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Big bus companies face ban for predatory practices in city

Two of the UK’s biggest bus companies have been found guilty of breaching regulations in Glasgow that aim to prevent firms poaching their rivals’ customers and to keep traffic moving.

First Glasgow and Arriva West, along with a smaller company S&A Coaches, had blocked bus stops and created congestion by picking up and dropping off passengers outwith their allocated stops, Scotland’s Traffic Commissioner has found.

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Following a public hearing into the complaints, Joan Aitken announced yesterday that the trio had been banned from operating any new services in Glasgow for six months as punishment.

The ruling is particularly embarrassing for First and Arriva, who along with Stagecoach, National Express and Go-Ahead Group, are the subject of an ongoing inquiry by the Competition Commission to determine whether the UK’s five biggest bus companies are operating as monopolies and deliberately preventing smaller firms from entering the market.

First Glasgow, the city’s dominant operator, which runs more than 40,000 departures from the city centre per day, has previously complained that its efforts to drive up standards have been hindered by what it called the predatory behaviour of smaller firms which deliberately run services just ahead of their own.

At a joint hearing into all three companies last week in Edinburgh, Aitken heard that Glasgow City Council and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport wardens had recorded hundreds of instances of traffic conditions being breached over six months. These included bus drivers stopping between stops or at stops that are not allocated for them and waiting at them after passengers have boarded.

First committed 202 breaches between September and February. Separate figures collated by the council show that, between September and November last year, Arriva clocked up 67 breaches, while 73 were recorded for S&A.

It is understood to be the first time that traffic regulations imposed in May 2007 to ease congestion in the city centre at peak periods have led to penalties being imposed on a major bus company.

S&A, which operates the City Sprinter service in Glasgow, was fined in 2008 and ordered to reduce the number of vehicles in its fleet from 19 to 14 after a string of violations.

Jim Coleman, Glasgow City Council’s executive member for land and environmental services, said it showed that collaboration with the Traffic Commissioner was working to improve standards.

He said: "Since the council was successful in lobbying for a Traffic Regulation Condition in 2007, we have worked with the commissioner to bring to book operators who don’t provide an adequate service.

"That relationship has been very successful, with firms facing close scrutiny and, in the most concerning cases, public inquiry and strong penalties -- an approach that has, generally, improved compliance by operators within the city."

Aitken said she expected the performance of the companies to improve over the next six months and for the council to continue to monitor any breaches of regulations. The restrictions imposed on all three companies’ licences prevents them from starting a new registered service or extending existing services, a move industry insiders claimed would hit their operating profits by restricting their ability to respond to market demand.

A spokeswoman for First Glasgow said the firm accepted the ruling but added that the majority of breaches were down to buses dropping off or picking up customers while waiting in the queue to access stops on Union Street, one of Scotland’s most heavily bussed routes.

She added: "While this was done in the best interests of customers who otherwise would be delayed we do accept and fully understand the need to comply with these conditions and have reminded staff to do this at all times.

"That said, we are keen to discuss the option of extending the bus cage area on Union Street with Glasgow City Council to the benefit of customers and other road users."

The Herald contacted Arriva and S&A but neither commented on yesterday’s ruling.

Charlie Gordon, the Glasgow Cathcart Labour MSP, added: "It’s good that the Traffic Commissioner is cracking down on this kind of thing."

  Competition body looks at monopoly claims

Nearly 15 years after the first "bus wars" erupted in the UK with deregulation, the issue of competition in the industry is once again under the spotlight.

The Competition Commission is looking at whether major companies act to deter smaller rivals and drive up fares, and has heard allegations that deliberate, "predatory" behaviour is used to ensure they can act as monopolies.

The industry is also braced for major cuts from the UK Government in autumn, with some warning of a "Beeching-style" reduction in local bus services if fuel rebates are reduced.

Glasgow is one of the most fiercely contested bus markets in the UK, with dozens of small firms competing for routes. The council has entered into a voluntary partnership with First Group -- by far the biggest operator -- and is seeking to extend this later this year by imposing mandatory standard on the types of buses used on major routes and minimum service requirements.




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