Making the Case for Publicly Owned Public Transport

In 2008 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published an important report that focused on the critical role played by the now-terminated 302 bus route that acted to connect Braunstone to the rest of our city. Titled “The value of new transport in deprived areas,” the foundation’s publication came down strongly on the need for the funding of such vital community services in the face of “ever-reducing central and local government subsidies to support the public transport network.” For some historic background on the launch of this Braunstone bus service, the report notes:

“Through their endeavours to reduce the level of social deprivation and exclusion as part of the Government’s New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme, Braunstone Community Association (BCA) recognised the need for a better local transport network… Pump-prime funding for contracting and running the bus service was obtained from Urban Bus Challenge (2001). Funding for publicity, timetables and salaries was from New Deal for Communities via the BCA. The ‘exit strategy’ for this scheme was to make the service 100 per cent commercially viable within five years.”

Yet clearly not all bus routes can be commercially viable, especially those operating in poorer parts of the country, where ironically enough such services are needed most urgently. This continuing issue of viability (or rather profitability) is precisely why socialists argue for a publicly owned and well-maintained public transport infrastructure, that is not hamstrung in its ability to actively reduce transport inequalities. As a member of the Socialist Party explained in an article penned in 2008:

“The failure of New Labour to hardly even begin to improve public transport and as a consequence to help tackle global warming, points to the need for a radical approach that addresses the fundamental obstacles to change.

“The lessons of public transport policy since the Second World War are that market forces have dominated development, and piecemeal and partial nationalisation was unable to stand in their way. An integrated transport policy, which could harmonise the needs of the environment and of society, including the right to travel, will only become a reality when the power of the market is removed and replaced with a democratically planned system.”

In fact, during the course of its life, the 302 route literally acted as a lifesaver to Braunstone’s inhabitants. “[N]early a quarter of people were regularly using the bus to access health-care services — partly a reflection of the high levels of ill health among the resident population and partly because the Braunstone Bus is the only direct service to Glenfields Hospital.” The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report went on to point how how:

“Out of the 511 respondents to the Braunstone on-bus survey, 42 per cent (214) stated that they would not be able to access health care without the bus. For others, it is the peace of mind that comes from knowing the bus is there and they can rely on it that is most important”.

To reiterate, the 302 route was considered “invaluable,” to those suffering from poor health and also to their carers, “often meaning the difference between relative independence and being housebound.”

302

So why, one might ask, was the bus service cut? The Braunstone bus was hardly cruising the streets bereft of passengers as 282,466 trips were undertaken on its route over the one-year period between 2005 and 2006.

Furthermore, the estimated “annual cost savings to individuals arising from the Braunstone Bus as a result of a combination of bus or taxi fare or journey time savings” was put at £661,000 — a not insignificant benefit for some of the least well-off people in Leicester. If that wasn’t a good enough reason for the Leicester City Council to find the money to save the bus service, then the report points out that:

“Of the people we surveyed on the Braunstone Bus, 34 (7 per cent) said that they were able to get a job as a result of the service. It can also be noted that a further 115 people (23 per cent) were able to keep their job and 7 people (1 per cent) said they had secured a better job because of the service. In addition, of the 155 people who regularly use the Braunstone Bus to access employment, 16 would be unable to get to work without the service.”

As it turns out the 302 bus route received a per passenger trip subsidy of 52p, which “compares with other services operating on similar urban routes” like those supported by Leicestershire County Council “as follows: route 40/41 outer circle = £0.57; route 55 = £1.76; route 162 = £0.72” Yet sadly, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation researchers understood that the 302 bus route was still…

“…under threat, and this is largely because the BCA has found it difficult to secure the support it needs from Leicester City Council and the local bus operator. To date, neither has expressed any interest in continuing the service once its subsidy runs out in 2008.”

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, an announcement of the termination of the 302 service was made in 2012. This decision, as the Leicester Mercury reported at the time, “prompted a storm of protest from residents, with hundreds of people signing a petition to save it.” This then forced the Labour Council to promise to help subsidize the service until 31 March 2013, when sadly the service was finally cut.

Janet Statham, who did well to organise the petition, said of the bus route: “It’s a lifeline for so many people, including schoolchildren, people travelling to work – and especially sick or elderly people, as the 302 is the only bus to stop at both the royal infirmary and Glenfield hospitals.” Braunstone city councillor Wayne Naylor, who handed the petition in to the council – later quitting the Labour Party to work with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) added:

“What annoys me most is that this bus route was introduced back in 2000 after various tenants and residents’ associations proved there was a need for the service. Not so long ago, Braunstone was classified as one of the most deprived parts of the country. People who don’t have a car absolutely rely on the service to get to work and, even more so in a recession.”

Moving forward to last December, Blairite Liz Kendall took it upon herself to revive the tragic loss of the 302 bus route for her own political purposes. So writing in the Mercury, not at the time of the routes abandonment, but many many months on, she says: “Rip-off fares make some trips unaffordable and it’s really frustrating that you can’t use the same day ticket across different bus companies.”

With her anger rising to a faux cresendo, Ms Kendall rails against the worsening situation “as companies axe more routes and reduce their timetables.” “This isn’t just bad news for bus users,” she fumes, “it’s bad news for taxpayers too: the Competition Commission says failures in the bus market cost the economy up to £300 million every year.”

But she is adamant that socialist solutions to this problem should be firmly rejected: “Budgets are tight, so the answer isn’t to throw more money at the problem”. But this is bizarre statement to say the least, as socialists certainly do not advocate giving even more public cash over to unaccountable private bus companies. Instead they argue that privately-run transport companies should be renationalised, which will not only save the public money, but enable them to coordinate a fairer, demoncratic, and efficiently run national transport network!

According to Ms Kendall the Labour Party’s only solution to our country’s transport crisis would be to “legislate” to give politicians the power to slightly regulate profit-obsessed bus companies. This solution seems a little weak, as a genuinely progressive socialist government could easily nationalise all public transport services, to ensure that the primary function of transport infrastructure would be to serve the public good, not to further indulge the already bulging bank accounts of greedy shareholders.

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