House of Lords bus services bill could see London style franchising system in Greater Manchester
For bus passengers of a certain age, the thought of orange and white buses conjures up memories of SaverSeven passes, Clippercards, and the 400 service to Manchester Airport. On a personal level, it is the joys of the said route as well as iconic double decker buses, and the views enjoyed on Greater Manchester’s more scenic routes (the legendary 343 always springs to mind). In the last week, I was surprised to hear about their possible return.
After nearly 30 years, the white, orange, and brown era could be returning to Greater Manchester. Awaiting its second reading in the House of Lords is Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon’s Bus Services Act 2016. In a nutshell, it aims to give London-style franchising powers to major city centres and other parts of the United Kingdom.
Outside Greater London and Northern Ireland, Britain’s bus network has been deregulated since the 26 October 1986. In most cases, market forces determine service levels and fare rates. 85% of Britain’s buses are commercially run – which in other words, means they can stand on their own six tyres. The remainder is put out to tender via local authorities as socially necessary services.
With spending cuts affecting local government, the pot for supporting important bus routes have shrunk. This has been ameliorated by merging routes, changes to some concessionary fares (for example, children’s fares becoming two-thirds adult fare instead of half fare), and greater use of demand responsive transport services.
Section 123A of Lord Ahmad’s bill focuses on the franchising of routes. Any given number of services – for example, all buses in Tameside, or cross-city services – could be franchised to another operator. For example, all of Saddleworth’s buses could be awarded to First Greater Manchester for a given period. The franchising authority would be, in our case, Transport for Greater Manchester.
Furthermore, the bill also allows for an England-wide franchising authority (could this be called ONBUS?). County councils and unitary authorities could have similar powers (this could be likely in Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen, and Warrington). Any powers to introduce franchising in a given area may be subject to consultation and an auditing procedure. Consultation methods may entail details of areas subject to franchising and exemptions. Exemptions could apply to cross-boundary routes like the 184 from Huddersfield to Manchester, though a future countrywide franchising authority could resolve this.
Using Greater Manchester for example, franchising could relate to all services inside the Combined Authority. Services operating wholly inside TfGM boundaries could be subject to a Local Service Contract. Cross-boundary services, like the 184 service or any bus that runs into Glossop, could be subject to an Advanced Quality Partnership Scheme. This could allow TfGM to coordinate services with neighbouring bodies like Derbyshire County Council or High Peak Borough Council (i.e. 236, 237, 341, 394 routes). Or Metro West Yorkshire (184, 590, X58) and other Integrated Transport Authorities that share a boundary with Greater Manchester.
In all cases, schedules and changes have to be agreed with VOSA (which in laypeople’s terms, are Traffic Commissioners). Timetables are dependent on operators’ requirements, patronage levels, and traffic conditions. Section 113E, under the Advanced Quality Partnership Schemes chapter include powers to adjust frequencies and timings. It also recommends minimum standards for vehicles.
Imagine we’re in Oldham. At present, the 408 service is a right mess with four different operators and four variations of the same route. Outside the peaks, Rosso runs the Buckstones to Oldham daytime journeys; MCT Travel and Stagecoach Manchester share the full route from Buckstones to Stalybridge on evenings, Bank Holidays and Sundays. First Greater Manchester runs a residual peak hour service along the full route.
During Monday to Saturday daytimes, the people of Hurst and Stalybridge lack a fast route to Oldham, Royton and Shaw. As for the vehicle types, great for the enthusiasts, not-so-good for the travelling public.
Imagine a franchised scenario. This time, TfGM could call the shots and invite franchisees to run the 408 service once hourly, seven days a week. Either with a single operator or as part of a multiplex covering Oldham Council boundaries, covering the whole route. The passenger is less confused. He or she has only one set of fares to memorise instead of four if s/he didn’t have a season ticket. Should the Bus Services Bill gain Royal Assent (about two years from now), his or her GetMeThere could suffice. By then, Greater Manchester’s buses could be cashless.
The Advanced Quality Partnership Scheme part of the Bill hints at changes to payment methods. Which, not only falls into place with recent developments, but also plans for a Northern England-wide smart card for all modes of transport, from Metrolink to The Shields Ferry.
Under a franchised model, the franchising authority will set the fares. For example, TfGM could eschew staged fares in favour of flat fares. They could choose whether to let drivers carry cash, or do away with cash altogether. For the latter method, increased smartphone usage could make paying the driver obsolete. He or she could top up online (as at present with the GetMeThere pass and single operator tickets) or call in to a TfGM Travelshop or convenience store.
Giving TfGM and similar bodies control over fares would make for a user-friendly approach. Inter-operator competition would be eliminated. A future step could be a standard rate per mile or kilometre for all buses, trains, and trams within Greater Manchester.
Publicising local bus routes will be the role of the franchising authority, whether TfGM, Derbyshire County Council or an England-wide authority. In a local context, it’ll be business as usual for TfGM, through their Travelshops, online services, and consultation documents.
Should the Bill receive Royal Assent, publicity could go beyond paper timetable leaflets and (the ever-dependable) timetable displays at bus stops. There is scope for real time information, seen visually in most of Greater Manchester’s railway stations and along the Leigh Guided Busway.
Moreover, publicity could come in the form of route branding, as of now. Also, standard liveries as seen in Greater London. Supposing the white, orange and brown of Greater Manchester Transport is adopted, the bus would include space for both M-Blem Mark 2 and the franchisee’s logo.
Within Greater Manchester boundaries (and other metropolitan areas) bus operators may agree to make changes to their routes on given days. Using our area for example, operators may wish to make changes by the end of January, the Sunday after Easter Sunday, the last Sunday in July, and the last Sunday in October. Sometimes, there may be a fifth change date on the last Sunday of the summer school holidays. If a service comes to grief before the next changes date, an alternative operator takes over for the interim period.
The franchising authority may wish to retain the above dates or consider alternative dates. A franchised route or a multiplex of routes could be given a break clause, halfway through the tenure. As at present, the Traffic Commissioner is able to reject or accept any forthcoming changes.
It is proposed that a maximum franchise term would be five years. Prior to the franchising process, there will be public consultations at local, borough, or Combined Authority level. The successful operator may have a mandate to:
- Improve on existing facilities: if the franchisee had its own bus station (which is not applicable to Greater Manchester where TfGM owns the bus stations), they could enhance waiting facilities or serve food and drink. Or (like Stagecoach Manchester’s facility at Hazel Grove, and the Leigh Guided Busway) they could offer Park and Ride facilities.
- Modify some of its routes: so that areas otherwise cut-off from the bus network are properly served. Sometimes, extra peak hour journeys may be needed to alleviate overcrowding.
- Offer more user friendly timetables: for example, services at clock face intervals, improved timings, or a different service number for a variation of a sister route.
- Run certain types of buses: this is already the case on tendered services where low floor buses aged up to fifteen years old are the norm. This could apply to all services (thus creating a more consistent type of bus along the 346 route at all times).
In the last decade, TfGM have bought a small number of electric hybrid buses for tendered services. This has included Optare Solo SR minibuses, seen on Metroshuttle services and local routes. With a standard livery, the TfGM logo coexists with, for example, Stagecoach’s, FirstGroup’s, or Arriva’s logo.
If anything goes wrong with the franchisee’s tenure (i.e., service quality issues, inconsistent fleets, the franchising authority has powers to revoke or vary their contract before its expiration. Then the franchising process resumes for the affected route(s).
Who will own the buses?
The powers in Lord Ahmad’s Bill does not propose full-on public ownership of our buses. FirstGroup, Stagecoach, Arriva et al will be able operate services as normal. Unlike present day practice, they will have to bid for the right to run a single trunk route or a package of services. Any franchise awards will be open to scrutiny from the Competition and Markets Authority, ensuring that A.N. Operator doesn’t have too much of a market share in a given locality.
Instead of competition between Stagecoach and First, competition could be between private and public transport. In late 1986, buses faced competition from local (subsidised) rail services, private hire cabs and Hackney Carriages, and private motoring. Express coaches competed with British Rail.
Thirty years on, there is still competition with the same modes detailed above, as well as between rival bus companies. Nowadays, both buses and taxis face a new threat: Uber. The arrival of Uber has meant lower cost private hire cabs outside the peaks. But, whereas minicabs and Hackney Carriages (licensed by local authorities) have set pricing models, Uber are a master of yield management. Known as surge pricing, cab fares rise according to customer demand. During First Greater Manchester’s bus strike on the 24 May 2016, the following day’s Manchester Evening News stated how Uber fares from Eccles to Manchester went through the roof.
Bus franchising could be a step towards a more collaborative model of public transport provision. Alongside local Oyster style cards and a possible Oyster style card for Northern England, this could be lead to more standard fare structures across modes of transport. With franchising authorities being able to set fares, choose vehicles and plan routes, Lord Ahmad’s bill could bring some much needed stability to the bus network.
So far, some of the ideas suggested build on the best of contemporary practice. Should it gain Royal Assent two years or so from now, we hope it isn’t too late to reverse a decline or flatlining in bus usage outside of Greater London.
Summary: The Bus Services Act 2016
- Allows Integrated Transport Authorities, County Councils, Unitary Authorities and bodies within Mayoral Offices to regulate bus services within their boundaries;
- Franchising authorities (as detailed above) could decide upon minimum standards of services, fleet requirements, fare levels, and set and revise routes;
- Authorities can own buses and adopt a standard livery within given areas, though cannot run services directly, nor takeover from franchisees;
- Has two parts: a Local Service Contract; and a Advanced Quality Partnership Scheme;
- Local Service Contracts may cover a given area within its boundaries;
- Advanced Quality Partnership Schemes could cover cross-boundary routes between two or more counties, boroughs, unitary authorities, or Combined Authorities;
- Franchising authorities, in collaboration with its franchisee(s), will be responsible for promoting franchised services;
- Scope for through-ticketing with other modes, consistent with present-day practices.
- Parliament.UK website: The Bus Services Bill 2016 (opens as Adobe PDF file).
S.V., 03 June 2016.