A war of words has broken out between bus companies and the Passenger Transport Executive. Peter Jackson meets the man at the centre of it all.
BERNARD Garner seems remarkably unruffled for a man at the centre of a furore.
Bus companies are in uproar over the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority’s Quality Contracts Scheme, which would see the authority – as in London – taking back control of routes, times and prices.
“Outrageous”, “blackmail” and “theft” are some of the expressions deployed by the bus companies in this war of words.
As Nexus director general, Garner is the man who would implement such a scheme, which is being examined by his organisation.
He says: “The key to whether you think it is a good thing or a bad thing is whether you believe that public transport is a public service. If you believe it is, in my view there needs to be a level of regulation within the industry to make sure the public has a strong input into what the service actually delivers and that it is designed around the economic and social needs of an area and not purely around the commercial objectives of any single bus operator.”
Nexus did take that premise and lobbied during the drafting and passage into law of various Transport Acts to be given the powers to develop quality contracts, with the Transport Authority and Nexus determining what the network should deliver but also with the option of working in partnership with the bus companies to achieve agreed goals.
Quality contracts follow the London model of franchising routes, with Nexus specifying the network and the fares to be charged and inviting bids from the operators to provide those services. Garner points to the similarity with Metro where Nexus specified the services and sought operators to deliver them.
“In a partnership proposal we would determine the network by working with the operators individually or collectively and the operators would provide those services.
“Within the partnership there would be some price specification but it wouldn’t be as firm or as binding as a contractual arrangement. It’s about giving the operators more freedoms and flexibilities, which is a good thing to use their skills in designing the network.
“Our current position is that we believe the existing system needs significant change and we are working to develop both a quality contract proposition, but at the same time, working with the operators to see whether we could get to the same place in terms of what we are aiming to deliver on the ground through a quality partnership proposition.”
The timetable is that by autumn the two propositions will be worked up and Nexus will report back to the ITA.
But is this not a case of talking to the bus companies about partnership while holding to their heads the gun of quality contracts? Saying to them, we can do it by partnership, but, if we can’t reach agreement, we will use quality contracts?
“That was the ITA’s original position, it’s actually changed a bit now, almost to say, we believe a quality contract will deliver better buses but we will work with you to develop a partnership proposal and we will consider it if you can demonstrate to us that it will achieve the same outcomes for the passenger.”
He is firm that the status quo is not an option. While major, popular routes are well served by the operators but rural areas, estates and local connections – particularly at evenings or weekends – are not so fortunate. Currently an operator can give 56 days’ notice of introducing or withdrawing a service. Also every operator has a different ticketing system.
“If you believe, as we do that buses are a public service, then those demands are equally valid and we believe that through either of the two options we have talked about we can provide a more comprehensive network meeting all the transport requirements of the area.”
It’s a fraught political issue for Garner to have to manage, but he has long been accustomed to the essentially political nature of public transport issues.
Born in that famous public transport hub Crewe, he went to school in Stoke and, in 1969 to Leeds University where he read civil engineering. After university one of his earliest jobs was spent on the M62 in winter in a caravan, when he decided that site work was not for him.
He began to specialise in transport planning, evaluating road schemes and transport strategies in West Yorkshire. In the early 1970s he had his first exposure to the infant environmental lobby protesting against a motorway up the Aire Valley.
“I learnt quite a bit from that, that the environment and transport are very closely linked,” he says.
This political dimension to transport was highlighted in 1979 when he moved on to work in the new public transport unit of Fife Region Council in Scotland.
“The exposure I had there opened me up to the links between transport and politics. One of the things we did was to introduce a free concessionary travel scheme many years in advance. The link between people, public transport and politics was something that was a lesson that became embedded in me.
“One of the things I find about public transport and one of the reasons I moved from roads to public transport is the issues we face in public transport terms are very immediate – people can’t travel now, what are we going to do about it? The time span for building a road scheme is many, many years and, in some cases, decades. I have a preference for dealing with immediate problems.”
After seven years in Fife he moved to the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive as chief services coordinator, at about the time of bus deregulation, to work with the new bus operators. This deregulation was a threat to Tyne and Wear’s integrated transport system and meant further political wrangling as the legislation went though Parliament.
“We had just built an integrated transport system, we had the Metro, we had bus services feeding into it and purpose-built interchanges – the Regent Centre, Four Lane Ends, Gateshead. We had introduced a single-ticketing across the whole area,” he recalls.
“It has just been delivered in 1985 and there we were in 1986 dismantling some of the key threads of that integrated system, so there was a very strong political lobby, but the vote [to exempt Tyne and Wear from deregulation was lost.”
The years after deregulation saw investment in the transport infrastructure, in interchanges, shelters and information systems and in moving information provision from call centres to the internet and Twitter.
In the early 1990s he was made head of planning and development with the job of thinking about the future shape of Tyne and Wear’s transport infrastructure and this broadened his remit from buses to all aspects of Nexus’ activity.
“In that role we did a lot of work in extending Metro through to the airport and to Sunderland and we opened new stations along the way.”
He points to three schemes which he says “showcase good quality public transport”: Quaylink in Newcastle and Gateshead; Centrelink which drove the improvements to Gateshead Interchange and the development of the Transport Interchange at Metrocentre.
He cites the link between Northumberland Park and the Ferry and Cobalt Business Park.
“One of the things that is very important is that as new developments take place you get public transport in there early so people start to use it as a mode of choice rather than the car and then you are trying to attract them from the car.”
He took up his present role as director general in 2006 at around the time when Nexus was beginning to look at ways of reinvigorating the Metro. Here it looked like a contrast to the buses proposal, with, in the Metro case, a loosening of control.
In return for considerable investment in the Metro the government wanted Nexus to demonstrate value for money.
“I had no problem in doing that,” says Garner. “That led to a market testing of the operations of the system. Prior to 2010 Nexus operated the system itself with its own staff but the market testing exercise involved setting out a specification for what we required and seeking bids from major train operators from across the world to provide that service for us.” Nexus received 13 bids which were whittled down to two: an in-house bid and DB Regio Tyne & Wear, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, owners of Arriva.
“At the end of the day, DB Regio represented best value for money so we let an operating contract to DB to provide the service on our behalf. It’s not privatisation because no assets change hands and Nexus continues to set the fares, specify the service, determine the quality.”
The staff were transferred by TUPE regulations, which probably contributed to what Garner describes as a “seamless” transfer, from a passenger perspective, on the first day of operation. He has been satisfied with subsequent operations.
“Since then it has worked pretty well. The focus on quality standards that are embedded in the contract mean that the passenger experience is better, our research demonstrates that our passengers think so.”
Garner denies this should be a move in the opposite direction to that proposed under the quality contracts proposal for the buses. Indeed, it is essentially the same principle, with Nexus specifying a service for others to provide.
“The challenge for Metro is it receives public subsidy and it needs to demonstrate that it delivers that service as cost effectively as possible. We have always used contractors on the Metro, there’s nothing new in that.
“The key thing is there has been no change in the arrangement that Metro continues to be wholly-owned by the public sector, it’s fully specified by Nexus. It’s just about using the private sector’s expertise to deliver that service on a day-to-day basis if it could do so more efficiently and effectively than the public sector could.” The Government commitment to investment in the Metro, which preceded the award of the DB Regio contract, was to revive a system that was a quarter of a century old and in need of repair. As Garner puts is: “Things like, lifts, escalator, wiring and all that sort of gubbins that makes Metro work.”