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Does competition work with buses?

Does competition work with buses?

Are there enough passengers to support long-term, sustainable competition between bus operators? I doubt it. Even if there are enough passengers, is head to head competition beneficial for passengers?

An improvement?

I live in Southampton where First and Go Ahead have been in a bus war for decades – even their predecessors were fighting against each other. Has this bus war seen improvements for passengers? Not really.

Don’t get me wrong, things have improved – gone are the wet, cold and leaking Bristol VRs and Atlanteans* and we now have on-board features such as USB chargers and superfast free WiFi – but did these enhancements come about because of competition? I doubt it.

Take a look around many towns and cities across the UK and you’ll see these types of improvements.

What has changed?

Over the past few years we have seen a contraction in the number of routes being operated by First, who have always been the biggest operator of city routes.

They have moved from a variety of routes running at various frequencies to a core network of super frequent bus routes – which have been branded as Southampton’s CITYREDS. You can see the contrast very clearly in the two network maps below.

The First network as it looked in 2009
First Southampton's bus network as of February 2017
First Southampton’s bus network as of February 2017

Bluestar’s city network, on the other hand, has grown with three new stars joining the network. Routes 16 and 17 have all been introduced in competition against parts of the First network.

Bluestar introduced route 7 after First revised the route of their 9 around Sholing – bringing Bluestar back into Woolston after they changed their route 3 to run a slightly quicker route into Bitterne – much to my annoyance as it was one of my local routes!

The simplified approach that First have opted for does seem to have worked for them – passenger numbers seem to be on the up but has it driven those on the periphery to go back to their cars?

On-board enhancements

As with buses up and down the country, especially those operating in large towns or cities, Southampton’s buses have seen major improvements.

The fleets of both operators have been renewed over the past five years – gone are First’s ancient Darts with their cramped and uncomfortable seating and in their place are a fleet of brand new leather seated Streetlites (okay, they’re not my favourite buses either, but they’re a vast improvement over the Darts).

Bluestar have steadily replaced their Cadet darts on the 18s with brand new high back seated Enviro 200 MMCs with USB chargers and free WiFi – allowing displaced Citaros to run on the 7, 16 and 17. A big step forward and should help to get people out of their cars and on to their buses, but is it enough?

Do you think Southampton’s bus network has benefitted from competition? Has competition worked where you are? Let me know in the comments below.

On a side note, you really should try the Enviro 400 MMCs on Bluestar’s 1 (Southampton | Chandler’s Ford | Winchester) – they must be the highest spec buses in Hampshire with Esteban Relax seating, USB chargers and free WiFi.

* Okay, I know that bus enthusiasts would prefer an Atlantean over an Enviro 200 MMC or a Streetlite, but they’re an improvement for most passengers!


  • Sooo, competition…

    Between operators, the answer is easy – if they’re still in business after many years, then they must be making a profit, so there must be enough fare-paying passengers to allow that to happen, and the services they provide must be benefiting enough passengers to be profitable.

    And as long as the networks of competing operators overlap, and don’t only just duplicate each other, then there will be enough passengers to sustain competition.

    Is competition beneficial to the people of Southampton as a whole though?

    The only measure of benefit is really convenience. Are the competing networks convenient enough for most people to travel to most places in the city without having to walk more than 1/4 mile to their nearest bus stop, wait more than 10 minutes for a bus, change buses more than once to complete their journey, and buy more than one ticket to do so?

    If not, or if the convenience of use has not at least increased over the years, then competition will not have benefited passengers. But even if it has, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

    As an impartial observer from afar for a number of years, there still appear to be enough gaps in the current network that either the existing operators could expand into, or which could potentially support a third commercial network comprising at least 4-5 frequent routes linking key destinations that are currently hard to travel between (except by car of course).

    As for myself, I’ve only even been to the city by train, and visited the city centre on foot, although I did once catch the bus from Town Quay to Central Station.

  • I think more partnership between the operators would benefit passengers – for instance: being able to use either operators tickets on the services (without opting for the more expensive SolentGo all-operator ticket).

    In terms of access to bus routes, I live in Woolston and my local stop (about 3 mins walk away) gets a bus every 30 minutes (hourly Saturdays, no evening or Sunday buses) or I can walk for 15 mins to the centre of Woolston for a bus every 2 minutes (mon-sat, every 7 or so Sundays).

    If I want to go to Central Station (quite a popular destination, one would assume) I have to wait for specific buses (First’s 3 or Bluestar’s 7), whereas if I could use my day ticket on all routes I’d be able to catch the next available bus, with a change in the town centre (which would allow me to grab a drink or breakfast en route to the station).

    It’s worth noting however that there’s hardly any competition in Woolston – Bluestar only run 2 of the 30 buses every hour with all of the others being operated by First. So even without head-to-head competition we still have it pretty good!

    I agree with your analysis that there are some gaps that could (should?) be filled – if there was more partnership between the operators maybe those gaps would be filled?

    I also think the council should play their part – adding more bus priority etc.

  • Well, there’s always potential for partnerships, but they don’t always work as intended.

    The will has to be there, as does the management, as with most things, so I guess it depends how open (or not) the council and the bus companies would be open to such a thing.

    The Solent Go ticket is useful. Does whoever sells it keep all the revenue? If so, in theory could an operator could sell it at a discount instead of having their own day ticket?

    Although, Woolston sounds a little overbussed, your closest route clearly needs a bit of competition as it seems a little neglected!

  • I’m not sure how the SolentGo revenue is distributed but would assume there are rules preventing one operator offering a discount. I’m not aware of there ever being a discounted version, in its current guise or as the Solent Travelcard, its predecessor.

    Woolston isn’t overbussed, in my opinion – most buses leave the main stops with a decent load on board. If anything certain frequencies should be increased – particularly the first and last buses of the day which are often full and standing.

    Regarding partnerships, I think there would be sufficient will from both main operators (and their management and/or shareholders) if it led to increased profit margins! I think the smallest operators could also benefit.

  • So, are you thinking of sounding out anyone about the feasibility of creating a Southampton Bus Partnership and what its objectives could be?

  • Indeed it is probably is.

    Happily, although you’d never know it, one already exists, or at least the council has a copy of an agreement for one dated 2011, as well as 150-page transport plan (just search on Google).

    So it looks like all you need to do is ask your local councillor what’s happened to it, and keep asking awkward questions until you’re given a firm commitment to do something (or do nothing).

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