Leading Article: The business of running buses

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TUCKED AWAY in the shadow of rail privatisation, another transport revolution is being planned by the Government. The plan - to transform bus services in London from a regulated, nationalised monopoly into a deregulated free-for-all with a plethora of private operators - has received scant attention outside the House of Commons, where it is currently being scrutinised by the Transport Committee.

First, the existing 11 companies are to be sold, probably starting early next year; then the services are to be deregulated, allowing any new operators to come into the market as long as they adhere to basic standards.

The Government has hesitated for a long time over bus deregulation in London, partly because of the mixed results outside the capital, where services were deregulated in October 1986; and partly because buses have a much higher profile in London than elsewhere. Since deregulation, bus usage has decreased, but its protagonists say this merely reflects a long-term trend and point out that mileage has risen.

In some cities, such as Manchester and Sheffield, there has been over-provision on many routes, with buses clogging the centres and an overall deterioration in services. In other places deregulation seems to have had a beneficial effect, usually because of the presence of one strong operator rather than as a result of increased competition.

The private sector has already made incursions into London's bus market. More than half of London's 400 bus routes have been put out to tender and the private sector has won a majority of the contracts. Although savings have been made, the operators run no risk, since all revenue goes straight to London Transport. The Government is dissatisfied with this limited private role, which leaves the planning of routes in the hands of a centralised public body, and has said that it will bring in legislation for full deregulation.

There are numerous dangers. Central London could not cope with the bus wars seen in the provincial cities. As London Transport warned the Transport Committee recently, the new private operators would not be able to recognise the cherished Travelcard, which allows passengers to travel by rail, tube and bus in the capital on one ticket.

Outside London, one of the worst features of the new era is the laxness of licensing regimes. Any coach owner with a second-hand vehicle can start a service, cherry-picking customers on the most frequented routes and even using the same route number. That mistake should not be repeated. In London, there must be a quality threshold ensuring that only operators prepared to keep to a schedule and able to offer a decent service should be given licences. This would have the added advantage of preventing a gaggle of operators from clogging up Oxford Street.

The Government should also make acceptance of the Travelcard scheme mandatory on all operators, and ensure that they are prepared to pay towards the new information system being introduced at bus stops indicating the expected time of arrival of the next bus. Above all, it must bear in mind that London's buses are in competition with other forms of public transport and with private cars. A botched deregulation could severely exacerbate the capital's traffic problems.