It’s time to put travellers first

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MOTORISTS enduring the slow commute into Leeds have been regularly greeted this month by an electronic road sign that invites them to use public transport this Christmas.

Yet two decisions – confirmation of the latest increase in rail fares and a damning critique of the bus industry – illustrate Yorkshire’s continued over-dependence on the car.

Though the headline increase in train tickets was limited to just 5.9 per cent by measures in the Autumn Statement, West Yorkshire commuters will continue to pay an additional premium that goes towards the financing of new rolling stock. Despite this, many passengers will still have to stand on dilapidated trains – and tolerate services so unreliable that the Office of Rail Regulation has finally decided to act.

One reason for the growing exasperation of travellers is the manner in which the railways were privatised and allowed to become so fragmented – there’s no co-ordination of services, other than in London, to reflect the needs of the paying public and rules governing fares are becoming even more difficult to fathom.

Contrast this with the bus industry, deregulated in the 1980s, a decade before the railways were privatised, where a lack of competition is said to be stifling improvements to services.

According to the Competition Commission, five firms carry 70 per cent of passengers nationally – and patronage is now decreasing outside London, in part because the main bus companies have stifled the growth of rival operators.

Yet, if bus companies were performing to their optimum, passenger numbers would be increasing, especially when so many families are looking to reduce their dependence on the car during the slump.

The challenge is achieving this when the Government has devolved so much responsibility for buses to local authorities and public transport bodies who, in turn, enjoy an arm’s length relationship with operators.

There also needs to be a realism that each area has specific needs; perhaps councils should be far stricter in the awarding of subsidies.

That said, public transport will remain stuck in the slow lane until rail and bus bosses recognise that they are there to serve the public – and not the other way round, as is so often the case.