Our say: Keeping it private

There is a strong argument for public transport to wrest from the hands of government to the private operator

There’s an ongoing debate which seems to bubble under the surface of the bus and coach industry: is public transport best in the hands of private operators or owned and operated by government?

In his recent address to a public transport forum in Brisbane recently, Scott Grenda, chairman of the Bus Industry Confederation (BIC) and managing director of Grenda Corporation, argued – not surprisingly – that there is clearly a role for government in public transport delivery.

But, he argued, it should be limited to getting service planning right, deciding areas to service, how it’s provided and when – that is, setting the strategy, including balancing commercial and social imperatives.

How that’s delivered, however, should be left in the hands of the private sector, Grenda contends.

Governments – and trade unions as well – are likely to counter that the public sector is best positioned to provide services that consume large amounts of taxpayer dollars and have a key role to play in promoting social inclusion. They’re also big, stable employers.

Importantly, the public – the users of public transport services – have mixed views on the issue.

The June quarter Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies-Interfleet Transport Opinion Survey (TOPS) found that nationally 42 percent of users believe the private sector should be more involved in the provision of public transport. Some 31 percent think it should be less involved.

Not surprisingly, New South Wales (NSW) residents want more private sector involvement in public transport – at 50 percent and rising. That NSW residents are the most negative about the standard of public transport services in their state is clearly behind this result – they’ve had lots of experience with state-run public transport and don’t like what they’ve seen.

Victorians, on the other hand, want less private sector involvement, with only 35 percent support for private operators, and dropping. This result is clearly linked to their experiences since deregulation of public transport in 1999 placed trains and trams into private hands.

The only two states where confidence about public transport has improved are Queensland and South Australia.

Just why that’s so is hard to tell from the available data, but you could make some assumptions.

For starters, both states have invested heavily in public transport infrastructure and services over the past decade, with a resultant improvement in service levels.

So what’s the best model? Clearly the punters don’t care whether services are provided by private or government operators – it’s the quality of services that are important.

And that’s what governments need to focus on too.

With limited budgets there’s a strong case for governments to focus their time and money on getting the right infrastructure in place, in the right areas, and setting, monitoring and managing the service levels - and leave the provision to the private sector.

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