John Wylde: ‘Coach operators need top maintain safety standards’

Buses like this local one in Italy tend to be well maintained. Coaches, however, can be found wanting, with less reputable operators more ready to take a risk.
Buses like this local one in Italy tend to be well maintained. Coaches, however, can be found wanting, with less reputable operators more ready to take a risk.

All vehicles on the road are subject to periodic inspections for their road-worthiness. Large heavy vehicles are liable to be stopped for ‘spot inspections’ at any time, and woe betide the people whose vehicles are found to have dangerous faults.

Buses and coaches are subject to particularly close scrutiny for safety items. The European Traffic Police Network has recently issued a cautionary note to say that 500 buses have been taken off the road in a co-ordinated cross-border operation which involved European buses travelling in 27 countries.

Considering the number of buses operating in Europe, which must be huge, this seems to indicate a generally high level of maintenance, and probably involved coaches (rather than buses) operated by a small number of less reputable operators who are always ready to take a risk.

While coaches are usually operated by small firms, buses are often the responsibility of large companies, and these have strict maintenance regimes. Small operators with just a few buses still usually manage to keep to a high standard.

A recent television programme highlighted some of the faults found in heavy goods vehicles, however, and some of these were quite frightening.

As a correspondent pointed out to me, just a few rogues get the large majority of responsible operators a bad name.

On the rails, East Coast have recently reported a profit of more than £6 million. This will please the Government, because it will help to boost the bids from the operators who hope to win the new franchise to start early next year.

These are First Group, who currently operate Scotrail, Trans-Pennine and Great Western; Stagecoach/Virgin, who operate West Coast, East Midlands and South-West Trains; and Eurostar/Keolis, in effect SNCF (French National Railways).

The winner will be the one which offers to make the largest contribution to the Treasury, and to help it along, the Government will be allowing them to make as many economies in their operation as possible.

We may well find that they propose to reduce the number of calls in Northumberland, and we may also find that any consultation which takes place is timed so as to make any protest ineffective, ie, it will be too late.

The next profit, over and above what they have contracted to pay, will thus not be going into the British Treasury, but into the balance sheet of whoever wins the next franchise.

Two of them are Scottish, but if SNCF wins we shall be subsidising French train travellers.

While basic fares, which few people actually use, are regulated, the cheaper tickets are priced by the operator to maximise profit.

Infrequent users of the railway are not adept at searching for the best bargains, and the most vulnerable, such as the recently bereaved who have to travel long distances at very short notice to attend a funeral, for example, are often ‘stung’.

Another way in which operators seek to reduce their costs at our expense is to ‘persuade’ us to buy our tickets ‘online’ or from a ticket machine, rather than from the booking office.

Computers and ticket machines do not answer questions, they only ask them. We lose our friendly, helpful booking clerks at our peril.

Whether it will one day occur to the management that their staff are their best asset is questionable, but by the time they do think of it, the damage will have been done, the booking offices will have been closed and we shall be struggling with inhuman machines of one sort or another.

John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ (www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available to Berwickshire News and Berwick Advertiser readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the office in Berwick.