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Why it is chaos on the buses

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Issue 1699

Fares up, services slashed

Why it is chaos on the buses

IF YOU think you are having to wait longer and longer for a bus to turn up, you are not imagining it. One in three buses in London turns up late, and up to 7 percent of the “high frequency” services do not turn up at all, according to research by the Financial Times.

The Association of Transport Co-ordinators says more than 22,000 bus journeys were withdrawn across the country every week in 1999, a 10 percent increase on the previous year. No wonder the Bus Complaints Body reports that its trade rose “quite significantly” last year. This is a direct result of the Tory privatisation of the buses which started in 1985.

The Tories privatised and deregulated services outside London which meant rival firms could fight for passengers on the lucrative routes. In London the Tories privatised the buses but they did not dare leave them completely unregulated. Steven Norris, the failed Tory London mayor candidate, used to be London transport minister.

He said, “I firmly believe that our privatisation and deregulation proposals will work. “Our plans may not please the unions. But they will certainly deliver better, cheaper, and more attractive buses to Londoners.” What a joke.

Fares have more than doubled inside London since 1987. People on the lowest incomes are three times more likely to travel by bus compared to those on high incomes. So the poor, the elderly and low paid workers are paying more for a worse service. There are supposedly 15 separate companies covering the 700 routes around London.

But they are controlled by the three bus giants who together rule over half the network-First Group, Arriva and Stagecoach. Privatisation and deregulation outside London led to bus sharks tearing each other apart to win the best routes. Fares have risen on average by 195 percent. There has been a 25 percent rise on the lowest fare in the last year alone in Northampton.

Martin Robertson, the transport co-ordinator for Hampshire, admits that the domination of the three big bus companies has made it easier for them to cancel less profitable services. This leaves people in rural areas and small towns completely cut off as the bus companies move off to make a fast profit in another town. Companies like Stagecoach, First Group and Arriva usually demand a high profit margin.

This money is not used to improve the service. Optare, Britain’s third largest bus manufacturer, says spending on buses could actually fall as the bus giants buy up rail companies and overseas transport companies. Passengers and bus workers are forced to use clapped-out buses that belch pollution as a result.

There is a solution to the traffic chaos. If New Labour increased taxes on the rich there would be millions of pounds to improve the bus services and cut fares. That would make the likes of Brian Souter squeal but would begin to tackle traffic jams and pollution.

‘Stress getting worse’

THE BUS barons moan that a shortage of workers means they cannot run a decent service. But they force drivers to work hellish shifts for very low pay.

In 1978 bus drivers were paid more on average than refuse collectors, road sweepers and train drivers. By 1999 all those three groups earned more than bus drivers. A TGWU member says, “Some people are taking home only 160 a week for driving a double-decker through London’s congested traffic. “It’s a stressful job and it is getting worse.”

The situation is no better outside London. Neil, a bus driver, says, “I drive in both rural areas and towns and we get the same problems as the city blokes. Driving hours now are worse than they used to be because companies push the rules to the limit. A driver can be sat behind the wheel for five and a half hours without a break.

“You get mentally tired and drivers go off work with bad backs. My hourly rate is less than it was six years ago. I was on 5.60 an hour then. When Stagecoach took over my rate went down to around 4.80. There’s a build-up of strike action because drivers have had enough.”

Strikes have halted Stagecoach services in Ayr, Lancashire and east Kent over the last three months. They are a sign that workers are refusing to be cowed into accepting the rotten pay and conditions that have dogged the industry since privatisation.

  • 22,000 bus journeys across the country are cancelled every week.
  • Bus fares in London have more than doubled since 1987.
  • poorest are three times more likely to travel by bus.

Anti-gay… Capitalist… Strikebreaker…

Brian Souter

BRIAN SOUTER, head of Stagecoach, has tried to pose as a voice of the people with his funding of the referendum over the anti-gay law, Section 28, in Scotland.

Really he is a shark who has spent the last 20 years building a multi-billion transport company by ruthlessly forcing other companies off the road. He started the firm with family money and seized the opportunity of Tory deregulation to gobble rival companies. The Observer newspaper described him last month as a “voraciously acquisitive capitalist and strikebreaker”.

Souter has the same contempt for the bus passengers as he does for the workers. He insulted bus users in the north of England, calling them, “beer drinking, chip eating, council house dwelling, Old Labour voting.” Souter and his sister Ann Gloag are worth 565 million. In 1998 he paid himself 535,000 a year.

Their transport empire stretches across the globe. They own the biggest bus company in New Zealand, the biggest bus firm in the US, Coach USA, and a toll road firm in China. Souter says, “We will seize privatisation opportunities internationally to promote growth.” He also has a 49 percent stake in Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains and owns South West Trains.

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