The Transport Act  provided a massive disincentive to future investment in Trolleybuses. This is because many of the benefits of investment in a Trolleybus system are "external" - they provide a public benefit that cannot be captured by the owner in terms of financial return. Equally the investor in the dirty technology of the diesel bus does not pay the external cost of the extra air and noise pollution that he causes.
The position in Greater London is different because a franchising/licensing system was adopted. Transport for London licensed routes specifying the frequency etc and granting licenses for 5 years at a time. Although these periods are far too short to recoup an investment in Trolleybuses, the principle of franchising is one in which Trolleybuses could operate.
Transport and Works Act
This Act was introduced to remove the private bills procedure previously used for Trolleybuses etc. Essentially an operator now has to apply for an Order to the DETR. The Minister considers the request and might call a public enquiry led by an independent Inspector. The Inspector hears the case of the promoters and those of objectors. His report to the Minister makes recommendations either for acceptance or rejection. The Minister can exercise discretion and if he accepts the bid, lays an Order in the House of Commons. This is, in effect, secondary rather than primary legislation.
The new procedure does not appear to have speeded up the process. Preparation of the proposal, waiting for the Minister to call a public enquiry, then waiting for the enquiry itself, followed by a wait for the Inspector's report can all take at least as long as the old private bills procedure. Equally the cost of promoting a case, including leading counsel at the public enquiry, can be far higher than using Parliamentery Agents and Parliamentary Counsel under the old system.
Possible Ideas for Reform
(a) Environment Outside London
It seems fairly clear that Trolleybuses outside London will only be financially viable under present deregulation where a significant proportion of the system has exclusive rights to reserved track or where city centre streets were only accessible to zero emission vehicles. These situations would allow the operator to recoup some return on his heavy investment.
A possible variation would be for a transport authority to provide the overhead system but to allow a limited amount of competition on the route. There would still need to be a degree of control to ensure that each operator "played fair" on the fixed route system
(b) Environment in London
Here it will be necessary to persuade ministers that to get a quality investment, longer franchises are needed. This would be very similar to the situation for rail operators where many are successfully arguing that longer franchises than 5 years are needed to encourage major investment. Ideally operators would like 20 year franchises. Ministers compromise and accept 10 years with the right to sell on any equipment including vehicles to any successor.
A permutation would be for Transport for London to own the overhead infrastructure (cf Railtrack) with private operators owning Trolleybuses. This might operate in a completely unsubsidised way with the Trolleybus operator paying a mileage charge that fully covered not only power and maintenance but also London Transport's capital and interest costs.
(c) Reform of the Transport and Works Act
It is unlikely that we will be able to return to the old Private Bill procedure. I suspect one of the reasons for the TWA was the need to reduce heavy parliamentary workloads. But there should be something that can be done to streamline current procedures.
To streamline current procedure, some form of de minimis rule could enable schemes either costing less than (say) ?20m or entirely within one local authority or PTE area, to be heard under a local planning enquiry with a guarantee that a hearing would begin within 3 months of lodging. As before, the planning decision would be subject to Ministerial approval.
For larger schemes some form of Departmental screening would in effect, confirm (or deny) that prima facie the scheme was worthwhile. The department would need to consider carefully the views of the local authorities concerned. This combined with a tighter timetable should reduce the delay and frustration often being experienced.
M P Wright
An important issue that every proponent of Trolleybuses has to face is the regulatory environment. This note offers some thought on possibilities for improving the position.
Related pages -
Promoting quiet, clean urban transport using Overhead Electric, Zero Emission Trolleybuses -
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