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Buses in west of Scotland set to be brought under local control

by Staff
  • By Catherine Lyst
  • BBC Scotland News

Bus services in the west of Scotland are set to be brought back under local control under radical plans.

The current deregulated network could be replaced with a franchise system like the ones in London and Manchester.

This means fares, routes and ticketing would be controlled by a local public body such as Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT).

However, SPT has said it could take seven years to set up and would need at least £45m in extra funding every year.

In the meantime, Bus Service Improvement Partnerships (BSIPs) will be introduced, where contracts are put in place with bus firms to run services.

These allow a local transport authority like SPT to impose a minimum frequency for services and a cap on fares.

But they cannot set routes or the actual fares.

SPT predict this will require at least 200 more buses across the region and a multi-million pound subsidy.

The authority predicts they could be put in place within 12 months.

Reform recommendations were approved at an SPT meeting earlier. It said it would consult widely on the recommendations over the next few months.

Under the planned franchise system, bus firms would have to bid for contracts within an approved network.

A public body, such as SPT, would set the precise routes, the timetable, the frequency and take in fares.

It means that routes with lower patronage are subsidised by busier, more popular routes.

But bus operator McGills has warned that introducing a franchise system will create a “funding black hole for taxpayers”.

Deregulation, which was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, was meant to drive down fares and improve services amid competition, but has led to complaints about fewer services, punctuality and higher costs.

Critics say bus firms cherry-pick the profitable routes, and leave the rest.

According to SPT, bus use in the region has plummeted by a third in the past decade – equating to 70 million fewer bus journeys.

And despite the fact that the bus network is shrinking, with fewer bus routes being served, fares have risen much faster than the cost of living.

SPT’s chairman, Councillor Stephen Dornan, said it was a “bold and ambitious plan” which “sets a strong approach to tackle a declining bus market”.

“It gives us opportunities to build for growth, and deliver a network that is attractive, accessible, and affordable to both passengers in our communities who rely on the bus to get around and those who we need to get ‘on board’ by offering an attractive alternative to the private car,” he said.

“However, any franchising option will take time and investment to establish so we need to look at doing something now to halt the declining bus market.

“BSIPs, which also require suitable investment, offer the best opportunity for a significant, interim improvement while we work to establish the world-class local bus franchise model the people of the west of Scotland deserve.”

He called for extra funding from the Scottish government.

A franchise system is in place in London and Manchester and is also being introduced in Liverpool.

SPT has warned it could between five and seven years for a franchise system like the Bee Network in Manchester to be in operation. The initial set-up costs will be £15m.

Image caption,

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says putting buses back under public control improves services

But Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, told BBC Scotland News it makes services accountable to people.

“If the bus sails right past, or doesn’t turn up at all, there’s nothing you can do to get come-back against those operators, and hold them to account for the travelling public,” he said. “That’s what deregulation means.

“Now there is something I can do.

“They may suffer financial penalties if they don’t turn up on time, and that’s a world of difference.”

Mr Burnham argues that another benefit is that money spent by passengers – the so-called “fare box” – comes back to the network, not the bus companies, if more people use the bus.

“We take the upside of that, and we use that upside to keep the fares low,” he said.

“And because the fares are going lower, even more people might use it and you create a virtuous circle, rather than a spiral of decline that we’ve had in this city for four decades prior to the Bee Network.

“The evidence from Greater Manchester is clear – putting buses back under public control improve services. It makes you able to recycle the proceeds into keeping fares low and, critically, it makes the people the bosses of the buses.”

Video caption,

Campaigners say bringing the city’s buses back under public control will boost the economy

Bus operator McGills has previously warned that bus franchising could create a £100m annual black hole for Scottish taxpayers and said it would take legal action if it went ahead.

On Friday its chief executive Ralph Roberts said: “The bus users of Strathclyde consistently tell us that their number one issue in using buses is congestion, which affects service reliability, journey times and cost of travel.

“The biggest priority for SPT should be to push local authorities to manage their infrastructure under the powers they already have which will allow bus users to make more consistent, quicker and cheaper journeys.”

Andrew Carter, chief executive of the economic think tank Centre for Cities, said bus franchising could improve access to Glasgow city centre for about 300,000 people.

“It will lead to better routes, better pricing and simpler fares for passengers,” he said. “It’s one step towards reversing decline in bus travel and getting the economy firing again.”

He added that Greater Manchester had seen an 8% increase in bus passenger numbers.

Transport Scotland said all local transport authorities were now able to consider partnership working, franchising and local authority-run services which sit alongside their ability to subsidise services.

A spokesman said: “We welcome SPT’s decision to explore all available bus powers as part of their Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy.

“It is the decision for each local transport authority to determine which powers are suitable to improve services in their specific area.”

A sub-standard bus network makes life very difficult for many.

Getting to work, the shops or college becomes a daily grind.

It limits choices for many workers, and think tanks warn it harms Glasgow’s economy.

Now SPT has put a nail into the coffin of bus deregulation, a system that’s been in place, for better or worse, for almost 40 years.

Other transport authorities across Scotland have the power to follow suit, and it’s likely some will.

But there’s a long road ahead- with consultations galore – before the bus network changes.

Stand by for a long argument about money.

Where will the millions of pounds in extra funding for SPT come from?

Can bus routes that were lost in recent years be reinstated?

How, in short, can the service be improved so passengers return in large numbers?

Operators argue that buses need priority on the roads to speed up journeys and attract passengers.

Will that become part of the plan?

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