Stagecoach Greater Manchester’s Quality Partnership Gamble

Could £142m ten-year partnership proposal be a last gasp attempt to derail bus franchising in Greater Manchester?

With only weeks to go till Andy Burnham makes his decision on the future of Greater Manchester’s bus network, Stagecoach Greater Manchester have come up with proposals for a £142 million partnership scheme. Published today, the City Region’s biggest bus operator has suggested a plan where Stagecoach Greater Manchester’s profits could be shared with Transport for Greater Manchester.

It is envisaged that £142 million could be reinvested in Greater Manchester with a package of improvements, providing improved connectivity in the City Region. The company claims that fringe benefits could include cleaner air and a more resilient economy for our 2.6 million citizens. Stagecoach Greater Manchester also claims its proposals will deliver a better deal for the taxpayer.

The Partnership Investment Fund

Key to this is Stagecoach Greater Manchester’s suggestion of a Partnership Investment Fund. Under this initiative, bus company profits could be capped above an agreed benchmark. This would be shared equally between Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), the bus operator and the aforementioned Partnership Investment Fund.

A third of money could be ring-fenced for Transport for Greater Manchester to spend on improvements across the whole of the region. The remaining two-thirds could be allocated to initiatives specifically in South Manchester, such as new routes or bus priority schemes. As with the Do Little, Partnership and Ambitious Partnership options detailed in the Doing Buses Differently consultation, crumbs for the rest of Greater Manchester outside the Wilmslow Road corridor.

It is claimed that local taxpayers would benefit from up to £25m in savings by Stagecoach and other bus operators under the scheme. They would no longer need to be paid to run uneconomic socially necessary bus routes, operating them commercially without any subsidy.

London-style fares and a GMCA Joint Board

If you looked at all options apart from the Do Little option in the now closed Doing Buses Differently consultancy, simplified fares was considered. Stagecoach Greater Manchester’s proposal isn’t alone with reference to London-style fares. The price-capped fares, in their proposal would guarantee the cheapest travel for the journeys that passengers may take.

A simpler and more integrated public transport network would be delivered through a unified brand for all bus services in the region. Accessibility would also be enhanced with “talking bus” next stop audio-visual systems fitted to all vehicles.

This could be overseen by a new joint Board, chaired by the Mayor and including executives from the Combined Authority and bus operators. This approach would ensure greater public influence over the bus network and accountability of bus companies for their performance. It will also provide greater transparency over decisions affecting bus services.

More than £130m would be invested in around 500 new cleaner low emission buses to boost air quality in Greater Manchester. It would add to the £16.5m fleet of more than 30 electric buses which are already being introduced by Stagecoach on two key high frequency services connecting Manchester city centre, Manchester Airport, five hospitals and two universities from March 2020.

The new proposals have been developed following extensive consultation with senior officials at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM). Stagecoach Greater Manchester is already committed to the pledges in the new partnership proposals if they are accepted. Other operators in the area would also be invited to enter into the partnership.

Another way forward?

The new way forward for the region’s buses could be delivered under a new contractual agreement with Greater Manchester Combined Authority. It would see a partnership approach in the south of Manchester seamlessly integrated with any franchised or partnership system that may be adopted in the north, delivering one easy-to-use network.

Instead of a franchised network, the unified branding proposed in their statement could be undermined by piecemeal partnerships. A Saddleworth Partnership could differ from a South Manchester one, with smaller buses at infrequent times of the day. South Manchester could still have London style frequencies as of now. A Bolton Partnership could have Bolton or Boston style frequencies, eroding the hop-on-hop-off approach of a franchised network. Even with London-style ticketing.

In a commercial environment, bus users in South Manchester have benefited for many years from significant investment. Also punctual and reliable services, and low fares. Customer satisfaction in the south of Manchester is currently 89%. North of Manchester Victoria station and east of Oldham, Rochdale and Ashton-under-Lyne town centres, it is a different story. Tameside is at the sharp end of HCT Group’s proposed withdrawal from Greater Manchester. At best, most of MCT Travel’s routes could be taken over by Stagecoach Greater Manchester.

The new proposals, which would deliver the key objectives in the Combined Authority’s 2040 transport strategy, have been put forward as part of the consultation on the way forward for buses in the region. They are also designed to reduce the cost and future financial risk of the bus network to the Combined Authority and local taxpayers.

Stagecoach’s proposals could be open to participation by other small and large bus companies in south Manchester. The plan would see the introduction of a 10-year long-term partnership agreement between bus operators and GMCA, with the benefits flowing quickly from June 2020.

Additional benefits

Further to the bus-based benefits in Stagecoach Greater Manchester’s £142 million package, it is claimed that other benefits will include:

  • Improved integration with buses, trams and trains, with enhanced consultation in advance of service changes;
  • A single customer contact point for all bus services in Greater Manchester;
  • A new performance regime and congestion-busting measures to deliver quicker journeys;
  • The use of open data on operational and financial performance and customer complaints;
  • A commitment to paying staff the Real Living Wage, plus investment in training and apprenticeships;
  • Participation in recycling and other environmental schemes, complementary to the use of public transport;
  • Taking part in community benefit initiatives, including breakfast clubs for children.

Some of the additional benefits are more or less in motion by Stagecoach and other operators in Greater Manchester, and other public bodies.

Firstly, there is already a single point of contact for all of Greater Manchester’s bus operators. It is a handy little telephone number that gives you the times of the 7 routes in Ashton-under-Lyne and Whitstable. It is Traveline’s UK wide service on 0871 200 2233. From your bus stop, you can also send a text message to 84268 for the next bus times. The BusTimes.org website is another good source.

Before we had a one-size-fits-all number and the internet, you could ring GMPTE on 061 228 7811. Even in the analogue era as well as in today’s highly-connected age, you could always call in to a TfGM (late GMPTE) Travelshop at a staffed bus station.

As stated on this blog and other local news sources, Stagecoach Greater Manchester have taken part in community schemes. Their proposals would build on previous projects and fundraising initiatives. Could FirstGroup, Arriva, Rotala, Go-Ahead and Transdev take part in similar projects in their respective localities?

Reaction

Elisabeth Tasker, Managing Director of Stagecoach Manchester, said: “Our region deserves the best bus network operators and the Combined Authority can deliver. By working in partnership with local people and politicians, we are determined to make sure customers, communities and taxpayers in Greater Manchester get just that.

“We will deliver better air quality for our communities with huge investment in greener buses. We will save people money by introducing London-style price-capped fares. More accessible and integrated services will make buses easier to use, and we will cut the council and taxpayer bill to run socially necessary bus routes.

“Our plans will mean that the region shares in our financial success, there is greater public influence over the bus network, bus operators are even more accountable for their performance and there is more transparency around decisions. Crucially, our plan will build on the best of what we have now and deliver one seamless overall bus network for customers.

“We are ready to start introducing these improvements in a matter of months, working constructively with politicians across Greater Manchester to deliver on our promises and give the region the high quality bus network it deserves.”

Whatever happens, we eagerly await Andy Burnham’s verdict next month. Stagecoach Greater Manchester’s proposal is good, but I think it lacks the City Region wide vision that a franchised network may provide. Perhaps their partnership model could be good for cross-boundary routes like the 237 to Glossop and the 113 to Preston.

An EM60 Presentation, 25 February 2020.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Andrew Bowden says:

    The whole thing reads like like Stagecoach just want to cement their control over South Manchester and stop anyone else getting a foot it. It’s not like there’s that many companies in the Stockport area anyway (especially with the demise of MCT).

    Given they pretty much have a monopoly in my area, I have no real problem with them (other than some recent service cuts). As an operation they’re efficient and well run. Being the dominant operator in South Manchester anyway, they’ll be in a good position to hover up contracts under franchising. But there will still be a risk that someone else will get them. Far less risk with this proposal.

    The fact that it’s only a Stagecoach proposal and not a unified response from all operators really does devalue it completely. I just can’t see the Greater Manchester being split up with franchising in the north and this in the south.

    Like

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