The new powers for Greater Manchester promised by chancellor George Osborne require careful consideration. Much is at stake

 

Will all the buses be the same colour? Anyone for Metrolink yellow? (Artist’s impression)

 

Following the views expressed by others in the previous issue, I am adding my thoughts on the most significant issue affecting bus services recently. Greater Manchester has been singled out as the test bed for devolution of powers to a Combined Authority. As the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has noted, this would include a move away from a deregulated bus market to some form of franchised services. While Mr Osborne is probably not a seasoned bus user, his concept appears to be of conurbations emulating London’s apparent success in providing comprehensive, high quality bus services. It represents a huge ideological shift away from the current position. Greater Manchester’s selection is particularly interesting when compared with other conurbations, notably the West Midlands where the ownership and operation of the bus network is very different (there one dominant operator) and the proposals for a Quality Contract Scheme in the North East.

 

Where we are now

The bus market in Manchester has stabilised since its early confused state. The number of operators is still large compared with many other city regions. The quantity of buses at town bus stations and city centre termini is huge, reflecting the area’s established culture of bus travel. The supply side has become more consolidated through acquisition with bus operators such as Mayne being acquired by Stagecoach in 2008 and Finglands being absorbed by First last year. The territories from long ago remain, with First being predominantly in the north and Stagecoach in the south of the city although the map is becoming more blurred. The deregulated environment is perhaps best illustrated by the Wilmslow Road corridor in which Stagecoach services now compete with Magic Bus (also part of Stagecoach) and with First. This is market segmentation in practice – Magic Bus serves the ‘low budget’ end, particularly the large student population. While the quality of the service has improved, for a long time it has shown how competition can drive down quality as well as improve it and travelling on a Magic Bus has been a long way from an uplifting experience.

If change is being advocated, the implication is that the current situation is undesirable. Passenger Focus research based on surveys in autumn 2011 showed that 87% of Stagecoach Manchester users were very or fairly satisfied with their bus journey compared with 86% for TfGM consumers overall. For First Manchester users, 84% were very or fairly satisfied. This suggests that there isn’t a customer consensus that things have gone wrong unless the situation has taken a turn for the worse recently (which doesn’t appear to be the case). Regarding quality, Transdev’s ‘The Witch Way’ service shows how interurban links can operate efficiently and maintain high standards. In some corridors, there is competition on fares although it might be noted that fare levels in other parts of the country are often much higher. A conclusion could be that services are numerous, often very frequent but that quality varies. This then provides a starting point for considering how the high quality services could be replicated across the combined authority area.

 

What could the future hold?

There are some other considerations. The chancellor’s view is that much depends on the creation of an elected mayor for the whole area. This is a political conundrum firstly because Manchester voted against such a proposal not long ago and secondly there are many competing interests across the area and finding any political unity may prove difficult. The government view seems to be that replicating the London model is the only sensible option. If so, then that might assume that better bus services require a substantial subsidy, hundreds of millions of pounds annually in London, which would presumably be forthcoming for Greater Manchester – or perhaps not. The current government has a habit of saying that costs for some schemes are spread over several years so they are affordable so the same principle should apply in reverse – so if a subsidy of £100m per year is required, can a
10-year cost of £1bn be considered reasonable?

Adopting a franchised system brings uncertainties and risks which need to be quantified, owned and managed. However, better integration of passenger transport services might be achieved. This could remove some competition of bus and Metrolink services and support inter-urban and orbital services. It offers an opportunity to re-think how and why buses operate, bearing in mind the potential growth in the urban population and changes in travel patterns. There could be better connections with rail services throughout the conurbation. There might also be opportunities to manage the wider transport network more effectively, such as road maintenance which has reached an all-time low.

 

What could be different?

A fresh approach will need to be forged in the spirit of collaboration and transparency. If major changes are to be successful, all the stakeholders must be engaged properly to collectively ‘own’ the process of change; this should include the transport users also as it is they who will experience the results of any changes. There must be some shared objectives and a clear understanding of what is intended. Sorting out a large number of operators, authorities and other stakeholders will be a challenge, but there must be a balance between getting it right and drawing out the process for too long.

A franchised network needs to be managed carefully with appropriate performance indicators to see what impacts occur. Fundamentally, funding will be a key issue throughout so following an initial allocation of government funds, agreement must be reached on what to do with it. Accountability is all-important and network changes must demonstrate value for money. All this will be difficult to reconcile with commercial regimes – the current protectionism about patronage and revenue may need to give way to a more transparent regime in which as much data as possible is made available to the authority and in the public domain.

The whole exercise will be a success if it provides more stability for the network, improvements such as better evening and weekend services and adjustments in response to emerging needs – here wider interests should be involved more fully such as large employers, retail interests, healthcare providers, education sector, etc. Achieving all this is a tall order if political interests do not present a united front; however, transport planning co-ordination should not represent a threat but a major opportunity. Perhaps there is an opportunity to re-create the good points from the proud municipal and private operator mix of the post-war years, all combining to create a satisfying network that attracts users.

 

Thinking through the proposals

The Department of Transport’s advisors, KPMG, have come up with a number of questions to be addressed in pursuing some form of franchised services. Some additional questions may help to distil views (see panel below).

The way in which the chancellor’s promises are delivered needs to be thought through carefully. There is much at stake.

 

Bus franchising: Key questions

  • In what way have current arrangements failed?
  • What will happen if an elected mayor’s view is not in accordance with the franchising plans?
  • To what extent will new arrangements better integrate with rail and Metrolink, park and ride,
  • car parking availability and pricing and other aspects of transport?
  • How will improved quality be assured?
  • Will the change be a ‘big bang’ with a clear changeover date or will interim arrangements be needed?
  • If additional costs are incurred, what commitment to funding will there be?
  • Most importantly for some, will all the buses be the same colour? Anyone for Metrolink yellow?

 

About the author

Nick Richardson is chair of the Transport Planning Society. He is also projects director at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a director of CILT UK and chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd. He has held a PCV licence for 27 years.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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