Saturday, 15 December 2012

Better by far (than a Quality Bus Contract)

A new arrival in our library this week is Better by Far. Those who follow public transport in the North East will know a major topic by Nexus in 2012 is the investigation into whether a Quality Bus Contract should be developed in Tyne & Wear and beyond. Nexus have the powers to do this, if they do it, it will be pretty much a first. It has led to heated debate in the papers (work back through the blog). On Wednesday night I attended a presentation by Nexus about the idea made to the Prudhoe Community Partnership Transport Working Group. Everyone remained very polite and pleasant but the fault lines were evident. In addition to Nexus and local folk there was representation from Go North East, Northumberland County Council and in a private capacity as a resident, the Metrocentre's Sustainable Transport Manager.

Key points made from the Nexus side. The QBC will remove the free market within the Nexus boundaries, the Tyne & Wear ITA will receive fare revenue and reinvest it in the system, in January 2013 the Tyne & Wear councillors who make up the ITA are likely to decide whether to pursue a contract or a voluntary partnership with operators.

Currently some 90%+ of the Tyne and Wear bus network runs commercially. The rest is specified and tendered by the PTE. This means most of the network is not a burden on the tax payer (unlike the Metro and local rail). Operators can with six weeks notice vary the network and they do in response to changing markets and community requests.

This flexibility will be lost with a QBC and an additional layer of bureaucracy which somehow has to be paid for inserted. Will there be money to reinvest or will we outside Tyne & Wear be dragged into paying for the massively loss making Metro which is entirely inside Tyne & Wear? On these grounds alone I am far more persuaded of the value of Partnerships as this booklet develops. But there is more to it than that.

Tyne & Wear is unusual. Only a relatively limited amount of the network remains within its boundaries. Some 60% I think crosses outside into Northumberland, Durham, even to Tees-side and Cumbria. The current Nexus plan takes this all over and the legislation allows that. So in Prudhoe on the boundary with Gateshead, the 10 group, the 686 and 684, all our stage services would become Nexus ones. Maybe we would then get proper bus stops. Perhaps. That is a good thing but is it a price worth paying?

At present the QBC will be run by a new board and we heard tell that one member would represent Durham and Northumberland. Even if it is one each, it is no good. Northumberland and Durham cannot become bit actors to Tyne and Wear and billed for the result. I very much hope (and I think that I believe this) that wisdom will follow and that a major fracas between three authorities will be avoided.

Is there any good to this debate? Not much I feel; it has become a huge diversion from a much more important one: who runs the North-East's rail network after 2014? Perhaps the good that will come from all this is that Nexus and neighbouring authorities will accept that Nexus cannot avoid regional relationships but that the proper area to show leadership on this is with the rail services run out of Heaton depot in the centre of Nexus land.

Somewhere someone from Nexus has rather dismissively said of my comments that rail travel only represents 1% of public transport use in Tyne & Wear. Do I believe that? Even if it were true should it be true? Did that figure include or exclude the Metro? Do not Washington and Ashington deserve to be on the rail network? Any thoughts?

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