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Railwatch 068 - July 1996

The Trojan Horse

A bus company which has taken over South West Trains has spent thousands of pounds trying to rubbish the exciting project to re-create an East-West rail link across the middle of England. Despite the fact that local rail campaigners have proved time and again that buses are no substitute for trains, Stagecoach is trying to kill off the rail project.

The bus company which has made a fortune out of the discredited policy of bus deregulation would rather ensure that public transport users had only one option - to go on its buses. It has published a series of local paper advertisements, trying to undermine the rail case. It wants a public subsidy to run an express coach on the same route.

But it fails to mention that bus companies already get a virtual free ride, paying only 20% of their "track costs" while trains pay at least 60% of their track costs.

One of Stagecoach's specialities as a bus operator has been to squeeze out rival bus companies. And there were grave misgivings when Stagecoach was allowed to take over the running of trains. When the company took over the local bus service in Bedford, it slashed evening and weekend services and they have never been reinstated. Comfortable double-decker buses were replaced by cramped single-deckers which were difficult to board. Timetables stopped being displayed at bus stops.

It was just this sort of action that made BR's train service seem so good. Compared to buses, trains were regular, reliable and comfortable. In many areas people switched from buses to trains.

Buses may be the cheap option and there are officials in the Department of Transport busily promoting them at the expense of rail. But people like trains and they will not be happy with the inferior "product". Most of the councils which took part in the original East-West rail study are supporting a phase 2 investigation which may cost £150,000. Unlike Stagecoach, the councils realise that there is little prospect of running a reliable bus service on congested roads.

But it is clear that Stagecoach will be doing its best to undermine the case for rail. What is even more disturbing is that Stagecoach is likely to bid for North London Railways which currently operates the Bedford-Bletchley line. This would be at the centre of any restored East-West rail link. A union official who crossed swords with Stagecoach when it took over Ribble Buses describes the company as "ruthless".

"When we were part of the National Bus Company, there were reasonable pay and conditions," said Judith Jackson. "But Stagecoach wants to make every buck they can. We battled against them but were on a loser. This is all going to happen on the railways. It's started now."

Economist Will Hutton predicted that when Stagecoach took over rail services, it would cut wages, staff numbers and conditions of employment "as it has done with other acquisitions". He warned: "A new world of unmanned, dangerous stations beckons along with an army of contractualised, unskilled workers."

Stagecoach Holdings has been referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission more times than any other British firm. Its actions have been described as predatory, deplorable, and against the public interest. The Office of Fair Trading has investigated it 24 times. One bus company squeezed out by Stagecoach in the Cambridge area appealed to the Government to investigate the behaviour of "large predatory operators".

Some hope!

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