Bus franchising under fire at Leeds meeting

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PROPOSED major changes to the way West Yorkshire’s bus services are regulated were criticised at a Leeds City Council meeting.

Paul Matthews, managing director of First Bus West Yorkshire – the county’s biggest bus company – raised concerns over proposals for a London-style franchising system at a scrutiny board inquiry into bus service provision.

Mr Matthews said: “I still have not heard a convincing argument as to what franchising will do to improve the punctuality of bus services.”

Former Leeds City Council leader Coun Keith Wakefield, the chairman of West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, is among senior figures who have backed proposed franchising laws, which they say would give our region a London style service with Oyster-type all-in-one’ ticketing, cheaper and simpler fares, and a reversal of declining passenger numbers. Under bus franchising, which would be enshrined in the Government’s new Buses Bill, the deregulated bus market would be suspended and bus operators would only be able to provide services under contract to the local transport authority.

Mr Matthews asked: “Will it deliver what customers want most, better reliability for customers?”

He said cost was also a concern, adding: “To deliver the London level of service cost £480m last year. We don’t believe that level of funding across the country, here in West Yorkshire, is going to be available.”

He added: “The commercial risk currently borne by operators would be passed on to the authorities in question, whether or not the authorities are prepared for the level of commercial risk they would be taking on.” Mr Matthews said the lack of passenger growth would also be a problem, adding: “We do look at London with envy sometimes, but the environment is different, the economy is different, the population growth is different.” Stepahanie Elsy, of Tower Transit Ltd, which operates 450 buses in London, said franchising would “expose bus services to the forces of competition that do do not really exist in many UK cities, including, I suspect, Leeds.”

Dai Powell, of social enterprise transport provider company HTC Group, which has a depot in Leeds, said: “We are very positive on the Buses Bill. We think it will be better for passengers, authorities and operators.

“For the local authorities, they would have the freedom to shop and deliver a network based on public need, not what works commercially. Your services will be under democratic control so if you don’t get them right you will be ousted at the next election.”

Keith McNally, chairman of the Association of Bus Operators serving West Yorkshire, said after the meeting: “We’re in constructive discussions with West Yorkshire Combined Authority to agree measures which could be delivered over the next two years. These would bring wide-ranging benefits to bus users across West Yorkshire including: An agreed approach to any major changes to the bus network including community consultation; an extension of the M-Card smartcard range to give customers more convenient and simpler ticketing options; joint punctuality improvement plans between operators and local authorities providing customers with a more dependable service; shared focus on information for customers and dealing with queries; a joined-up investment strategy to reduce vehicle emissions and improve air quality.

“As raised by members of the board, one of the key ingredients to attracting more people to use buses is by providing a dependable bus service. Our proposal is to work even closer with the council and the Combined Authority to improve the overall offer for customers by investing in service quality and by investing in measures to ensure bus journeys are consistently reliable and punctual.

“By comparison, an alternative franchise model does not specifically address the issues of bus reliability and punctuality which was evidenced by Tower Transit at the scrutiny board. The impact of the super highway schemes in London were highlighted as having a significantly detrimental impact on delaying bus journeys despite working in a franchised model.

“We recognise that there is much more to do to deliver the world-class transport Leeds needs and we believe the solution is a stronger working partnership not an expensive franchise model that won’t address the key issue of reliability for customers that partnership can.”

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