The main public scrutiny bodies in the transport sector all relate to rail travel. The bodies of most relevance are the statutory ‘rail passengers committees’ (and their overseeing Rail Passengers Council).
There is no national structure for the local scrutiny of bus services. Many bus companies and/or local authorities (depending on whether the local authority operates the bus company concerned) have formal or informal user groups which are consulted on changes, or on issues to do with local performance.
In November 2004 a Railways Act was introduced in the House of Commons. This provided some of the key details about the changes to the Rail Passenger Committees. These included the dissolution of the eight Rail Passenger Committees and the reconstituting of the Rail Passengers Council as a GB-wide body.
The Railways Act became law in April 2005 and since 24 July 2005, there has been a new Rail Passengers Council which is the official, independent voice of all rail passengers. Passenger Focus is the independent public body set up by the Government to protect the interests of Britain’s rail passengers. The organisation is funded by the Department for Transport but their independence is guaranteed by an act of Parliament. The board is made up of sixteen members and meet throughout the year. The Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly Government and the Greater London Authority are each able to appoint a member to the board and the Secretary of State for Transport makes the remaining appointments. Recruitment to the Board was on an open recruitment basis, and appointment was based on a mix of skills, knowledge and competencies plus geographic spread across Great Britain.
The aim for ‘Passenger Focus’ is to get the best deal for Britain’s rail passengers. They gather research and information, such as the National Passenger Survey, where 50,000 rail passengers give their views about their rail journeys. Additionally they work with government and the rail industry to ensure that the passenger voice is heard when making decisions about the future of the railways.They also provide passengers with advice on how to get the best from the national rail network, explain their rights and help them when things go wrong and they work with other passenger groups to support them in their work. Furthermore, Passenger Focus assists customers who have made complaints to train operating companies and are unhappy with the response that they have received.
In London, a separate organisation, London TravelWatch (formerly the London Transport Users’ Association) has responsibility for reflecting passenger views on suburban rail services, the Underground, trams and other public transport.
More generally, regulation and inspection on the railways is carried out by the Office of the Rail Regulator. ORR regulates the operation of franchises and has a particular responsibility for safety.
Since the National Bus Company was broken up in the mid to late eighties, and bus services were deregulated to allow for local competition, the market has been regarded as one of the principal means to ensure accountability of private bus companies.
At the start, the market did provide a powerful driver for competition and ensured that accountability – as expressed through passenger needs, and income from fares – was taken seriously. However, the large number of company mergers in the late eighties and through the nineties, which resulted in a small number of very large providers (many of which have, or had, local monopolies) diluted this effect and led government to consider additional steps to ensure accountability.
In urban areas, passenger transport executives, PTEs, (which are now directed by Integrated Transport Authorities, ITAs, which wide powers for local public transport) set operational policy and liaise with bus operators over timetables and fares. Neither PTEs or ITAs have specific powers to control fares or routes but they have sought to exert more control through the creation of “Quality Partnerships”, by which local authorities (often through the ITA) will fund infrastructure improvements in return for service improvements on the part of the bus operator.
In some areas, a PTE might subsidise a certain route or service if it is uneconomic for the operator to provide it as part of its business. These services are called “tendered services”. In some areas a large number of routes are tendered, giving the local authority (or PTE/ITA) more clout, and more day to day operational responsibility. Under these circumstances the bus operators begins to look more like the regulated Transport for London bus providers, which provide services according to detailed specifications laid down by TfL Buses.
Accountability differs, therefore, based on the circumstances of the operator/local authority relationship. Local scrutiny committees have experienced difficulties engaging with bus companies, particularly when the company is in receipt of minimal subsidy or there is not an active Quality Partnership. Under these circumstances operators prefer to negotiate directly with user groups (either independent groups or ones they have set up themselves). Equally some operators are more comfortable with the involvement of the local authority – and some bus companies are in fact still owned by local authorities, making their accountability relationship with local councillors even clearer.
In London, the London Assembly has a formal role in holding Transport for London to account, which include local bus services. In London, therefore, transport scrutiny at borough level is minimal.