on the spot, or to get a fishing licence, wood for the fire, a mid morning (or afternoon) cup of coffee self-served from one of several insulated jugs on a conveniently set up table, and many grocery varieties, some hardware, plus a limited range of clothing, gifts and novelties. Interestingly, unlike most British convenience stores, huge displays of beers, spirits and wines from around the world are missing, drink appearing to play a much smaller part in American life than it now does in Britain.

This surprisingly is true of another institution – racing where the contrast with the UK could not be starker. At Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stake, one of the races in the US Triple Crown, entry into the park is a mere $5 and this entitles the holder to visit every public part of the ground, including the grandstands and to bag a place next to the finishing line. Or, you can stay in the huge park grounds and watch the racing on the big screens dotted around. Absent are the champagne tents, the Guinness tents, the gin tents, the fish and chip bars, pulled pork pagodas, the burger vans, and the other inducements to drink and eat to excess of the UK racecourse. Present are hundreds of families with young children enjoying a picnic.

There are other things they do well in the US, too. Under the wing of the federal National Parks Service the register of National Historic Landmarks (NHL) brings together thousands of buildings, sites, structures, objects and districts deemed worthy of preservation because of their significance in the development of the US, including presidential homesteads and business leaders’ Victorian-era houses. Sagamore Hill on Long Island, for example, gives a fascinating insight into the life of the first Roosevelt  – Theodore – who assumed the presidency after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt is now mainly remembered for his big game hunting exploits and his house is indeed full of such trophies, displayed as animal heads on walls, elephant feet as footstool, rhino horns as inkwells, and bearskins as rugs.

However, the museum in the grounds in Long Island also shows another side to Roosevelt, who only went on his hunting safaris so he would not get in the way of his successor. He later disapproved of William Howard Taft’s actions in the White House and stood as a dissident Republican against him in the 1912 election, winning enough support to let in Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. In office Roosevelt was a reforming president challenging corrupt politicians and businessmen and breaking up the monopolies that dominated industries such as oil and banking. He also started the US national parks.

American historic properties under NHL  management appear sober and serious, telling a story in a straightforward way without feeling the need to push relentlessly the various dimensions of the inclusivity agenda, which has become part and parcel of  the approach generally adopted by the UK’s heritage custodians, notably the National Trust and English Heritage, whether it is the need to entertain the young or project guilt for whatever historical sins have become the latest anathema.

For all its reputation as the land of free enterprise and enemy of public sector meddling, in some respects the US can now seem in certain respects much less in thrall to commercialism than Britain. Surprising, occasionally frustrating, but always interesting – this is what makes the US a great place to visit from time to time. It offers an insight – without having delved into its politics too deeply – into the directions in which western society is moving, many of which we might not want to follow, but perhaps some others we might.

RAD June 3rd, 2019

Rhys David is chair of Nova Cambria www.novacambria.wales