Fare's fair in bus wars?

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Bus wars are raging in Preston as rival operators battle head to head. But this is nothing new – other cities in the North West have seen suffering on the streets as the rivals go head-to-head.

"It is absolute chaos. Nothing has moved for at least an hour and even the police turning up has done nothing."

These words may sound like something from another infamous M6 snarl-up, but they are the words of a taxi driver trying to battle his way through Manchester city centre a year ago.

He was trying to get through Piccadilly Gardens at the height of the city's "bus wars" when Stagecoach and rival operator UK North went head-to-head for a lucrative route.

The result was massive traffic congestion for anyone braving the roads, drivers scrapping with each other in the streets and a few near-misses with pedestrians coming close to being caught up in the middle of the feud which took 11 months to settle.

And now the same problems could be motoring their way towards Preston with Stagecoach three weeks into its two new inter-city routes putting it in direct competition with Preston Bus.

"Manchester was an absolute nightmare," remembers John Moorhouse of regional watchdog Travelwatch North West. "And this is what happens when you have no regulation over local transport.

"It really is a free-for-all in this country. All you need to do is give 30 days notice and you can run a route wherever you like, regardless of who is operating in that area.

"Manchester's 'bus wars' were concentrated on a single route (the number 192) and then it spread to other routes and that is exactly what is happening in Preston.

"The authorities seem to be taking the same 'wait and see' approach as they did in Manchester and that means things will probably get worse before they get better."

And it does appear that it is still early days in this battle with Preston Bus starting its services to Penwortham, Longridge and the day-tripper to Southport on Monday and Stagecoach due to bring in two new routes to Fulwood, via Plungington Road and Deepdale Road, on July 29.

Add to that the 33 route to Tanterton, which Stagecoach has registered to start at the end of August, and you have a lot of buses on Preston's already clogged-up roads.

Transport expert Aiden Turner-Bishop, branch secretary for watchdog Transport 2000 in the city, has already started to see the effects and believes one of the implications of Preston Bus being driven off the road could be the arrival of a new transport giant joining the fray.

He said: "If Stagecoach did 'win' and Preston Bus, which is an employee-owned co-operative sold out, there is no guarantee that Stagecoach would take them over, especially if Transdev or Arriva is hovering in the background.

"I have ridden the new services and what struck me was the congestion on New Hall Lane, especially at peak periods, and the difficulty both firms must have maintaining schedules."

The one thing all commentators seem to be certain about is that once a "winner" is declared, the introductory fare prices enjoyed today by passengers of both operators will rocket.

Bus users in Lancaster witnessed exactly that when Stagecoach flexed its national operator muscles against Lancaster City Transport in 1993, leading to a takeover of the smaller fish.

If Preston Bus comes out on top, it would be a knock-out blow for a smaller operator and one thing seems certain – they are not giving up without a fight.

The expert view is that the only answer is regulation.

But, with the current regional Transport Commissioner and highways authority, Lancashire County Council, just keeping "a watching brief" over the situation in Preston, it is going to take some decisive movement for that to happen.

In the longer term, campaigners hope a new Local Transport Bill, which is working its way through Parliament as a white paper, could be the answer to giving the power back to people on the ground.

"That suggests setting up London-style passenger transport authorities outside the old metro counties with responsibility for regulating and developing bus services and public transport like the regional systems in Germany or France," said Mr Turner-Bishop.

"I feel we need such an authority in Lancashire, covering all the unitary and county council areas."

Mr Moorhouse said: "We support anything which gives power back to authorities who are on the ground and not those who are watching from outside and not able to react to what is going on. Unfortunately, this has just started to go through parliament and these things take a lot of time – so it looks as if we may have to grin and bear it for a while."

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