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Britain’s busses are in crisis—and no-one seems to care

Buses outside London are a mess and, unlike in the capital, they are often the only form of public transport available

The first time I asked a journalistic question of a politician was about 15 years ago, while working for Manchester University’s student paper. A senior Tory MP had been invited in by the student Conservative movement, and there had been something particularly bothering me that I wanted to put to him.

I had recently moved from the border of Moss Side—backing onto Princess Road, the main southern arterial route into the city—to the more traditional student area of Fallowfield, a couple of miles away.

For those unfamiliar with south Manchester, Fallowfield sits at the heart of the busiest bus route in Europe, where you rarely need to wait more than 10 minutes for a cheap bus at any time of the day or night. It is a route that takes you through the Curry Mile and student-land, and on into the city’s leafiest and most affluent suburbs.

However on Princess Road, which runs parallel to that route through some of south Manchester’s poorest neighbourhoods, including Moss Side, the city’s buses did not run at night, operated far less frequently and cost three or four times as much.

This baffled me. Surely the people living there needed decent buses too? And so, in my naïve way, I asked whether the Conservatives—then in opposition—would consider changing things once in power. They stared at me like I had come down from the moon.

The moment stayed with me. Now, in 2018, the buses here—and across the UK—are in an even worse state, but I have a better understanding of why.

Since the de-regulation of the bus network in the 1980s, services and routes have been commercially led by operators, albeit propped up by public subsidy where the market can’t or won’t provide.

Once austerity hit, an axe was taken to what were then comparatively generous local bus grants, which have dropped by around 45 per cent since the cuts started to bite around 2010.

So with the commercial market now providing the impetus more than ever before, lucrative corridors remain awash with buses, while in other areas, services that were already patchy have diminished or, especially on rural routes, actually stopped.

Even in urban Greater Manchester, many people rely on taxis to get to and from work thanks to a lack of services and many—if not most—areas have no night service at all.

We are not alone on this here. In fact, as is so often the case, London—which has had, since Ken Livingstone’s tenure, a regulated bus system with uniform, subsidised fares and frequent, reliable routes—is the exception to the rule.

Nearly all MPs, and perhaps many Prospect readers, live or spend disproportionate time in London, which may blind them to the bus problem.

Buses elsewhere are a mess and, unlike in the capital, they are often the only form of public transport available. Much of this country does not have a mainline train station on its doorstep, and certainly doesn’t have a tube or a tram. It is buses, increasingly scarce as they are, that join up most of our communities.

But how often do you hear this discussed nationally? Hardly ever, compared to trains, which—perhaps not coincidentally—are the main means for MPs of shuttling back to their constituencies. And when they get there, they typically drive about, rather than taking the bus.

All of this distracts them from the unreliable services which no doubt contributes to the sinking number of bus passengers at the moment. But this unreliability really does matter to most of their constituents: even now, buses account for 60 per cent of public transport journeys in England—that’s more than four billion trips a year.

Which was why, when sneering from the Conservative benches—and parts of the commentariat—greeted Jeremy Corbyn’s bus questions at PMQs in early July, I felt an old, smouldering ire re-ignite.

The damage done by bad bus services can be seen from every angle. The human: the isolation caused for people who can’t rely on them. The economic: when employment hubs are only genuinely reachable by car, poorer people are locked out of good jobs. And the environmental: this country is in a race to hit emissions targets, but until motorists have a sensible alternative, many will continue to drive.

Reform is achingly overdue, and some strides are being made. But in Greater Manchester, which has finally got some devolved powers to re-regulate buses, many worry that the project is drifting. Let us hope Metro-Mayor Andy Burnham has the nous to get it back on the road.

That would demonstrate that all those who have suffered for so long from our fractured, privatised bus market are finally taken seriously—that they are no longer ignored and overlooked by politicians and the media.

That certainly applies to the man who messaged me saying he had to get four buses from Salford to work at Trafford Park, 15 minutes over the local authority border; to those who have had to move house because services are so unreliable; and to the people who walk three miles to find a bus that will take them to their night shift.

If Northern Rail’s crisis was ignored by London for months, the bus crisis has been overlooked for decades. So, to both the MP who scoffed at me 15 years ago and to those who so recently jeered when buses came up in the Commons: if you think train passengers are angry, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

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