While acknowledging the success of the Bus Alliance with bus operators, LCR’s metro mayor wants to take greater control. Rhodri Clark reports

 

Steve Rotheram, metro mayor for Liverpool City Region

 

Steve Rotheram, metro mayor for the Liverpool City Region, said last week that the city region will take greater control of local bus services, while acknowledging the success of the existing Bus Alliance in driving up patronage.

He announced a “big bus conversation” with all stakeholders about the future of the city region’s buses, as part of the evaluation of the options for greater control. He urged bus operators to take part. “Our door is always open to you, if you have ideas about how we can improve our buses,” he said.

England’s metro mayors had been handed new powers by the Bus Services Act 2017, he explained in a speech to business leaders, voluntary groups and the media. “I can confirm that the Liverpool City Region will be using the powers to drive through major improvements in the bus network. This is a clear signal to the public that we’re taking greater control of our public transport sector.”

Options ranged from building on the existing partnership through to franchising. Each would be evaluated fairly to determine which would give best value for fare-paying passengers, he pledged. He urged the public to “bear with us” because the legislation was complex and the process “overly bureaucratic”.

He had no illusions about introducing the chosen option during this three-year mayoral term, less than two years of which remain. “We will definitely know what it is that we want to do [by the end of the term],” he told Passenger Transport. “There’s a long way to go, because of the complexity of the legislation. There will be a paper to the Combined Authority within about 12 months.”

During his speech, he claimed that residents of the city region “looked enviously at London” when their bus route was reduced because operators couldn’t make enough profit on it, or when they found that their Walrus card could not be used on all bus services in the city region. “They experience patchy services at weekends and evenings and ask, ‘Why can’t things be better?’”

I genuinely don’t know whether the franchising model would work here. We want to make sure that we appraise every element of the legislation which benefits us

Asked whether the city region had the resources to emulate London’s franchising regime, he replied: “I genuinely don’t know whether the franchising model would work here. We want to make sure that we appraise every element of the legislation which benefits us.”

Referring to the city region’s recent year-on-year bus patronage growth of 16% – which bucks the downward trend in Britain – he said: “We’re doing really well, but I don’t just want to do really well. If you look at the 92% [passenger] satisfaction rate on our buses, that’s 8% who are not satisfied.”

Did the Bus Alliance’s success indicate that this was the way forward? “One of the options is a further enhanced partnership,” he replied. “It’s sort of what we’re doing now but a much more structured legal entity.”

Asked about the risk of the alliance falling apart and services worsening while an option such as franchising was prepared for introduction, he said: “I hope that everything we’re doing is strengthening the partnership. The challenge today is, ‘Let’s talk more and improve the service for everybody.’

“Also there are opportunities through the Bus Services Act 2017 to look at what we can do with the legislative powers that have been passed down from national government. I’m not going to be afraid to use them. I want to use them appropriately. I’m not going to say, ‘We’re going to do that because it sounds good.’ It’s not the way we operate any more. We’ve changed the way we work with the city region and the way we work with national government. It’s paying dividends.”

Only Arriva and Stagecoach – which operate more than 90% of the region’s bus services – have signed up to the Bus Alliance, but Merseytravel is confident that one of the smaller operators is on the verge of joining. Although London’s bus contracts are in the hands of major groups, the Liverpool City Region’s chosen method of taking greater control would not squeeze out the smaller companies, Rotheram said. London was heavily built up, but the LCR included rural areas and one of the challenges was to provide good, and viable, bus services to the outlying areas. “Our difficulties aren’t the same as London’s,” he added.

Business leaders who attended Rotheram’s bus speech acknowledged the large numbers of people conveyed on the city region’s buses but called for more comprehensive services, particularly to support the burgeoning night-time economy. Iain Finlayson, business performance director at the Liverpool One development – which includes shops, apartments, hotels, offices and restaurants – said buses accounted for 7.6 million visits to the site per annum, out of a total of 28 million.

I think there are areas of the city region that don’t have fantastic coverage. It would be good to see those improve

“It’s a huge thing for us,” he said. However, he continued: “I think there are areas of the city region that don’t have fantastic coverage. It would be good to see those improve. I think the east of the city doesn’t have the kind of service that the north of the city has.”

In a press statement accompanying the speech, Howard Farrall and Rob Jones, area managing directors for Arriva and Stagecoach, said the LCR was blazing a trail with the Bus Alliance, which had invested more than £52m in the bus network since its formation. Patronage had increased to 147 million journeys a year and passenger satisfaction had increased by more than 10% in 2017.

“As bus operators, we are pleased to see bus travel being given the level of priority it deserves by the metro mayor and are committed to taking part in the ongoing debate about how we can make the bus the best it possibly can be,” they said.

During his speech, Rotheram announced that an Apprentices Discount Scheme had been agreed with Stagecoach and Arriva. The scheme will provide half-price bus travel for all apprentices aged up to 25 years. He recalled how as an apprentice bricklayer he had given half of his earnings to his mother, who had seven other children to feed, and spent most of the remainder on travel. As mayor, he had spoken to many young people who had not taken up apprenticeships simply because travel to and from the workplace would have cost too much, with the minimum wage for apprentices being half that for adults aged 21 to 24 in work.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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