Monday, May 31, 2010

Keeping the public in public transportation

One of the best things about our transportation system in Metro Vancouver is that it is managed by one regional agency: TransLink. No matter what form of public transportation you take and no matter where you are in the region, there is one fare system and one coordinated network. People from all over the world come to see how well this model works. Another good thing about our system is that it is publicly owned. This allows for more emphasis to be given to safety, accessibility, and overall transportation policy. I’ll get back to that point in a moment, but first I wanted to use Scotland as an example of confusing public private transportation.

Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and has a population that is similar to Metro Vancouver. Up until 1986 all public transportation was operated and owned by SPT, the regional transportation authority. Margaret Thatcher decided to privatize bus service at that time, so today “essentially anyone with a bus and a public service vehicle license can set up as a bus operator. All they need to do is register the route they want to operate with the Traffic Commissioner. There are about 100 different bus operators running services within the Strathclyde area.” The kicker is that the public agency still needs to run subsidized bus service to cover service gaps in the private network. They also maintain all bus stops and bus stations. The public is stuck with the cost centers while the private operates get to make the cash. Taking a bus can be very difficult as each bus operator set its own fare and regional transit passes from SPT work on most, but not all buses. The system certainly works, but it is less than ideal. Privatized and deregulated rail was an even bigger boondoggle.

In 1994 the Conservative government decided to completely privatize the British Rail network. All the private operators formed a company called Railtrack that looked after rail infrastructure, capital projects, and timetable coordination. Under the private company, rail infrastructure was not renewed as it should have been and on-time performance declined. There were three fatal rail accidents in 1997, 1999, and 2000 that caused the Labour government to buy back Railtrack from the private sector and essentially nationalize the rail system again. Network Rail which is a “private” company (much like BC Ferries is a “private” company) now operates the rail system. Back under public control, safety has improved, on-time performance has improved, and infrastructure is being renewed as all of Network Rail’s debt is guaranteed by the federal government. Private operators still own the rolling stock and provide end-user service, but the services are coordinated under the National Rail brand.

When it comes to natural monopolies, it makes sense to have public control or strong regulation. Image if every road in BC was owned by a different company with its own rules. We are lucky in Metro Vancouver to have a public body that can look after our transportation system in a coordinated manner. Certainly having private operators is not an issue (Canada Line, Golden Ears Bridge, Community Shuttles in Langley), but completely privatizing, deregulating, and split up our transportation system would be a fatal mistake if the UK is any indication.

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