Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Happy Birthday

Yesterday was a very important day - deregulation was 29 years old.

26th October 1986 was the day.  I'd love to say I remember it well but actually nothing much happened in my world.

I was a mere thirteen year old living in the sleepy Bedfordshire town of Shefford at the time.  I was certainly interested in Buses and just becoming a regular reader of BUSES magazine, so I was fascinated by all these stories about dramatic bus wars in other parts of the country, but in mid-Beds a kind of phoney war was underway.

The main routes through Shefford were the 181 and 182 from Bedford to Hitchin, operated by United Counties.  Each running hourly, they combined to form a roughly half hourly frequency for most of the route.  Every day I went to school in Bedford along the same route on a private contract also operated by United Counties - route 946, which later became 846 for some reason.  The buses and drivers came from Biggleswade depot, a satellite of the much bigger Bedford operation.

Indeed I found this image lurking on the internet of part of a duty card for a duty which did these very routes - and even though it was from about 15 years later, it brought the memories flooding back.  (At deregulation the duty cards were still handwritten - imagine that! - and I used to try to sneak a glance of the driver's duty while queuing to board the bus, if he had left it in a suitably prominent position.  I was certainly never brave enough to ask.)

Photo credit:  hamster on flickr.  Used without permission, but in the hope that the photographer doesn't mind!  
The parents' association that organised the bus had done a deal that we could travel on 181 and 182 at other times for quarter of the adult fare.  The adult fare at the time was something like 88p and we quickly worked out most drivers didn't really understand what our passes meant, so we convinced them that we were actually entitled to quarter of the half fare - so most bus rides outside of school times cost me 11p.  A few drivers knew the rules and wouldn't fall for it, but most did.  Of course we thought this was a great coup - only later in life have I realised how often this kind of thing occurs.  So there you have my confession of being a 13-year old fare dodger.

Of the two routes, the 181 was by far the most fun because it went through the US Air Force base at Chicksands.  The Cold War was still very much in progress so we had to pass through security checkpoints at both ends of the base, adding a real sense of adventure to each trip.  Chicksands was very exciting because it had this...

Photo credit:  ftva.org

Known by everyone in the area as the "Fairy Lights", this cool contraption is actually a AN/FLR-9 HF antenna used to intercept Russian signals - one of only nine in the world at the time.  Of course we didn't know then what it was or what it was for, but rumours were that it did pretty important stuff - and at over a quarter of a mile in diameter, you could see it for miles around.

Of course as happy-go-lucky teenagers my friends and I really had no concept of the significance of this landmark, even though we knew it was pretty big in every sense, but to have such a thing only a mile from home and to go through the base that housed it every time we went to Bedford on the bus was beyond cool.

The buses themselves were pretty much wall-to-wall Bristol VRs, with just the occasional Leyland National.  As 1986 morphed into 1987, they started appearing in the first post-privatisation livery, as seen in this photo (although this was not one of ours - Bedford and Biggleswade buses had a light blue fleet number plate as I recall):

Photo credit:  Richard on flickr.  Used without permission, but in the hope that the photographer doesn't mind!

Three or four times a day something mysterious and exotic would appear in Shefford, being a Luton & District Leyland National on the village route 78 and 79 from Luton.

Photo credit:  leylandbus on flickr.  Used without permission, but in the hope that the photographer doesn't mind!
At the time, Dad worked in Luton so occasionally we'd have reason to go there to visit his work, and we would often go to football there, but I wasn't old enough and had no reason to go there on my own so their buses remained a thing of mystery and wonder until I was given my independence a year or two later.

Shopping trips to Bedford revealed even more variety.  The minibus revolution was well underway and "Street Shuttle" routes were sprouting all over Bedford, while the trunk 101 suburban route was the home of a fleet of Routemasters.  But sadly these remained slightly out of reach and I never did get to ride on them (not that I'm a Routemaster fan, but it would have been nice, and I can't resist a decent breadvan.)

Photo credit:  tsmj53 on flickr.  Used without permission, but in the hope that the photographer doesn't mind!
Photo credit: David on flickr.  Used without permission, but in the hope that the photographer doesn't mind!
Shopping trips in the other direction would yield the sight of more Luton & District Leyland Nationals running round Hitchin, and an occasional London Country Leyland National going to far off places such as St Albans and Welwyn Garden City.

But the essence of deregulation - competition - didn't really happen around me, so it was something that I read about in the magazines and all felt very strange and distant.  It wasn't until I started travelling round independently in my mid-teens and particularly when I finally joined the industry working for Buffalo Travel in 1991 that I really began to experience deregulation in any meaningful sense.

The fact that I was only thirteen when deregulation occurred is something that I have often used to tease those much older and wiser than me, prompting expressions of horror and anguish, only smoothed over by the offer of a pint - but then usually followed by a string of superb stories about the bus industry of yesteryear.  Now I find myself sharing offices with people who weren't even born when I started in the bus industry - never mind deregulation - and the boot is very firmly on the other foot!

But as a child of deregulation and one who has grown up knowing no different and enjoying all the freedoms it offers, you would probably expect me to spring to the defence of this threatened system. And you'd be right.  I follow the European transport scene with interest, and it is clear to me that deregulation has allowed a level of innovation and creative thinking far beyond anything that has been achieved in many comparable nations.

In my current employer I am proud to represent an organisation that has done more than perhaps any to take deregulation by the scruff of its neck, understand what it's all about and take full advantage of the freedoms it offers to deliver vast improvements in the service offered to customers.  And that is a good moment to say that the comments that follow are my personal views rather than necessarily the official position of my employer.

But for all its many benefits, the system hasn't been without its problems.  In some places, operators have been so busy fighting battles with each other (and their own accountants) that they've forgotten the customer and although the model theoretically deals with that by inviting better performing operators into the market, the reality hasn't always been quite like that.

I'm pragmatic about these things, and I feel very strongly that transport is a tool of economic and social development rather than something that exists for its own sake.  If the transport system is not working to the benefit of the people it purports to serve, it achieves nothing.  So of course it is important not to design a transport system that works in isolation of those that depend on it either as a mode of travel or as a way to facilitate wider objectives.

It is clear to me that planning authorities have a legitimate need for predictability and stability to enable them to create a framework for planning, employment, environmental and social development.

But just as the unfettered activities of the free market are not without their problems, a system that is wholly planned based on the whims of politicians or local authority officers is even worse.  Selling bus travel is fundamentally a retail activity no different to running a shop.  Customers make their buying decisions based on emotion, perception and convenience.   Provide attractive products at times, places and prices that appeal to their emotions and they will buy more.  Force them to use an artificially conceived rigid system, based on an academic view of what is good for them, and they will rebel and buy less (and almost certainly buy more car travel instead).

This is not a time for extreme, entrenched positions.  Instead there is an opportunity to move forward based on collaboration and a genuine attempt to understand the sometimes conflicting needs of all those who have an interest in the successful performance of the transport network.

The bus industry needs to recognise this and be on the front foot in coming up with solutions that preserve our important right to be able to innovate and respond to customers' needs, while giving authorities the reassurance that they are not at risk of their bus network being ripped up and taken away at eight weeks' notice.

In the past, I believe the industry has sometimes been guilty of being negative and reactive - opposed to any form of change suggested by others while unwilling to put forward positive ideas of its own.  I don't think the industry is there any more - I'd like to think that we now realise that if we don't take the driving seat in plotting our own future, someone else will do it for us.

We will never again see Iveco 49.10s or Routemasters gracing the streets of Bedford in regular service, but in their time they were innovative and exciting and captured people's imagination.  I hope that the next twenty nine years will bring just as many opportunities to do clever and creative things that excite and inspire travellers.

And of course, I hope we never need to bring the Fairy Lights out of retirement!

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