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A National Express-Stagecoach merger would create a brazen monopoly

Merging the biggest bus companies in the UK would increase fares and undo the benefits of free bus travel for young people in Scotland

By Christie Edward James

Image courtesy of grassrootsgroundswell via Flickr


You’ve got to take the good with the bad in Scotland. You don’t have much of a say otherwise. It’s sort of something we’ve learned to grow up with. You get a glimmer of hope, then a downpour of shit. The glitz and shits this time around come from my favourite topic: public transportation. Wait no, don’t stop reading, please.


The news surrounding bus and coach services in Scotland might break or continue this trend at the moment, it’s a mystery. Much like waiting on a bus, actually. Will it come? Won’t it come? Should I walk? In Scotland, you see, we take the nice sunshine with the early sunsets, the chips with the seagull attacks and the New Kings with the MacRobert.


A good bus service is one of the fundamentals in society. It separates connected communities from disconnected ones, and can have great impacts on the development throughout towns and villages up and down the UK, and indeed abroad. Since privatisation, bus fares have never gone down. They’ve only gotten more expensive. The very model of privatisation encourages greed at the top, which is why bus lines are increasingly cut or at risk of being cut. It’s backwards that sometimes in Scotland buses can seem like a luxury. How is it that a lot of people that depend on them have to budget their bus journeys? Limiting what they can see around their very own city, and more tragically, who they can see.


It's fantastic news that, as of January the 31st, young people under 22 will be able to travel for free on Scottish buses, so long as they apply for the free bus travel card. Not only is this legislation that will help in tackling inequalities in Scotland in terms of access to travel and job opportunities, for example, but it will also help to address the climate emergency in pulling away people from being dependent on driving themselves or catching a lift in cars.


What’s bad news and what threatens this positive development is the announcement of a merger between the giants of National Express and Stagecoach. The announcement of talks came back in September, but the agreement itself was a bit later in December of last year. It would see an all-share takeover by National Express of Stagecoach. Even though they have attempted to calm the nerves of the public and transport staff alike by explaining that no drivers’ jobs would be cut, they didn’t go into much more detail about the proposed cuts to office and IT staff, or the plans to reduce annual costs by at least £45 million. Is this money that could be invested into making fares cheaper? Considering it carves deeper into what little competitiveness already exists in the Scottish transport market, definitely not. FirstBus isn’t going to compare to this new behemoth. Prices are already extortion as is.


Not only will it increase prices and slash services, but it’ll also move away the main headquarters from Perth to Birmingham. Stagecoach services will essentially be run from England. Little towns in Scotland with frankly pathetic bus services struggled to make their voices heard already, and I don’t see any improvement under these new merger proposals. Stagecoach’s Megabus services which, as part of the deal, will also move. They have been sold off to Singapore.


Thankfully, and quite honestly way too late if you ask me, the UK’s competition regulator is investigating the takeover. Quite right. There is no way this takeover wouldn’t decrease competition and thus increase prices for passengers. It absolutely would. Unreservedly. Currently, the watchdog has indicated that the two companies cannot fully combine until their investigation is done. National Express are taking the stance that intercity bus travel will remain competitive as Stagecoach’s companies, Megabus and CityLink are being sold off to another company and thus won’t infringe on the competitiveness of the intercity coach travel market. CityLink, once only partially controlled by Stagecoach, is having its minority stake sold off to the same company that has bought Megabus, now to be controlled in full. There is no increased competition here. It’s worth noting that this means that just as Scotland has resumed control of its railway from the Netherlands, its bus services are to move to England and Singapore.


If the watchdog’s investigation doesn’t break up this blatant monopoly, passengers in Scotland will be squeezed even more. It’s not like rail is much of an option either, those prices follow much the same trends.