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This week, Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham became the first of the metro mayors to commit to bus franchising in his city. Confirming the completion of the assessment of bus services in the city, Burnham identified the deregulated nature of the bus network in Manchester as the key driver of fragmentation and unreliability of services. Additionally, he outlined plans for free bus travel for 16-18-year-olds, extensions to the Metrolink tram network, and an intention to move towards more local control of the rail network. But it is the bus franchising proposal that has attracted the most attention.
Greater Manchester’s transport network is increasingly under strain. Metrolink patronage has been growing quickly since the “Big Bang” of major extension works, and commuting by train to the city centre increased between the last two censuses. Meanwhile, congestion in the city centre is a real problem. These issues all have economic implications. For a city’s economy to succeed, the transport network needs to link workers with places of employment – and a fragmented system with crowded services will struggle to do that. The Our Network proposals are in part intended to address these connectivity issues.
Bus franchising is a system where the local transport authority – in this case, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) – has the power to award contracts to run individual routes, instead of bus operators competing to run profitable routes and taking subsidy to run loss-making ones. These routes are entirely specified by the local transport authority. The funding structure is also different to that on the deregulated bus network. Instead of operators collecting their own fares, fares are set and collected by the transport authority, and operators will be paid a fixed fee to deliver services on their franchised routes. This means operators have an incentive to bid for every route, as they will receive a payment for every route operated, rather than concentrating on more profitable routes.
Centre for Cities is a long-time proponent of bus franchising as a means to make travel cheaper, simpler and more integrated, and cities more productive as a result. Bus franchising has been in operation in Greater London since the privatisation of the region’s buses, beginning with the Tendered Bus Network in 1985 and continuing through to the sell-off of the geographical business units in 1994. In London, operators have had to win tenders to operate routes, and as explained above, Transport for London (TfL) collects the fares and pays operators a fixed fee to operate these routes.
In practice, this has allowed TfL to plan its transport network as a single, integrated system – specifying routes that feed into major tube stations, cutting routes where there is duplication (either with other buses or other transport modes), and ensuring that poorly-utilised routes are subsidised by more profitable ones. This is because TfL has no financial incentive to compete with the tube or with other bus services in the city – but its financial constraints still force it to strive for efficiency. The clear benefits that it has bought to Greater London are the strongest argument for allowing every city the power to franchise their buses.
Greater Manchester could be the first to benefit from this. The combined authority’s written evidence to the Transport Select Committee highlighted that on-road competition between operators on routes is rare and dwindling, and hypothesised that falling bus patronage indicated dropping satisfaction with bus services. Franchising would make operators compete to offer higher-quality services, as incumbents have limited advantages in bidding to run routes, and this should improve passenger satisfaction with the state of the network. The bus network can also be integrated with Metrolink, meaning that services will complement rather than compete with one another.
Young people in Greater Manchester would also benefit from free bus passes for 16-18 year-olds, initially under a trial which will assess its viability for full roll-out. This will ensure they are able to take full advantage of the proposals to improve the bus network and will develop a habit of bus use into the future. Additionally, the upcoming launch of the GM Rail Prospectus will build momentum for the devolution of local rail services to the combined authority – potentially meaning that another mode can be brought into the authority’s integrated planning.
The proposals for Our Network could represent a significant shift in transport policy at the city level in the UK, and other cities will no doubt be keen to follow Greater Manchester’s lead. But within Manchester itself, the proposals represent a real opportunity to create a transport network that better connects people to places of work, supports economic growth and boosts the passenger experience of public transport.
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