First minister Carwyn Jones says Welsh Government will use new powers to intervene in the bus industry to protect services from company failures

 

traws_cymruCarwyn Jones hopes that restructuring bus companies will prevent the kind of disruption seen recently on the Barmouth-Wrexham route, where Arriva withdrew in 2014 and was replaced by GHA Coaches which went into administration in July

 

Carwyn Jones, Wales’ First Minister, has said his government will restructure bus companies from 2018 to prevent services disappearing. His government also hopes to let the next Wales and Borders rail franchise on a not-for-profit basis.

“This Assembly will receive powers over buses in 2018,” Jones told the Welsh Assembly last week. Many bus companies had gone to the wall, which was not sustainable, he said. “After the restructuring of bus companies in 2018, we hope that that will not happen.”

He referred to Arriva’s withdrawal from long distance bus routes in 2013, a year after Arriva decided to operate them commercially. This temporarily thwarted the Welsh Government’s ambition of rebranding them as part of the TrawsCymru network.

“We can’t continue with a system that sees services stopping because the bus company no longer runs,” said Jones. We have to have a better system, and there’ll be an opportunity to have one in two years’ time.”

Pressed on bus funding, he said: “We are considering, as part of the budget process, what’s appropriate in terms of the Bus Services Support Grant.”

The Welsh Government set the total BSSG budget at twenty five percent lower than the BSOG (Bus Service Operators Grant), which BSSG replaced in 2013. It has not increased to reflect inflation since then.

Jones continued: “Many, many times, bus companies have collapsed and their services have had to be replaced. The question must be asked as to whether that’s a sustainable system, to have bus companies that don’t seem to be able to make a go of it – not all; some do well, of course – and the subsequent gap that leaves, however temporary, for the users of those services.”

He said many services needed subsidy, which wasn’t the Conservatives’ intention when they privatised buses. “They were meant to be in competition with each other. There are very few parts of Wales with any kind of competition. It tends to be one company operating the service under a public subsidy. We have to examine how effective that is in the future. Some of them have been effective, and some of them have clearly not been effective. But, after 2018, there’ll be the opportunity to reassess how bus services are provided across the entire country.”

The latest package of powers being devolved includes registration of bus services but no specific powers for regulation or franchising. Passenger Transport asked the government whether Jones had confused registration and regulation. A spokesman replied: “Under the current conferred powers model of devolution in Wales, transport facilities and services are devolved except for the registration of local bus services, and the application and enforcement of traffic regulation conditions in relation to those services and matters relating to licences and insurance for drivers.”

The functions of the traffic commissioner were not devolved. “This means that the National Assembly already has competence to legislate on some aspects of bus services, but the restrictions of the current competence mean that it has been difficult to make effective legislation without straying outside of competence. It has also restricted the National Assembly’s ability to propose legislation that could restructure the operation of road passenger transport services in Wales.

“The new reserved powers model makes no mention of bus services at all, bringing bus services within the National Assembly’s legislative competence.” He said the widening of this competence was likely to be sufficiently broad for the Assembly to legislate for effective reforms to bus service operation.

Powers to procure the next Wales and Borders rail franchise are due to be devolved early next year, and at the Labour conference this week Jones told WalesOnline: “We want to see how a public organisation could run that instead of it having to be a private company.”

He said the UK Government had told the Welsh Government this would not be possible.

The Welsh Government has also published its programme for the next five years, in which it proposes to “develop a new, not-for-profit rail franchise”. A spokesman explained that the government was “considering a range of models to ensure the best service for the people of Wales”.

A local government insider said the government may have in mind a contract in which profit is capped. It had used this model on a recent highways contract.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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