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.

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