Bus Special: Getting a fare deal

WITH four out of five bus services across the county unsubsidised, most fares are set by the operators. Only on the Huntingdon-Cambridge route are there genuinely competing services, though standard fares will be agreed between the three operators – Hunti

WITH four out of five bus services across the county unsubsidised, most fares are set by the operators.

Only on the Huntingdon-Cambridge route are there genuinely competing services, though standard fares will be agreed between the three operators - Huntingdon & District, Whippet and Stagecoach - when the guided bus route opens early in 2009.

Elsewhere, operators have a virtual monopoly, because it would be commercial madness to compete for so few passengers on rural routes.

However, this leaves some fares relatively high - especially for people who earn the £5.35 minimum wage.

In Cambridge, Stagecoach managing director Andy Campbell has promised to cut fares if more people use his buses, according to Glenn Edge, Cambridgeshire County Council's head of passenger transport.

"H&D and Whippet might well do the same, but I haven't asked them yet," he told The Hunts Post.

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The county does, however, spend £1.5million a year subsidising the other 20 per cent of services and community transport schemes. In those cases, it does have an influence on fare levels.

The economics of public transport are more complicated than one might think. With a new single-decker costing £100,000 and a double-decker £160,000, a full bus is not necessarily a profitable bus. Only if the operator can fill the vehicle with fare-paying passengers for most of the day - or if the county council shares the operating cost through subsidy - is it worth having bought the bus in the first place.

The county is about to make a bid to Government for £500million for sweeteners in advance of the introduction of congestion charging in the city of Cambridge in a few years' time. Part of that money will be targeted on areas such as west Huntingdonshire, Sawtry and Somersham in a bid to increase use of public transport, improve access for vulnerable people and get others out of their cars.

Cambridgeshire is one of only two areas of England outside central London where bus usage has been consistently on the rise for many years.

Mr Edge said: "If we get the money, it will still be a question of how we can get the best value - not just in money terms but in social terms, as well."

But there is also scope for helping marginally profitable commercial services to become more popular, H&D's managing director Dennis Upton believes. Schemes that involve pump-priming increased usage with county council subsidies could benefit everyone, he said.

"If the county and the operator share the risk, there's no reason why we should not also share the increased revenue, with some of the subsidy going back to the council," he said.

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