The Right Honourable Baroness Thatcher passed away today, aged 87. We take a second to remember her transport legacy.
Many in the transport (and related) industries will recount that there are two words almost synonymous with Thatcher’s time in office: privatisation and deregulation.
It’s fair to say that Thatcher irreversibly changed the face of the transport industry in the UK during – and after – her time in office. But whether you believe that privatisation and deregulation were for better or for worse, it can’t be denied that Thatcher’s policies created some interesting movements in the industry.
Thatcher and the rail industry
Thatcher’s administration stopped short of privatising the core of British Rail, but they did pave the way for John Major’s government to do so in 1994. In 1982, the creation of Railfreight sparked a blueprint for sectorisation in the freight sector – something which the passenger sector all but escaped until the late 80s. Indeed, the sectorisation of BR passenger services (the creation of Network SouthEast, Scotrail and Provincial to name a few brands from the time) proved that wholesale privatisation of the rail industry could one day become a reality. However, it was not until after Thatcher’s resignation in 1990 that the prophecy was finally realised.
Thatcher and the bus industry
Deregulation of the bus industry was one of Thatcher’s major policy victories. On 26 October 1986, the ‘Buses’ White Paper, ratified by the Transport Act 1985, came into force. Up until deregulation, bus services in the UK had been provided by the National Bus Company, Scottish Bus Group, London Transport in the capital and a handful of long-standing independents. Today, sadly, most of those independents have been swallowed up by the large bus groups which emerged after 1986.
Thatcher’s government believed that private companies could do a better job than the state. Competition was a way of creating better services. And so, instead of NBC red and green, we began to see many wonderful – and some downright disgusting – colourful liveries emerging – remember the North Western Bee Line?
Deregulation also opened up Britain to the notorious bus wars of the ’80s and 90’s – some of the more memorable bus wars being those in Darlington and Manchester. Of course, bus wars are still happening today – perhaps not on the same scale as in previous years, but they’re still being fought – take Wellglade’s Bargain Bus and Premiere in Nottingham as a fairly recent example. Bus wars are competition (and deregulation) at its best and worst; often resulting in high frequencies and bargain bin travel for the ordinary customer – at the expense of often crushing losses for the weaker operator.
Whether you believe that Margaret Thatcher’s policies were the beginning of ‘broken Britain’ or exactly what was needed in the 1980s, there’s no denying that she certainly brought colour to the streets and stations of the UK.