Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham goes for Bus Franchising Scheme
Nearly four years after he was elected as Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham stuck to his pledge to reform Greater Manchester’s buses. Following a second consultation, he made his announcement at 1440 beside Stand E of Ashton-under-Lyne Interchange. The Free Trade Experiment with Greater Manchester’s buses will be consigned to history in four years time.
Like any good transport project, it was fraught with delays, but a delay that was way beyond the control of Alexander Pfeffel de Boris Johnson, our King of the North Andy Burnham, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. That of the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, which had put things on hold for a year.
Had it not been for COVID-19, implementation of Greater Manchester’s Bus Franchising Scheme would have began on the 08 March 2020. We would have been wondering who’s got the contract for Uppermill’s bus routes, or any of the Wilmslow Road corridor routes.
Had there been no pandemic over the last year, we would be seeing our first franchised buses in Piccadilly Gardens next year. Instead, Greater Manchester’s first franchised buses will be running in 2023. There will be three sub areas, which are as follows:
- A: Central Manchester, Bolton, Bury, Wigan, Old Trafford and Leigh;
- B: Ramsbottom, Rochdale, Middleton, Heywood, Blackley, Newton Heath, Cheetham Hill, Oldham and Saddleworth;
- C: Tameside, Stockport, Irlam, Altrincham, Sale, South Manchester, Gorton and Openshaw.
Areas B and C will come into a fully franchised system in 2024 and 2025. For up to two years since the start of bus franchising in Greater Manchester, Nicholas Ridley’s Free Trade Experiment would still be with us in Rochdale and Ashton-under-Lyne for many routes. Operators of cross-boundary services running outside franchised areas can apply to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to continue running routes in their present form.
Therefore, from 2024, First Greater Manchester would apply for a permit to continue the operation of the 184 route in its cross-boundary form. Up to the (long closed) Great Western Hotel boundary point, GMCA fares will apply. Whilst in West Yorkshire, FirstGroup’s fares will apply. At least until our fellows in Leeds consider the idea of a franchised bus network in West Yorkshire.
Greater Manchester’s historic decision in taking back control of its bus network is only one part of the plan for a state-of-the-art public transport. By 2025, Transport for Greater Manchester and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority aims to take back control of its local rail services. By giving them the same standardised ticketing benefits enjoyed by tram users and bus users and (who knows?) the operation and management of most of the City Region’s railway stations.
“No longer will the bus companies be only accountable to their shareholders. You – the residents of Greater Manchester – will be in charge, you will be able to hold the mayor to account with service standards if they are not met.”
Greater Manchester, like most parts of the United Kingdom, has a continuously shifting bus network. Most of our City Region’s bus routes stand on their own two feet (or six wheels, if you prefer), and have to make a profit to survive. Takings from the 216 route cannot cross-subsidise those on the 346 or 335 routes. A small number of routes are tendered services, filling in some way the gaps left by bus operators. As well as ferrying key workers to their place of employment, it is a lifeline for some communities.
Under the deregulated system, tender prices have risen. With the Tories’ spending cuts, Transport for Greater Manchester has had to make savings as per the government’s programme of departmental cuts. This has meant cutting off more lifelines – the withdrawal of evening journeys – half-hourly routes becoming hourly ones; urban bus routes having two-hourly frequencies.
With the free market model, smaller companies have been swallowed up by bigger ones, thus creating private monopolies. As the early competitive streak of the late-1980s has become a cartel with three big transport owning groups and some medium-sized national groups, tender prices for tendered routes have risen. If the tender is too expensive for TfGM, there is no service for that part of Greater Manchester.
Under the 2017 Bus Services Act, cross-subsidy is no longer illegal under a Bus Franchising Scheme. Instead of routes changing hands every year (or four times a year), franchising contracts last for a set period, depending on the type of service contract. Instead of four times a year, three to five years with a two-year extension if everything’s going well with the franchise holder.
The biggest, biggest problem with the deregulated network is a lack of consistency. Not only in terms of operators, but also in the plethora of ticketing options. Instead of 130+ ticketing options across the City Region, there would be standardised fares from Abbey Lakes to Peppermint Bridge. Like the Metrolink has.
One’s experience of local bus operators can vary according from one part of Greater Manchester from another. You might wax lyrical over Stagecoach’s 346 route but prefer First Greater Manchester’s more direct route to Manchester from Oldham over Stagecoach’s slightly less direct 76 route. You might be peeved to see buses that are older than your child on the 201 route, whereas your fellow colleague in Fallowfield has brand spanking new all-electric buses.
Instead of a cornucopia of liveries, there will be a unified identity across Greater Manchester. Stagecoach might still be seen on the Wilmslow Road corridor in 2025 if they win a franchising contract, though in TfGM’s preferred livery. The beach balls could give way to (say, for example) the classic white, orange and brown, or a version of the Vantage livery.
If you travel from Manchester to Oldham and have a single operator ticket, there’s every chance you might buy a FirstWeek or FirstMonth. Say you had friends in Uppermill: you would take the 350 via Delph, which is great if you can see him or her before 6pm. After 6pm, the 350 is Stagecoach’s route, meaning an additional cost if you have a FirstMonth. If you have a System One pass, you will be fine. For some passengers, the System One passes are out of their price league.
Under the Bus Franchising Scheme, it is envisaged that the 2025 equivalent of a System One pass would cost the same as the lowest price single operator ticket. Sounds good, but what if you travel to Huddersfield or Glossop, which are outside GMCA boundaries?
With commercial services, operators reserve the right to use any bus in serviceable condition as per VOSA regulations. Like tendered services, all franchise holders may need to commit to an age limit for their vehicles. For example, no buses older than 15 years old.
If the franchise holder isn’t pulling their weight, you may see a change of franchisee. Transport for Greater Manchester will have powers to revoke or suspend a service permit or local service contract. The franchisee could appeal to the Traffic Commissioner who may quash or uphold the original decision or suggest alternative measures.
Why franchising matters?
In both consultations, there was great support for a London-style franchising scheme. Compared with the Do Nothing, Partnership and Enhanced Partnership options, the franchised system was hailed as having better value for money for the taxpayer.
There had been some criticism by the City Region’s bus operators over lack of room for expanding the network. The first phase of the Bus Franchising Scheme is about stabilising the network first and foremost; the premise that stability and affordable fares will get people back on the buses. It is also about making sure that each part of Greater Manchester has dependable bus links that will improve local economies.
Even with the pandemic, that premise still rings true. The free market model of bus operation thrives if there is sufficient patronage towards a given point in any town. If the non-essential shops are open, the offices and the schools are open, or any suitable visitor attractions are open, the buses prosper. It is dependent on heavily patronised trunk routes – often at the expense of local routes.
In Greater Manchester, lockdowns and closures of non-essential shops and public houses have had a negative effect on the City Region’s economy. Taxis have been quieter, and urban bus routes have also been quieter, thanks to people being furloughed or working from home. Had the free market been given freer reign, Ashton-under-Lyne Interchange would only have Boxing Day service levels.
Since the pandemic, the closure of non-essential retail has seen more people going out for walks. Some people, like myself, do so because there are too few buses to that part of my destination. Other walkers would drive to their desired country park, where the potential for using sustainable modes (like buses and bicycles) is great.
Whether the Free Trade Experiment or a Bus Franchising Scheme, our drift towards homeworking for some occupations will have an adverse effect on patronage. Our love of online shopping, likewise; even more so when delivery vans might have an adverse effect on timekeeping.
Thanks to bus service cuts, online shopping is the only option for carless households. Not only for non-essential items and clothing, but also food shopping. If you cannot get a delivery slot and there’s no bus to take you to town, the expense is higher if you take a taxi or use your nearest convenience store. When the pubs are open again, there’s every chance you might be unable to see your friends, because the buses finish at 6pm.
This is where the Free Trade Experiment is bad for social interaction. If you have no car and cannot walk, it is now easier to get from North Korea to China than between The Forester and The Lodge Hotel. (Up until last year, the 41 and 41A linked these two parts of Dukinfield).
This is why bus franchising matters. Free trade alone cannot be relied upon to provide an accessible service. (See also Britain’s lamentable broadband provision).
Doing Buses Differently
By 2025, it is envisaged that a fully franchised network in Greater Manchester would be accessible to new and existing bus users. There will be less arcane ticketing systems and a minimum standard of service based on public needs instead of shareholders’ needs. What it isn’t is a form of nationalisation. Outside the United Kingdom, franchised bus operations is the norm in most cities around the world. Even in the USA, often hailed as a car-mad part of the world.
In reality, the United Kingdom could be classed as being as car-mad as its fellows in the USA. Many drive because the buses are too expensive. Or the buses might finish early or not fit around their work hours. Then again, we have had governments that have wanted to turn railways into busways, embark on large scale road building programmes and leave its country’s bus passengers at the mercy of the Free Trade Experiment.
Yes, there has been some successes in deregulated bus operation, but Greater Manchester’s experience has been far from successful.
The time for change is long overdue. On a personal note, I cannot wait till 2025 when my neck of the woods sees franchised buses. My only fear is that half of Tameside might become a Bus Free Zone by then. Some operators have said the process is rushed, whereas yours truly here is shouting “just get on with it”.
It is also fitting that Andy Burnham’s announcement at Ashton-under-Lyne Interchange comes 50 years after EX1 entered service from Queen’s Road depot. Yes, the prototype Standard Double Decker Leyland Atlantean that led to a successful alliance with Leyland and Northern Counties between SELNEC and Greater Manchester Transport. In 1971, EX3 and EX4 also entered service: from Mossley Road depot, in Ashton-under-Lyne.
As one bus door closes, another one opens.
S.V., 25 March 2021.