The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has recommended the mayor approves plans to introduce bus franchising across the city region, scrapping the current privately operated system.
An Ipsos Mori-led consultation on the plans was held between December and January this year and garnered more than 12,500 responses, 82% of which were in support of a franchising model, according to the GMCA.
Under the proposed system, buses would be controlled by the GMCA, which would set the routes, frequencies, tickets and standards, and the operators would run the services deemed to provide the best value to taxpayers. At present, individual bus companies decide their own routes, frequencies, tickets and standards and, in areas where they don’t operate, the public sector pays to fill in the gaps where it can.
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham is due to consider and decide whether to proceed with the plan following two council meetings over the next fortnight, and no earlier than 25 March. If approved, the franchising model would be rolled out in three phases with one sub-area of the city region introduced each year between 2023 and 2025.
The franchise model is part of the GMCA’s plans to create a more integrated, London-style public transport system where tickets can be transferred across multiple routes and multiple types of transportation, and, should it go ahead, would be the biggest change to the local bus network since deregulation in 1986.
The GMCA claims the franchising model would help improve quality of service provision on bus routes across Greater Manchester and encourage greater take-up of bus transportation. Bus patronage has fallen by 45% from 350 million people in 1986 to 194 million in 2018 and the network has continued to shrink, the authority says.
There are also currently more than 150 different types of bus ticket and a single ticket can cost £4 compared to £1.55 in London and does not allow passengers to transfer between different transport routes or networks. “There is no coordination and limited oversight,” the GMCA said.
But individual bus operators in the city region are less than happy about the plans. Stagecoach this weekend urged the GMCA to rethink its proposals, saying that they do not reflect the reality of public transport use post-Covid. Earlier this year, Stagecoach revealed its own operational strategy to keep control over buses through a partnership model with the city region, and it has also sought a judicial review of the GMCA’s plans.
Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach chief executive, said: “We are disappointed at GMCA’s recommendation. We believe the Combined
Authority conducted an unlawful process and a flawed consultation on proposals which do not properly reflect the fundamental and
material changes brought about by the Covid‐19 pandemic.”
Griffiths added that “our priority has always been to ensure we have a bus network that works for local communities, taxpayers, and the bus operators whose success supports the economy and employment in Greater Manchester”. He concluded: “While we await the decision of the court, we would urge the Combined Authority to rethink its approach and pause its plans.”
Meanwhile, Bolton-based bus operator Diamond threatened to take legal action against Manchester City Council when it closed Deansgate to traffic amid the pandemic last year. Diamond questioned the basis on which the pedestrianisation order was made, and the council reopened a section of the road to buses in December in response.
The GMCA cites a report it produced this year that concludes there is sufficient market certainty, even amid the pandemic, to make a decision on franchising now, as it would enable the authority “to support the long-term recovery of the bus market and the wider society and economy of Greater Manchester.”
The GMCA said: “The flexibility of the proposed franchising scheme would also work across a number of different scenarios and a range of outcomes.
“Further information becoming available on Covid-19 would not fundamentally alter the uncertainty around the pandemic or provide more evidence for decision-making.”
Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council and deputy mayor of the GMCA, said: “Buses are central to our public transport network, with three out of four journeys made by bus, but it has been clear for a long time that our buses could be better.
“We have now held consultation over two periods on a proposed franchising scheme and have asked for people’s views on the proposals in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. In both periods, there were high levels of support for franchising and the benefits it would bring for the future of Greater Manchester’s buses.
“People, businesses and other organisations have overwhelmingly told us that they want change. They want buses that are easier to use, with services that connect to each other and other forms of public transport. They want simpler fares and tickets and can also see the wider benefits of franchising for the city-region and our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
He added: “It’s important to note no decision has been made at this stage. If franchising was to proceed, it would be a complex and long process – as the current bus network has been broken for over 30 years, it wouldn’t be fixed overnight. But it would deliver benefits over the longer term.”