Brabin unlikely to be deflected


West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin is due to announce on Thursday whether the combined authority that she leads will take forward proposals for bus franchising, but bus operators have poured resources into promoting their preferred option.

According to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), buses are the region's most used form of public transport, with over 1.7 million bus journeys taken each week. But the authority says patronage is in long-term decline and the way local buses are run needs to change.

The current system is an Enhanced Partnership (EP) model but WYCA is recommending a move to bus franchising from 2026.

It ran a consultation on this from October last to the beginning of January, setting out its plan for franchising, alongside the alternative option, the Enhanced Partnership Plus (EP+), which details what else the authority and bus operators could do to improve services through the current framework.

Almost immediately, a group of bus operators, including the three largest – Arriva, First Bus and Transdev Blazefield – came together under the banner of ‘The Best for West Yorkshire' to proclaim their opposition to franchising and their support for EP+.

They argue that this can bring benefits to customers more quickly, ‘whilst still delivering public control’, improving bus services through reinvestment, with less public money. This will include an integrated network that enables enhanced connectivity; better reliability; and an empowered public with a stronger voice in shaping their bus network.

There would be simpler fares and integrated ticketing, including capping, faster journey times and a single brand. On the environmental front, the operators suggest that a 100% zero-emission fleet can be achieved by 2036 ‘by maximising partnership funding opportunities’.

In January, just as the WYCA consultation came to a close, Best for West Yorkshire published the results of a poll it had commissioned, which they said showed that two-thirds of people surveyed thought ‘the financial risk of running the region’s buses should remain with private bus operators and not transfer to taxpayers’.

The poll also showed that twice as many people want to see improved services from 2024 (60%) rather than 2026 (30%) ‘at the earliest’ under franchising.

The group has made the poll questions and data available to Transport Network and, while it would be wrong to say that it is misleading, you can see why the questions elicited the results that they did,

For example, of course people are going to say they would like things to be better now, rather than in two years’ time, but what level of improvement would be delivered by 2024 under EP+?

According to the WYCA, ‘some’ changes could be implemented from day one, but clearly not all, and certainly not a zero emission fleet. But the question was when respondents thought reform should be implemented.

And of course, if you are going to ask taxpayers whether they or someone else should take a financial risk, one answer is likely to come out on top. But who stands to profit under the EP+ model? And will fares be as low?

Matthew Topham, lead campaigner at Better Buses for West Yorkshire, which has a similar-sounding name but very definitely supports franchising, says it ‘is set to unlock a London-style system where single-operator variation is removed, guaranteeing best value’.

He adds that franchising will mean that publicly funded profits ‘will no longer leak out at the same levels’.

He explains: ‘Where the public steps into subsidise fares, something that can happen more quickly under the authorities guiding mind, the return on investment will come back to us when the fare box is under our control.’

Another question from the operators’ survey was, who is best placed to run bus services? The two main answers were private bus operators with greater scrutiny and public accountability or the mayor and her team.

The first option scored highest, but what was being asked here? A franchising model literally means bus operators being paid to run bus services, but not choosing where or when they run and potentially cherry-picking the best routes.

Mr Topham says: ‘An expansion of routes also becomes possible with the ability to cross-subsidise the network now unlocked. The authority can begin a growth cycle where profits are used to build up service frequency and new routes until they reach profitability. They can also add a longer timetable, as seen in Manchester where new night buses are under discussion for the Bee Network.

‘Operators have been cutting back on services heavily for the last decade, focusing on a fictional “core network” that will boost their profits. Public control will allow us to slowly unpick this damage by restoring the wider network.’

Although Ms Brabin has had to show that she is not pre-judging the process, it is hard to see any result other than a move towards franchising, despite the efforts of some operators to limit the extent of change.

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