Bus and train fares have gone up for the new year, leading to fears that passengers could desert public transport in favour of their cars. What can be done to make public transport more attractive? STEPHEN LEWIS and CHARLOTTE PERCIVAL report.

REACTION to the news that some bus fares in York are to go up by ten per cent or more was predictable.

"I'd like to think that a ten per cent increase in fares would lead to a corresponding increase in the quality of service," wrote one correspondent to this website. "Until I remembered that ten per cent of nowt is still nowt"

"The service you run is a disgrace, that's why I never use them buses," stormed another.

"Is the rise down to how much money you're throwing at that most obscene of white elephants, ftr?" asked a third.

First, which operates most bus services in York, insists the latest price increases, which come into effect on January 21, are necessary because the company is facing above-inflation rises in operating costs - particularly in relation to staff, insurance and fuel.

With rail fares also rising by more than inflation and the price of petrol falling, the worry is that passengers will be driven off trains and buses back into their cars.

First bosses admit the steady increase in passenger numbers that was seen between 2001 and 2005 has now levelled off.

"While I appreciate there are shareholders to answer to, another fare increase has the potential to hurt First's profit and add to York's traffic issues," warned York Labour councillor Tracey Simpson-Laing.

"Many will now see the car as cheaper for a journey, especially for a family outing."

The last thing a traffic-choked city like York wants is people deserting buses and trains to get back in the car.

So what can be done to make public transport cheaper and more user-friendly?

Both the Labour and Green groups on the city council believe the local authority should have more say on local bus services.

Short of re-regulation (which would effectively mean renationalisation), that would be the best way of ensuring a decent service for passengers, says Green group leader Andy D'Agorne.

"Given the amount of public investment in the bus infrastructure the council makes (on things like bus stops, traffic lights and bus lanes), we should be having more control over what is provided and the changes that are made to bus fares," he said.

Transport chiefs could look at a number of options that for changing the way bus services are run.

The Government is keen for more local authorities to enter into "quality contracts" with bus companies, which would give councils more say over bus services.

There is the possibility of the West Yorkshire Metrocard system being extended to cover York and North Yorkshire.

Or the city council could go for congestion charging, to reduce the number of cars in central York, and make it easier for bus companies to run reliable bus services.

Here, we look at the options...

Do nothing

FIRST and other bus companies are only doing what they were told to do following bus deregulation in 1986, says First commercial director Peter Edwards - providing bus services on a commercial and profitable basis.

Yes, the First group nationally makes healthy profits. But that is what the Government and the company's shareholders expect it to do.

The company has made real investment in York, he said. It spent £11 million on a new fleet of nearly 100 buses in 2001, plus £3 million on 11 new ftr buses last year (with the city council shelling out £1.5 million on road improvements, new bus stops and so-on to accommodate the new super-buses).

The response to the ftr in York hasn't been what the company had hoped for, Mr Edwards admitted.

"We have had difficulties in the local context. I'm not saying it doesn't work at York, but there are a lot of lessons we have taken."

But the ftr was a sign of the company's efforts to improve public transport and make it relevant to today's passengers, he said.

The £11 million investment in a new fleet of buses in 2001, by contrast, had led to a growth in passenger numbers that continued until it flattened out last year.

City transport boss Coun Ann Reid admitted the latest price hike probably would put some people off using the buses.

But she stressed First was a commercial organisation. For the council to have more control over bus fares would need Government legislation, she said.

Quality contracts

THE Government has been trying to encourage local authorities to enter into "quality contracts" with bus companies. These would give councils more say over the frequency and timetabling of buses, and bus fares.

The trouble is, no local authorities have yet entered into such contracts - mainly because they were too complicated, a spokesman for the Department for Transport admitted.

Last month, the Government published proposals to make it easier for councils to sign such contracts. The measures, which have yet to be finalised, will be included in the Road Transport Bill expected to be published this year.

The Greens in York are keen for the council to enter into such a contract, to give city leaders greater control over bus services in the city.

Bus fares did not go up this year on Park&Ride, Coun Andy D'Agorne said, precisely because Park&Ride is subsidised by the council and so the council has more say.

Why not extend that model to all bus services in York?

Coun Reid is not convinced. Such a contract may give the council more control over fares and routes, she said. But if a bus operator said it could not provide a service at the fare the council wanted, it would be the council - and ultimately the taxpayer - that picked up the tab.

Mr Edwards agreed. Buses would still have to be paid for, he said - whether it was through increased fares or increased council tax if the council subsidised fares under a "quality contract".

Congestion charging

ONE of the main problems in providing a reliable bus service in York is the amount of congestion on the streets, says Mr Edwards.

If there were fewer cars and lorries, it would be easier to run buses that were always on time.

That would make more people want to take the bus, which would mean more bus services could be laid on.

So congestion charging in York would make the bus companies' job easier?

"Of course it would."

So will York's Lib Dems consider it?

Er no.

"I think the affect on the city's economy if we did it in isolation would be profound," said Coun Reid. "I think we have had a good record up to now of keeping congestion down."


THERE has been talk of extending the Metrocard system run in West Yorkshire to York and North Yorkshire.

Under the scheme, travellers can buy a weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly travel ticket that allows unrestricted travel in the region on buses, or else buses and trains.

A weekly bus Metrocard costs £16.50 for adults, £6.75 for children. A Metrocard allowing travel on buses and trains across all five rail "zones" in the county costs £25.50 for adults, £14.50 for students.

The system, run by the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (PTE), has kept rail fares in West Yorkshire cheaper, according to York Green Party leader Andy D'Agorne.

There would be some benefits to joining such a scheme, agreed Coun Ann Reid. But it would mean losing some local control over transport - and would also require a cash subsidy from the council.

"At the moment, we're the masters of our own fate," she said. "We draw up a Local Transport Plan and get a grant and can deal with it how we see fit. If we went in to the PTE, it would be them who would do the transport planning. We'd have to balance our needs against other authorities' needs."


Bus fare increases

THE cost of many First bus fares in York will rise by ten per cent or more from January 21 - though some First fares will be unaffected.

First single, return, say and weekly tickets will go up - though Park&Ride fares, which are subsidised by the council, will be frozen. Arriva, which operates buses between York and Selby, is also putting up prices.

Rail fare increases

THE PRESS revealed just over a week ago that rail fares out of York were to rise by up to 5.5 per cent.

That means an extra £3.10 for a GNER saver return to London (up to £75.10) and an extra 35p (up from £7.05 to £7.40) for a Northern Rail standard day return to Harrogate.

GNER spokesman John Gelson said today customers could take advantage of greatly reduced rail fares if they booked their tickets in advance and were prepared to travel at off peak times.

If more passengers did that, he said, it would help to iron out the peak-time surge in demand and ensure train capacity was used much more efficiently.

"We regularly monitor travel costs by alternative means and we are often cheaper," he added. "Our cheapest fare from York to London, booked online, is £19 return - that's only five pence per mile. Compare that with the cost of driving to, and parking in, the capital."

But the best way of making rail travel more affordable, said Ian Yeowart, of York-based Grand Central, which plans to start running trains to London this year, is to increase competition.

"In any free market economy, competition drives price and quality," he said. "The railways need more of it so that passengers feel the benefit."