Further investigation of bus service franchising to be considered

Further research into the implications of franchising bus services is being proposed at next week’s meeting of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

29 January 2020

Further research into the implications of franchising bus services is being proposed at next week’s meeting of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

With First plc having signalled its intention to pause the sale of UK bus operations, the Combined Authority is being asked to widen the use of funding approved for legal and technical advice to investigate the implications of franchising.

Franchising would change the way that bus services are organised in the region. Instead of the current deregulated system, whereby routes and fares are almost entirely decided by private companies, it would enable local contracts to be awarded to run services based on the needs of local people.

It would allow much greater control over fares, routes, ticketing arrangements and timetables. By making the bus system much more responsive to people’s needs, it is hoped that more people will choose the bus as their preferred mode of transport in our towns and cities.

Bus franchising is a process that is easier for Mayoral Combined Authorities and is already being investigated in Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

January’s meeting of the Combined Authority’s Transport Committee backed Greater Manchester’s ‘Doing Buses Differently’ consultation on franchising local bus operations, which is being led by elected mayor Andy Burnham. The proposals would see Greater Manchester Combined Authority owning bus depots and determining services, fares and frequencies through local contracts awarded to bus companies.

Cllr Kim Groves, Chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s Transport Committee and the West Yorkshire Bus Alliance, said:

“Bus trips in West Yorkshire are currently declining by a million fewer trips every year, and we are seeing operators cut services to our communities and bus fares rising. Yet the role of the bus has never been more important to connect people to essential services and help us reduce carbon emissions from transport. If the current deregulated model for bus operations continues to decline in this way, then we have to look at the public sector taking a more substantial role in integrating public transport and improving bus services. We have to bring back the bus as the best choice for people moving around our towns and cities.

“With the government sounding more positive on  reaching a devolution deal with us, we need to look at the new opportunities that would put within our grasp, including the ability  to take forward the franchising of bus services without seeking Government permission to do so.”

The report to next week’s West Yorkshire Combined Authority says the process of understanding the approach to franchising includes learning from the experiences of Greater Manchester and Merseyside. It also highlights the need to consider how publicly funded transport in other sectors such as that provided in the health and social care sectors might be integrated and the need to maintain investment and progress in schemes to improve infrastructure beneficial to buses.

Cllr Groves added:

“Even with devolution, I don’t underestimate the complexity, cost and timescales that would be involved in pursuing the franchising option. That is why before any decision is taken we need to do further work to explore the costs and benefits.

“We recognise the vital role local bus services play in supporting the local economy, reducing congestion and harmful emissions, connect young people with education, training and opportunities for their futures and linking people and communities and are already working closely with bus operators through the West Yorkshire Bus Alliance.

“It is a strong partnership committed to making immediate improvements. We will soon be announcing a new fare deal for under 19s and we are working on developing training programmes for our frontline teams, proposals to make services and schedules easier to use for current passengers and non-bus-users alike and an engagement process with young people across West Yorkshire.”

At next week’s meeting, the Combined Authority will also receive an update on the progress of mass transit proposals for the Leeds City Region and the request made to the Government for £20 million to support further development work following pledges made during the General Election campaign.

A report to the meeting sets out the emerging findings from a recent market-testing exercise which suggest a mass transit system would likely be comprised of a mixture of technologies including bus, bus rapid transit and light rail.

You can find the agenda and papers for next week’s West Yorkshire Combined Authority meeting, which takes place at 11am on Thursday 6 February at Committee Room 1 in Bradford City Hall, here.

It is a public meeting, and all are welcome, and people can also watch the live or later via webcast.