Our alternative plan to franchising bus services would see cheaper and quicker improvements - Andrew Cullen

Ask anyone what they want to see from better bus services, and you’ll get the same answer: reliability, increased frequency, lower fares and simpler tickets. Bus operators agree with the Mayor, Tracy Brabin, that a new approach is needed to provide improved service for bus users, simple and affordable fares, greener buses to reduce carbon emissions, and quicker and more frequent journeys.

These are among the aims of the Bus Reform project which is now in discussion in West Yorkshire between bus operators, the Mayor and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA).

Working together, in partnership with WYCA and the Mayor, we’ve already made progress. Bus operators helped to introduce the new Under 19s ticketing offer which enables travel on any service. We supported the ‘Mayor’s Fares’ scheme, funded through partnership to create a fare cap on Single trips and Day tickets. And we applauded the Mayor’s decision to introduce this in September last year, ahead of the national scheme launched by the Government in January this year. Change is already happening and operators share the ambition for this to be bolder, faster and go further. We know that franchising, where the local authority controls the fares, timetables, routes and ticketing, with operators paid a contract fee to run a particular section of the network, is the Mayor’s preferred option.

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But West Yorkshire’s operators strongly believe that the same objectives can be achieved in less time, at lower cost and with less disruption than franchising. Fundamental to this is defining what’s best for the customer, how quickly customer benefits can be delivered and ultimately what will grow customer confidence in using buses.

Zero emission buses near Millennium Square in Leeds. PIC: James HardistyZero emission buses near Millennium Square in Leeds. PIC: James Hardisty
Zero emission buses near Millennium Square in Leeds. PIC: James Hardisty

Here in West Yorkshire, bus operators together with WYCA have been working hard to develop an alternative to franchising that would still allow the ‘public control’ of the network desired by the Mayor and deliver the improvements we all want to see for customers, but with a reduced financial risk for the regional authority.

This is underlined by a long-term commitment that gives all partners long-term investment confidence and builds significantly on the current Enhanced Partnership between operators and WYCA, which was established last April. The name for this new approach to better bus services is ‘Enhanced Partnership Plus’ (EP+).

Supporting West Yorkshire's 2040 Transport Strategy, this new partnership would be transformative for bus users on many levels, including a publicly controlled, integrated bus network. And for the people of West Yorkshire, it promises a simpler ticket range and multi-operator contactless fare-capping to make journeys seamless and keep costs down – the ‘London-style ticketing’ system that’s often suggested as the way forward. Improved and streamlined customer service and information will also be introduced alongside a clearly understood single brand and point of contact for customers.

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Through our existing partnership with WYCA, bus operators have helped secure millions of pounds in Government funding matched by our own multi-million pound commitment to invest in electric vehicles. This will make 10 per cent of West Yorkshire’s bus fleet all-electric by 2024/25, a significant achievement. The EP+ can help accelerate this progress to reduce the overall impact of transport on carbon emissions and air quality, to increase the region’s climate change resilience and achieve a zero-emission bus fleet across the region by 2036.

A modern, well-connected transport system that makes travel around West Yorkshire easy and reliable is also vital in reducing traffic emissions and tackling the impacts of climate change. Operators are committed to open data sharing and transparency, so that our partnership can make informed decisions to continue to improve services year after year. This will support network control, help identify bus priority to battle congestion and mean passengers can plan journeys with precision, track buses in real-time and find the best-value fare, all of which are paramount to make public transport an attractive choice for customers.

To deliver this level of reliability and certainty in journey times also requires partners in urban planning, highways and traffic management in districts across the region to play their part in enabling bus priority.

When assessing the financial aspects for reform it’s important to consider value for money and the public appetite for funding, which would be required in franchising. The independent assessment of the options available has franchising as “preferred” but states that EP+ “offers significant improvements and advantages beyond the existing EP”.

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Bus operators in West Yorkshire believe EP+ can deliver the best bus services for customers quickly, provide best value for the public purse and meet the ambitions of the mayor.

Andrew Cullen is managing director of First Bus in North and West Yorkshire.