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Operators such as Stagecoach have spoken out against the franchising proposals

GM bus franchising leaps ahead despite opposition

Sarah Townsend

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.”

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Stagecoach and Diamond just looking out for their own interests at the expense of Greater Manchester. The taxpayer already subsidises these services, and all that money goes straight into the back pockets of the operator’s CEOs. Franchising is absolutely a brilliant idea, a tried and tested method in London and multiple other cities throughout the world. There is no reason it shouldn’t work in Greater Manchester, and I’m looking forward to being able to use the bus network with ease once again as soon as these parasitic operators have been taken down a peg

By Anonymous

There are far too many buses in GM

By Floyd

One giant bus company all charging the same prices like it was back in the 1970s with selnec, then it was greater Manchester buses in the early 1980s and then it became GM buses.

By Born Bred Darren.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the buses are broken and need fixing. Private bus operators have had 30 years to get this right and have failed miserably. Franchising is the only viable put forward so far and works well, as has been proven all over the world.

By Mancunian

The sooner this gets done the better – the bus network in Greater Manchester is badly broken. Some routes have so many buses the drivers actually end up fighting for passengers – whilst on other routes you can be waiting for a bus forever.

By Manc Man

They need to be cheap like London’s. You can go miles there for pennies. It recently cost £2 odd to go two stops on First or whatever they are called now. These people have been fleecing the low paid with a rubbish service for decades. I rarely use buses but was shocked at how expensive it was. Paint them yellow like the trams and let that be the GM colour so we know what we are looking for. Londoners are always a separate case for everything.

By Elephant

Do it asap. The buses in Manchester are expensive and crap. London buses are cheaper, newer, more frequent and better integrated. It’s about time Manchester caught up and took control of its buses

By Tim

Maybe some facts might help here. Firstly there have been two rounds of consultation with a large number of respondents submitting their views to both. What percentage of the whole of the GM population of over 2,800,000 do they represent?
Whilst there may be a view that buses are broken, this proposal will not fix them. TfGM will spend £135m between now and 2025 merely buying the existing depots, improving their own IT systems and recruiting more staff – whilst none of the promised improvements to buses will happen – in fact it will be worse for bus users as there will be two systems operating.
There are multi modal tickets available now and TfGM already has the ability and the funding to run buses where they don’t run – in fact they have withdrawn a lot of services themselves due to economies but continue to employ more people to run less services.
Passenger numbers have dropped but your numbers are totally incorrect. The fall in passenger numbers between 1980 and 1993, when the Council last controlled buses during the good old days of SELNEC and GM Buses, was from 417 million to 256 million and then over the last 25 years they fell much less – habits have changed and Metrolink accept that over 60% of their users came from bus.
What does franchising actually promise? If you have time to read the thousands of pages that have been produced at considerable cost by highly paid consultants, you will read that single and return fares will remain at the same level as now and increase by RPI + 1.4% each year. Those who were expecting Andy Burnham’s £1.50 fare like London have been let down. There are no plans to change the network, no plans to make buses more frequent, no plans to provide new services no plans to invest in new buses and no plans to improve bus priorities – so what’s the point of wasting your money just to take control? There are plans to increase fares higher and to cut services if there isn’t enough money. Is that any better than what’s there now?
It all sounds very nice, but anyone can say what’s there is not right and we are going to make it better – but can they deliver? Manchester don’t want buses in the City Centre. We’ve seen buses moved away from Deansgate. If you catch your bus from Oldham Street or Lever Street or even Piccadilly Gardens you’ll have to walk further as buses are being moved out, maybe to allow more antisocial behaviour in the gardens- so much for integration with the tram and giving us a world class bus service.
Sadly, this is all about politics and ignores the fact that the Government yesterday announced a better scheme with £3bn of funding to make buses more frequent, cheaper, faster and more modern – but GM don’t want that as they have their own negative plan to use your hard earned money, just to be different! Nobody mentions the £100m that the Council got from selling the bus companies and now they want the business back for nothing.

By Anonymous

There is no doubt that the current model is dysfunctional. But it should be borne in mind that London’s franchising scheme alone benefitted from a £1bn subsidy directly from the treasury to finance the model and the expanded network.

I doubt that GM will receive anything like that sort of support but none of that is an argument against pressing ahead with franchising. The sheer inefficiency of having different bus companies, none of whom have any incentive to coordinate their services plus the profit disappearing into their coffers rather than being invested in the network, (perhaps to subsidise less profitable but socially important gaps in the route network) means there is still a very strong argument to implement franchising and push back against vested interests as per Anonymous’s comment above.

The recent government announcement is a series of vague aspirations with a quite pathetic amount of funding attached to it when spread out over the whole country. Franchising is the only way forward.

By Bus basher

The other point to make about bus patronage is that passenger numbers have declined almost everywhere apart from the capital (which benefits from franchising) where ridership has actually risen. That’s another fact which Anonymous has overlooked.

By Bud basher

This has to be done as soon as possible! The current system is inefficient and expensive. How can the whole network work if the operators decide which route they want to take and set their own schedules. There a number of bus companies duplicating services on the most popular routes and other routes are not operated at all because they are not lucrative enough for the bus operators who’s sole purpose is making hefty profits .

By John

Story updated with Stagecoach quote

By Neil Tague