Leicester passengers left out in the cold: Bus privatisation (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 10 APRIL 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

FOSSE PARK, three miles outside Leicester, is a bright new shopping centre. It is so popular that it stays open until 8 o'clock at night. There is just one snag: the last bus leaves at 6.45, writes William Kay.

While this may not matter to the affluent Midlanders who flock to Fosse Park in cars, it is a point of concern to the centre's shop workers. Many of them do not have cars and therefore rely on public transport to ferry them there and back.

The workers are lobbying Midland Fox, part of British Buses, the company serving Fosse Park, to persuade them to reinstate the later service.

Trouble is, there is only the one company to lobby. Until the end of last year three companies were fighting for passengers in Leicester, often blocking roads as they screeched to a halt, three abreast, at a stop.

But then one local operator, Gilbert Kinch, withdrew his 30 buses in return for buying the rights to Midland Fox's Loughborough service.

'The council asked us to end the bus war,' Mr Kinch insisted, 'because they felt it was not in the public interest. Midland Fox sold me Loughborough Bus and I withdrew. We were not told to stop: it was a question of common sense prevailing.'

The two survivors, Fox and Leicester CityBus, a subsidiary of the Gateshead-based Go- Ahead, then rationalised their services so that there was considerably less competition on individual routes. Fares have risen by about a tenth in the past three months.

Colin Crosby, of the local pressure group Green Transport, said: 'We are a little worried that the two companies might be carving everything up between them and not competing in the normal way. We had several cases of panic in the suburbs when services were withdrawn.'

Collusion between competitors in those circumstances is illegal. Chris Mahony, managing director of CityBus, was at pains to show that no such crime had taken place.

He said: 'Our strategy is to consolidate our activities in areas where we are strong. We have withdrawn services where we were running infrequent services on routes largely supplied by another operator. CityBus was running at a loss when we took it over last month and we had to take action to get it into profit.'

But David Smith, the public transport team leader for Leicestershire County Council, has doubts. 'It was a strange coincidence that they have both pulled off from competing at the same time,' he remarked. 'We have no problem with the present bus service levels, but we are apprehensive as to what will happen.'

Ironically, the alleged carve-up was prompted by the council, concerned at the danger both to the environment and pedestrians from the congestion at the height of the bus war.

'We asked the traffic commissioners to impose restrictions on the number of buses in the city centre,' said Mr Smith, 'but before that happened the three companies came to an accommodation with each other, to which we were not party.'

He admitted that the council was still receiving a large number of calls from the public expressing disquiet at the way services have changed for the worse, adding however that some of these changes might have happened anyway after a long period in which fares were held down and services kept up under the combined pressure of competition and the recession.

But that is small consolation to the workers at Fosse Park. Mr Smith noted that a later bus service is available from a stop only 200 yards away from the centre. The protesters complain that that involves crossing a busy road, but Mr Smith counters that there is a pedestrian crossing.

Either way, this is the classic sort of situation that should in theory be ripe for solving through the operation of competing market forces. In practice, though, those forces appear to have been channelled down lines that protect the companies and their shareholders more effectively than would-be passengers.

CORRECTION

In last week's article entitled 'Leicester passengers left out in the cold', we said that Leicester CityBus was part of Go-Ahead Group. In fact it is owned by GRT Holdings.

(Photograph omitted)

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