Has anyone else been marvelling at the first two in a BBC 2 series on the 1970s? Perhaps it can’t hold a candle to Radio 2’s Sounds of the Sixties but it still makes good television. Times were hard but there was much to be thankful for.
Patronage was slipping and by the end of the decade, this was in free-fall. The government recognised the worsening position at the end of the 1960s, offering first rural and then, from 1972, network grants. The idea of network support had begun. The National Bus Company was formed on 1st January 1969 and it had one fatal flaw: it and its subsidiaries had to break even, year on year. There was no such requirement on the municipal operators or the new PTEs, yet the NBC’s operating territories were often less lucrative.
South Yorkshire PTE, perhaps—fares tended to increase faster than inflation and with some regularity. Operators felt that fares increases were preferential to mileage withdrawals and job cuts… in spite of PTEs often leading the charge to eliminate conductors and in spite of some significant staff shortages, as drivers found better wages and conditions in local manufacturing.
In time, profitable routes would often additionally be subject to mileage withdrawals because managements felt that it was easier for passengers on frequent services to bear the pain than those on infrequent ones. The toxic combination of fares far higher than they needed to be on these routes plus withdrawals led to a self-defeating exercise as, eventually, declining passengers numbers moved good routes from profit to break even to loss.
Midland Red, an operator scarred by the passing of good routes to WMPTE, had invented the idea of viable networks, to translate to the ubiquitous Market Analysis Projects that even transposed themselves to some municipals. Stability at last? Only for a couple of years. Those late on the MAP treadmill could manage only a year or so without further, deeper cutbacks.
What’s changed in 40 years later?
Still the same pressures of fuel and wages; and, currently, flat growth. Plus new pressures from free travel and BSOG. But there are some differences. The successors to the territorial operators tend no longer to carry such a huge peak vehicle imbalance. In the 1970s, there was often a skewed peak requirement well above that needed between the peaks. There are now fewer works specials but a significant amount of the spiked peak for school traffic’s passed to smaller operators who run bespoke services. Where this has happened, the costs have transferred to others.
And, most marked, operators have discovered how to market their services. Marketing was taken for granted in the 1970s. It just wasn’t part of the mix. OK, it’s wrong to generalise, but there remained the attitude that the passenger slide was inevitable and there was nothing you could do about it. All this changed with the minibus revolution and the industry’s got progressively better and cleverer at it ever since.
Then there’s also the realisation that some markets simply aren’t worth exploiting. In the cold reality of a commercial world, it took some operators a few years to ditch the territorial mentality but, again progressively, they’ve withdrawn marginal mileage to concentrate the managerial effort on those services where growth potential exists. Even though we would probably all agree that some fares are higher than we would like, they’d be higher still had they to prop up poorer services 1970s style.
So, when you turn on BBC 2 and begin to reminisce about those cheesy novelty records, glam rock, flares, kipper ties, the Austin Allegro, Trimfones and Corona, remember, too, that the bus industry managed to navigate itself through choppy waters.