Robert Montgomery says bus franchising is expensive and Enhanced Partnerships are ‘shotgun marriages’. Instead he proposes a third way

Greater Manchester plans to introduce bus franchising

By Robert Jack

Published in March 2021, the National Bus Strategy for England effectively heralded the end of the “swashbuckling days
of the the deregulated 1980s”. Bus operators must now design networks via binding Enhanced Partnership agreements or follow instructions under bus franchising arrangements. But is there a ‘third way’ for buses?

Robert Montgomery, who served as managing director of Stagecoach’s UK Bus business between 2013 and 2017, believes there is. Delivering the last of the latest series of BRTuk Lunchtime Masterclasses, he explained why the current approach to buses is flawed and why franchising will not succeed.

Montgomery, who now heads his own consultancy,, maintains that the real problem is traffic not buses. When he was born in Glasgow in 1952 the main modes of transport in that city and others were buses, trolleybuses and trams. Rising prosperity saw car ownership soar while public transport declined, and cities became “congested, polluted and overrun by cars”.

Meanwhile, reducing urban traffic levels is an important part of the response to the existential threat posed by climate change.

“The next biggest social problem is dealing with traffic,” said Montgomery,. “We can’t continue to live with high levels of traffic, that are ruining the planet, killing people and damaging health. The promised land is cities where traffic isn’t a problem.”

But how do we get to that promised land?

Franchising is flawed

“Right now the fashion is to assume it will be the public sector [that leads the way],” said Montgomery. “It’s quite fashionable now to refer to London-style franchising. All of the metro mayors use that phrase constantly, even the secretary of state uses that phrase.”

He said the assumption was that franchising would deliver better, cheaper and more frequent bus services, but he warned that this would come at a considerable cost. London, for example, required about £700m a year to support its franchising system before Covid.

The real damage to the commercial bus model is the daily failure of highway authorities to manage urban roads

“There’s no magic money tree involved in this,” he warned. “Franchising is about spending significant sums of public money to improve bus services, reduce fares, increase frequencies – but in a way that is not financially sustainable.”

He recalled that plans by Nexus to introduce a Quality Contracts bus franchising system in Tyne & Wear initially suggested that the authority would be able to do more with less. However, Nexus later revealed that its own assessment identified a 33% chance that the scheme would end in financial failure.

Meanwhile, the consultation on the franchising proposal in Greater Manchester was based on “business as usual”, but it will still cost £134m. Phase 2 will include lower fares and increased services, but these enhancements have not been financially assessed.

He contrasted this with the West Midlands, where mayor Andy Street and bus operator National Express West Midlands are working together in partnership to deliver lower fares and increased services.

“Franchising like London is the autocratic option,” he argued. “It’s the autocratic way of getting to the promised land. It’s a command and control approach.”

Montgomery also argued that London-style franchising would hinder innovation. “It’s not easy to make changes in a contracted environment and there’s not really much incentive for anyone to innovate,” he explained.

And he said that Transport for London’s post-Covid experience should serve as a warning to those who plan to become dependent on increased public expenditure.

“I find it ironic that the secretary of state [for transport], who is reducing support to London for the bus network, is simultaneously encouraging Manchester to franchise, to move into the same world,” he said.

Despite the widespread use of franchising in cities around the world, Montgomery believes that London-style franchising is a model “whose time has gone”.

“It’s environmentally credible,” he claimed. “You can use that process to deal with the environmental issues, but it’s not financially sustainable, particularly in the current public sector debt environment. So going down a route where we take the urban bus operations in the UK into being dependent on public money is a road to nowhere.”

The commercial model

Some have suggested that Britain’s commercial model for operating buses is broken, but Montgomery disagrees.

“My conclusion is that it’s not broken,” he said. “It’s a bit battered and bruised, partly by Covid, partly by Brexit, but actually those are simply two bumps in the road. The real damage to the commercial bus model is the daily failure of highway authorities to manage urban roads and seriously address declining air quality and increasing congestion.

He continued: “If our traffic authorities decided to manage the roads to a proper capacity, restrained traffic to ensure that whatever traffic was there could flow freely, then that alone would create a benevolent bus operating environment and would trigger significant transformation and modal shift – and breathe life into the commercial bus model.

“What’s holding buses back in our cities is not the operators, it’s not Covid, it’s not Brexit, it’s the failure to manage the roads.”

Enhanced Partnerships are the mechanism within which all commercial bus operations in England must now reside, but Montgomery is not impressed.

I think there’s a better way of getting to the promised land

“I don’t see them as proper advanced partnerships,” he explained. “They are more like shotgun marriages. They are not a route to the promised land because they don’t actually address traffic congestion … They simply focus on Bus Service Improvement Plans, as if buses were actually the problem.

“It’s not the bus services that are the problem. It’s the traffic on the streets that buses have to contend with that prevents buses performing the way they should. And therefore the National Bus Strategy is too focused on buses and not sufficiently focused on mobility.”

A third way?

Montgomery acknowledges the need for change: “Buses have always sat in this world well they are a business but they are also a very political animal and an important part of the community. I don’t think you can run buses in a major city without hand-in-glove co-operation between the politicians and the operator. We see that work in various places and that’s the only way forward. I’m not in any way advocating that we keep things the way they are or the way they’ve been. I’m simply advocating a different way of looking at the change.

So what does that different or third way, look like? Montgomery believes its possible to work closely with politicians but without losing commercial focus and expertise, and he’s not the first to suggest such an idea. For example, back in 2015 bus and coach commentator Roger French proposed “a middle way for Greater Manchester” (PT101) – a new public/private company.

Montgomery’s proposal is not dissimilar. He is calling for the creation of “dynamic urban mobility partnerships” for cities to bring together all of the public and private sector stakeholders in urban mobility. He describes this as “the democratic option”, where progress is made by “compromise, discussion and debate”.

These partnerships would have very clear objectives and would work together through an independently chaired partnership board, supported by a range of working parties. Car restraint and modal shift would be at the heart of their agenda.

Funded by public and private investment, they would function “in a way that fosters ongoing innovation, not something that is ossified into a set of contracts that never change”. Bus operators would contribute via a 1-2% levy on their gross revenues, sacrificing short term margin in return for long term market growth. That money would then be invested by the partnership in improving the mobility options in the city.

“It’s not unreasonable to invest 2% of revenue if it’s invested wisely in terms of bus priority and other measures,” he said. “That leads to modal shift, that leads to market growth, that leads to more profit … It makes commercial sense for operators to do it but they have to have the trust to process their money through the partnership.”

Other sources of revenue would include a slice of urban parking charges, a workplace parking levy and congestion charging, alongside funding from the combined authority and central government.

In conclusion, he said: “I think there’s a better way of getting to the promised land – a more comprehensive way, a more democratic way and a more radical way, that’s much more likely to succeed and be financially and environmentally sustainable then going down the route of 1990s London-style franchising.”


  • Based on a shared vision and clear, agreed objectives
  • Independently chaired by a reputable local figure
  • Focused on both environmental and financial sustainability
  • Driven by car restraint and modal shift
  • Delivered by public support and private investment
  • Delivering returns to community and the investors
  • Fostering innovation and challenge
  • Delivering a comprehensive, co-operative, co-ordinated mobility package for consumers


May 19: Peter Shelley of Portsmouth City Council – VIEW HERE.
May 26: Angela Hosford of TfWM on Sprint – VIEW HERE.
June 9: Tony Brown of Atkins – VIEW HERE.
June 16: Liz Helen Rosenkilda Christensen on ‘Busveien’ – VIEW HERE.
June 23: Thomas Ableman, director of innovation at TfL, asks ‘Why Innovation?’ – VIEW HERE.
June 30: Shane Hymers of Kent County Council – VIEW HERE.
July 7: Robert Montgomery of discusses ‘UK Bus: Delivering the promised land – sharing the spend and the spoils’ – VIEW HERE


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