1 May 2023
Tribune (Issue 18 p.92-94)

Ellie Harrison’s Bus Regulation: The Musical has told the story of travesties in public transport policy since the 1980s to audiences in Glasgow, Greater Manchester, and Liverpool. Last November’s production at the Bluecoat arts centre saw skaters from Liverpool Roller Birds dress in multicoloured outfits to represent Merseyside buses and their distinctive liveries over time. We spoke over Zoom.

Lynsey Hanley: Were you always interested in public transport?

Ellie Harrison: I think in hindsight there’s always been an interest in transport. I grew up in London, so I was very lucky with the access I had; it was just the norm. You could buy a travelcard at every single newsagent in London, so you’d just go and get one. Then I left London in 1998 and moved to Nottingham. I saw them building the whole of the first tram line, which was so exciting. And just before I left, the council introduced the workplace parking levy. It was only after I left that I realised Nottingham was really pioneering, not only because of the trams, but because it was the first city in the UK to introduce the levy to fund it. It’s one of the few cities in the UK that kept its municipal bus company.

But really it was only when I moved to Scotland in 2008 that I spent more time on the national rail network. I was continually frustrated by the experience of having to change between different train companies.

Lynsey Hanley: What brought about the motivation to turn it into a campaign for better transport?

Ellie Harrison: Public transport in general is so important to meeting carbon reduction targets. It means we have to get this system working. We have to make it cheaper than driving. But the privatisation of the railways under John Major’s government made it more difficult. So, I started up a campaign called ‘Bring Back British Rail’. It was also about reminding younger people that the railways used to be in public ownership. Meanwhile, I was just incredibly frustrated with Glasgow’s public transport system, and I wanted to do something about that as well. I started a local campaign for integrated public transport — ‘Get Glasgow Moving’. We want a world-class, fully integrated, and affordable public transport network. We want the buses, the trains, and the subway to be planned and coordinated, to work together as part of one system.

Then the musical came along in 2019. I’d just heard about the ‘Better Buses for Greater Manchester’ campaign at that time, which was actually launched by We Own It. They got funding to get a small campaign off the ground, to put pressure on Andy Burnham to make sure that he re-regulated the buses, which would then put pressure on the other city regions. We saw that if that happened in Manchester, it would really help us in Glasgow as well.

Lynsey Hanley: I grew up on the outskirts of a city in a place that, when it was built, didn’t really have a bus service at all. For several years the only way you could get from Birmingham out to Chelmsley Wood was by going to the coach station. My mum and dad never had a car, so we were completely reliant on public transport. All my formative memories are of being on trains or being on buses or waiting for buses that didn’t come. I’ve got two children now, they’re 8 and 11, and we still don’t have a car. It takes a lot of worry out of the equation, but only if you have access to good public transport.

Ellie Harrison: I think that if a lot of younger people aren’t turning to cars, then they’ll have expectations for public transport to provide the services that they need, which is good. You need higher expectations to actually put pressure on politicians to improve.

Lynsey Hanley: What people don’t realise is that when you campaign for better transport, it’s for everybody, it’s not just for middle-class people to feel good about themselves.

Ellie Harrison: In just about every other country in continental Europe, they take for granted the sorts of things we are asking for; the sort of transport system that in Germany or Holland is just taken as standard. In Zurich city region, which covers a massive area around the city and lots of rural areas, every village is guaranteed by law, as a statute and a duty, a bus service at least every hour. The smallest village gets a bus service every hour, and then the frequencies go up as the settlements get bigger.

The point I’m trying to make in the musical is that we were nearly there in Britain, as a result of the Passenger Transport Executives, which were created when Barbara Castle was transport minister. In 1968, she introduced the Transport Act, and bam, the entire public transport system was integrated. By the early eighties the buses were all painted the same colour, and it was all coordinated. Then you had the cheap fares policy as well.

Lynsey Hanley: In Birmingham it was the WMPTE [West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive] — or Wumpty, as we called it. The fares were 5p for adults and 2p for children.

Ellie Harrison: Exactly. So, it’s just getting there, then it just gets absolutely destroyed. Completely ideologically. In 1986 the Tories tried to create a market in buses. It was successful in that there were lots of new companies, but, of course, nobody was coordinating public transport, which meant you didn’t have a working system anymore.

In my book The Glasgow Effect I tried to make the connection between class and carbon footprint, particularly around transport, and [show] that it is wealthier people who are travelling the longest distances, so they’re the ones who need to change their lifestyles. Gustavo Petro, who’s now the president of Colombia, said: ‘A civilised society is not one where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich ride public transportation.’ That’s what all my campaigning is based around.