Bristol bus protest highlights failing public transport in Britain

Workers must demand renationalisation as the first step towards affordability, planning, and the sanity of a socialist economy.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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Several hundred Bristolians gathered yesterday in the rain and cold to vent their anger at the public transport system in Bristol.

Whilst the usual Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) crew were there, along with Labour and LibDem freeloaders, there were many others with homemade placards and no obvious affiliation, driven to protest by personal experience of the chaos on the buses.

There was a wide demographic in attendance, from pensioners to toddlers. The idea for the demo had come from a young mum who had been reduced to feeding her baby at a bus stop thanks to late or non-existent buses. (‘Why I’m organising a mass rally in protest at Bristol’s bus service’ by Tristan Cork, Bristol Post, 17 October 2018)

Speaking to people at the protest, the same complaints came up again and again: the buses were late, they were overcrowded, and crammed together during rush hour.

For some people, late buses mean being late for work and having their bosses on their backs. Others end up ordering taxis to avoid being late, adding considerably to the cost of their daily journeys.

Year on year the bus service worsens in Bristol. More bus routes are closed; the buses that are in service are poor quality; and the drivers themselves are stretched to the bone, creating a huge turnover in staff.

Who can blame drivers for quitting a job for which they receive terrible pay and during the course of which they have to deal with the anger of ‘customers’ who are fed up with the terrible service being delivered?

This problem is not confined to Bristol. All over Britain, workers are desperate for a better-run, better quality and affordable transport service. When buses and trains don’t run on time, ordinary people have no control over their lives; when schedules bear so little relation to reality, they end up having no idea how long a given journey might take.

This chaos, combined with extortionate fares, pushes ever more people into expensive and wasteful private cars, adding to the problems of traffic chaos, air pollution and carbon emissions, making journey times ever longer and more unpredictable, and worsening the health of our cities’ residents in more ways than one.

It is no surprise to people who live there to find out that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared Bristol to be one of the most polluted cities in Britain, with 10 micrograms per cubic metre of fine particle emissions existing in the city’s air – particles that travel deeply into people’s respiratory systems and can lead to health problems. (Bristol among most polluted cities as fine particle emissions travel deep into respiratory systems by Alexander Britton and Press Association, Bristol Live, 2 May 2018)

Meanwhile, in the six months to 30 September, First Group, which describes itself as the “the leading transport operator in the UK and North America”, and which runs Bristol’s bus service, saw its profits increase by 17.9 percent. (First Group half-yearly results, 13 November 2018)

Clearly, that profit has not been reinvested in new buses or routes, nor in maintaining and updating the existing ones. Neither have the company’s drivers received a decent pay rise, despite industrial action in the north west and Scotland over poor pay and conditions. (Support First Manchester striking bus drivers, Solidarity Federation, 23 December 2017)

Instead, the money has been pocketed by private investors whose only concern is the rate of profit and the company’s bottom line. These shareholders owe no allegiance to the hundreds of thousands of workers who require the public transport system to be in good working order in order to be able to lead a dignified life; accountability via the ‘supervising’ councils is zero.

Speakers at the rally proposed a variety of solutions, mostly along the theme of “better regulation”, to be brought about by pressure on the council, and the customary petition went the rounds.

But workers are going to need to do more than beg their ‘elected representatives’ to take a stand if they want to change the present situation, however. Concerted and coordinated action by both drivers and passengers will be required to bring the kind of pressure to bear that cannot be ignored.

Bristol comrades got their leaflet into the hands of everyone at the rally, calling for the buses to be taken into public ownership as the first step in the direction of a planned socialist economy.

We reproduce the text of this leaflet below.

Bring the buses back into public ownership!

Bristol buses are in acute crisis. Every day tens of thousands of workers in the city are expected to put up with buses that are cancelled or delayed with no explanation, buses that are overcrowded when they do arrive, bus arrival times that bear little relationship to what is promised on the timetable, and bus fares that go up and up.

First Bus, the gigantic monopoly that runs the city’s buses, makes lame excuses: the children are back at school, the students are back at college, the council is digging up the road again, etc – all events which can and should be foreseen and planned around in a big city.

The shortage of drivers of which the company complains is hardly surprising given the amount of stress drivers have to go through when dealing with passengers who are themselves reaching snapping point.

Profits vs service

Back in the early 1980s, before bus privatisation, most bus services were either provided by the state-run National Bus Company or were under local control. If things went wrong, at least you knew who to complain to. The privatisation of the buses in 1986 wiped out that accountability at a stroke.

We were promised that privatisation, by cracking open the state monopoly, would promote healthy competition between rival companies, driving down fares and improving services. Instead what followed was a chaotic period of ‘bus wars’, with companies using a wide variety of dirty tricks to push their rivals out of business.

When the dust settled, just five giant companies were left in possession of 70 percent of the British bus market: First, Arriva, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach. What had been sold as the end of ‘bureaucratic state monopoly’ turned out to be the process of handing that monopoly over to the profiteers, who were then free to do as they liked with this essential service.

Having seen off the competition, the way was clear for these gangsters to cherry-pick the profitable routes, cut the unprofitable ones that carry fewer passengers (however important they might be to local communities), and raise fares through the roof.

The winners from bus and rail privatisation have been the wealthy few, who have made an obscene profit; the losers have been the traveling public, who have watched helpless as fares rise and services deteriorate, and the drivers, who bear the brunt of passenger frustration and cost-cutting assaults on their working conditions.

Under socialist state planning, an affordable, integrated public transport system can be run simply on the basis of people’s needs, not private profit. As a first step in this direction, we welcome the demand raised by the organisers of this protest: that buses be brought under council control, leading on to their renationalisation.

Decent public transport for all!