On the Buses

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Public transport, and especially proposals to reduce it, is one of those things which always arouses strong feelings amongst the public. Particularly in rural areas which ‘enjoy’ a limited and infrequent service where operators rely on a subsidy from the taxpayer to run often near empty buses.

People often tell me it was better in the past and maybe in some cases and some periods it was. Of course transport of any kind is a relatively new concept and Barnsley got its first railway station barely 150 years ago. In 1902 the first trams ran from Smithies to Worsborough and there were bus services in the 1920’s with R. Taylor and Sons operating one 20 and two 14 seater vehicles – Dodge lorries converted to buses by local firm Reynolds Bros.

Fast-forward to the 1970s which some people think of as a golden age and we have the bus services subsidised by South Yorkshire County Council. Not sure how much it would add to the Council Tax to run that service now or whether people would be prepared to pay it. What has changed since the 1970s are working patterns and car ownership. In 1970 52% of households had a car but by 2008 that had risen to 78%. More people work, about 24 million in 1970 to 31 million in 2016 and they also commute much greater distances; furthermore, with our increasingly 24-hour society, far fewer work regular office hours.

Hence the car becomes the preferred mode of transport outside major conurbations. Thinking back to the 1970s I doubt we would have found long-distance commuting by car a viable option. I remember my first car, that triumph of British automotive engineering the Austin 1800. So temperamental was it that each morning I wondered if it was going to start or stubbornly refuse to splutter into life I used to spread sand on the garage floor to absorb the oil, coolant and hydraulic fluid which regularly leaked from every conceivable orifice and were I rash enough to park on a hill I would need both hands to pull its umbrella-stick handbrake tight enough, either that or turn the front wheels into the kerb. It did fifteen miles to the gallon compared to my current and larger car which averages fifty.

Not everyone will agree but I cannot see that simply subsidising services is a viable long-term solution. Subsidies do not make businesses competitive and efficient, rather they become part of the income stream. Anyone supplying goods or services needs an offer people want at a price they are prepared to pay and transport is not in some way exempt from the laws of supply and demand. So there is the challenge. Offer public transport which takes people where and when the want to go and at a price they are prepared to pay.

First published in the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living- September 2016