When the buses were (nearly) free: Revisiting South Yorkshire’s ‘grand design’ for transport

South Yorkshire Transport 1974-1995
Jonathan Bray

Front cover of D Scott Hellewell's account of South Yorkshire's Transport, picture courtesy of Transport Store

It may not be available on Kindle anytime soon, but ‘South Yorkshire’s Transport 1974-1995’ by D Scott Hellewell is full of fascinating material about the story of the radical years of South Yorkshire’s ‘Grand Design’ for Transport in the Seventies and Eighties (roughly the period from the creation of the PTE and South Yorks County Council in 1974 to bus deregulation in 1986). This is an era still remembered for its cheap bus fares policy but there was a lot more to it than that. Here’s five things I took away from the book. Cheap fares being the best place to start…

1. Too cheap to charge?

The policy on fares in South Yorkshire was…not to put them up. For eight years the fares didn't go up and with inflation higher than it is today the fares became cheaper and cheaper. Eventually a point would have come when it would cost more to collect the fares than to charge them. At that point bus travel would have become free. The policy was very popular (more than a million people signed a petition to keep the policy in place). It was also effective in keeping bus patronage high and road congestion low (traffic congestion in Sheffield was lower than in any comparable city). It was not popular however in Whitehall and, interestingly, not just with Mrs Thatcher. The preceding Callaghan government also did its best to try to get the PTE to see the error of its ways although it was Thatcher that delivered the coup de gras with the Transport Act of 1984 which led to fares going up by as much as 300% in one day. Bus patronage decline and traffic congestion was the inevitable consequence.

2. Forward thinking days

However, it wasn’t just about cheap fares in South Yorkshire - far from it. The cheap fares policies was accompanied a staggering amount of forward thinking about what a modern public transport network should be doing for the area it serves. This included the introduction of minibus services to serve outlying areas (common now - but not then) and a Bendibus city centre shuttle. Bendibuses being so novel at the time it was actually technically illegal in the UK to run them, (until, that is, South Yorkshire got national Government to change the rules to allow their operation). The PTE was also determined to get cleaner, modern buses that could cope with Sheffield’s formidable hills, whilst spewing out fewer noxious fumes (air quality was and is a problem in Sheffield) and providing a good working environment for drivers. In effect the PTE was working towards a 'Bus (or buses) for South Yorkshire'. In some ways this is similar to the way London in the past (the Routemaster and its antecedents) has gone. On green clean technologies South Yorks was also an early pioneer of battery buses and it ran a trial of a modern trolleybus (with a test track at Doncaster racecourse). This direct interest in pushing the boundaries of bus technologies was also linked to a strand of thinking around how a dynamic public sector commissioning body could help drive wider UK manufacturing and technological development and capacity (creating skilled and worthwhile jobs in the process). The PTE was also ahead of its time in promoting access to the bus network for older and disabled people. Both through concessionary fares and some early examples of buses that could carry wheelchair users. So when some people say the public sector can’t innovate on public transport…they are talking drivel!

3. The Sheffield Underground that never was…

One of the sidestories of the book is how the South Yorkshire rail network teetered on the edge of oblivion. The rail network was never a major player for rail commuters and when the PTE was set up in 1974 the patronage of entire local rail network could have been carried on 18 buses (allegedly)! It would have been if some of the busmen had their way but the railways fought back – including a BR proposition for an underground loop linking Sheffield Midland with an underground station serving the city centre. The Sheffield underground never happened (Supertram did instead). However eventually the railways were integrated into the wider progressive strategy for public transport in the area with new stations and services even if that involved a few interesting wheezes to get there. For example running a BR Summer Saturday seaside special to Blackpool on a route that otherwise the PTE would have had to bear all the costs of…

4. Nothing’s perfect…

The book is unsparing on the tensions and difficulties that always emerge around the boundaries between one organisation and another. In this case between Districts and the Met County Council, the PTE and the Districts, the Unions and the PTE, and so on and so forth. Wherever you draw the lines between areas and organisations it will never be perfect and there is always the potential for tensions, but as the author makes clear, in South Yorkshire what was collectively achieved was clearly impressive.

5. Bus policy…not so boring after all

These days in the professional / Whitehall debate, by and large, it’s spending on capital projects which is seen as the grown up thing to do, whereas current spending, (including on holding bus fares down) is rather looked down upon. But one of things that the South Yorkshire story shows for astute politicians, who want to make an impact quickly, is that current spending on bus can make the weather for the wider debate about transport – getting ridership up, generating momentum and creating an environment where further spending on transport (including capital) is seen as the right thing to do. It can also make an impact quickly and across a wide area whereas new infrastructure can take years and is site specific. Interesting too how often bus policy has actually becoming something much more emblematic and defining for politicians over the years – Ken’s fares policies and Boris’s Routemaster being one example. So, despite the obsession of most politicians and commentators with trains – who would have thought it - bus policy isn’t so boring after all!

Jonathan Bray