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?
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.
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?
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!