Local residents and a local councillor recently highlighted the difference in price for bus fares in Portsmouth and Southampton, raising the issue of local public transport fast becoming unaffordable. The national picture is no better. Esti Chivite and Paris Ali-Pilling report.
On 16th January, members of Portsmouth Politics – a local political discussion group on Facebook – posted about the disparity between bus fares charged by First Bus in Portsmouth and Southampton.
For Portsmouth residents, single and return bus tickets are variable depending on where you are going, a day ticket is £4.50 and a weekly pass is £18.
For Southampton residents, a single is £2, a return is £3, a day ticket is £3.50 and a weekly pass is £9.
Councillor Cal Corkery, Labour councillor for Charles Dickens ward, asked First Group on Twitter about the difference in price.
‘How can such a difference for cities just 18 miles apart be justified? If we want people to use public transport it has to be affordable for them to do so.’
First Portsmouth replied to Cllr Corkery on Twitter, stating, ‘Our fares are reviewed periodically to ensure that we can provide the best value service for our customers whilst meeting the changing costs in the business.
‘We work hard to keep our prices as low as possible, but above-inflation costs incurred due to changes in the industry will lead to some inevitable fluctuation.’
Two Twitter users expressed dissatisfaction with the response from First Buses when answering Cllr Corkery’s post.
‘That’s not really answering the question or addressing the point,’ said one, while another Twitter user commented, ‘It’s even more expensive in Gosport. I genuinely can’t afford to use the bus anymore for any journey. Often [if] there’s more than 3 of you traveling it’s cheaper to get a taxi.’
We contacted First Buses about the price difference and highlighted the response from First Portsmouth on Twitter. In a statement, First Bus explained that they normally would not comment on prices in this way:
First Bus businesses across the UK transport more than 1.4 million passengers every day. To cope with the volume of service enquiries in an efficient and consistent way, our customer helpline and digital feedback channels are managed from a single centralised customer service team based in Leeds. Normally, questions on fares policy are referred to a specialist team rather than responded to through social media. It appears on this occasion this process was not followed. Our customer service team is committed to providing the highest standards of customer service, and will review this matter to identify opportunities for further improvement.
In its Annual report on bus statistics 2018/19, the government’s Department for Transport (DfT) explains that:
The majority of bus services in England are provided by private companies since deregulation of the industry in 1986 in England outside London. Services can be operated on a purely commercial basis or with financial support from local authorities (supported services)…There are two broad passenger types: concessionary and non-concessionary passengers. Concessionary passengers are either older or disabled people or young people in local authorities where such discretionary travel schemes exist.
Statistics in the DfT report show local bus fares in England have increased by 71% between 2005 and 2019.
Yet the high bus prices do not seem to be caused by a lack of profitability for the bus operators. Research published in 2017 by We Own It (a campaign against the privatisation and for public ownership of public services) revealed the amount of money paid regularly to shareholders of the biggest bus companies: Arriva, Stagecoach, First, Go-Ahead, and National Express.
The report states the total amount paid to shareholders in dividends averages £181 million per year, ‘more than double the amount of money that has been cut from local authority supported bus funding since 2010. These cuts, amounting to £78 million a year, have been blamed as the cause of 2,400 bus routes disappearing in England and Wales alone. Meanwhile bus fares have doubled in real terms since buses were deregulated and privatised in the 1980s.’
The research reports the South East pays the most, ‘with at least £48.7 million a year being siphoned off as dividends to the parent company…The total leaked out of the system over the last ten years stands at a whopping £1.81 billion.’
S&C have also asked First Bus Group for comment on the price difference between bus tickets in Portsmouth and Southampton and will report back on any response received.