The UK bus sector has prospered in recent years, despite all the prophecies of gloom when Lady Thatcher’s Conservative Government decided that competition was the best answer to reversing decades of under-investment, lousy service and poor time-tabling.
First up was the 1980 Transport Act which introduced competition on long-distance coach routes. Subsequently, sector leader, National Express, saw demand rise sharply. And, despite serious setbacks on the railways, National Express’ bus operations have continued to thrive, with much expanded services. Apart from travelling on much more comfortable buses, passengers are also being offered highly competitive fares. For example, single fares of c£13 are currently available on the six-hour plus London to Newcastle route.
Given that these fares are just 3x the cost of a one-station hop on the London Underground, they offer remarkably value – as National Express sharpens its pencil in the face of competition. On the shorter routes, the stimulus was provided by the 1985 Transport Act, which introduced bus competition locally - the franchise arrangements for London, though, are very different.
In recent months, both sector leader, First Group, and the ever-controversial Stagecoach have reported robust revenues and divisional operating profit increases of an impressive c20%. Whilst all bus operators have to cope with rising fuel prices, heavy investment is underway. First Group plans to invest £160 million over the next two years in modernising its fleet – with 955 new buses.
Looking forward, the UK bus sector stands to gain from the rising costs of motoring. When introduced in the 1980s, the aggressive bus competition initiatives were roundly condemned, especially with regard to the viability of many poorly patronised rural routes: some now receive substantial subsidy. A few bus businesses remain Local Authority-owned and they are ripe to be sold off.
Overall, though, the story of UK buses since the 1980s has been impressive. Embracing the competitive market has been fully vindicated.