Calls for a radical overhaul of Leeds bus services

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Transport bosses have issued a rallying call for an overhaul of bus services in Leeds and West Yorkshire - amid shouts of “what’s good enough for London is good enough for us”.

The calls are led by senior figures from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, who have thrown their renewed support behind new 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, better customer guarantees and a reversal of what they claim is decades of declining passenger numbers.

A recent meeting of a Leeds City Council inquiry panel - which is examining the future of the service and options to improve it - was told that at the moment, many key elements of the region’s bus services are inadequate.

The committee was told that customer dissatisfaction is high - while ticketing options are hugely confusing.

The cross-party panel heard that First and Arriva - which run around 80 per cent of the buses in the district between them - have a “duopoly” and deregulation has had the opposite effect long-term of the one that was intended.

Across West Yorkshire, around 180-185 million bus journeys are carried out every year.

However bus usage has “declined significantly” over the last 20 years, the panel was told, and the high and ever-changing cost of tickets and perceived unreliability are major factors.

There has also been a big decline in fare paying passengers, with more travellers using free bus passes, and this is driving the decline overall.

Franchising would be a major shot in the arm for services, the panel was told.

However it involves a potentially controversial trade off - as it is part of a wider devolution package including elected mayors.

Councillor Richard Lewis, Leeds City Council’s regeneration, transport and planning boss, said giving people incentives to get back ON the buses was vital to the city’s transport network.

“Buses are actually central to us solving our traffic problems within the city,” he said.

“Huge amounts of time is expended on talking about rail services.

“But actually in most parts of the city, people are going to be dependent on bus transport. With the congestion on our roads, it is important that we get people onto buses.

“We have got to improve things in terms of bus transport and bus patronisation.

“We have been bumping along at the bottom for far too long - we really need to make a change.”

Keith Wakefield, chair of the Transport Committee at West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said many people still believe - mistakenly - that bus services are run by the council.

“When it was deregulated, it was premised on the idea that this would bring in extra competition,” he said,

“That clearly has not worked in terms of the original aspirations.

“Most people say now in this city that we have a duopoly. I can’t find anyone in this city who doesn’t agree that this is a broken system.”

He told the committee that in some parts of Leeds, “you only get one bus every hour” because “the Firsts and Arrivas are just not interested”.

“We are onto a new opportunity,” he said of the proposed franchising model, which would be enshrined in the Government’s new Buses Bill.

“Everyone looks at London, with the Oyster system there, passenger growth, and everybody knows that a single ticket gets you round and you don’t have the problems that you get here.”

He admitted that a redo of the region’s buses would be “conditional on having a mayor”.

But he added after the meeting that there was a “significant prize” in return.

“The argument in 1986 (when deregulation was brought in) was that the more competition you have, the better and cheaper the services,” he added.

“But now, if you have a new kid on the block, they are priced out of the market.

“If you live in a non commercial area, you are going to get a very infrequent service, something we have to subsidise. If you live in Headingley or Chapel Allerton, you will get a bus every five minutes.

“In Kirkstall you have 100 different tickets.

“The routes are designed not to get you into the city centre quickly, but to get as many people as possible on the bus.”

He said local Government currently cannot hold bus operators to account because they choose their own rates and prioritise maximising profit over everything else.

Neale Wallace, Bus Services Manager at West Yorkshire Combined Authority, told the panel that according to a competition commission report for West Yorkshire, the “adverse effect” of a lack of competition was “around £25 million”.

He said this equated to around 250 extra buses that could be operated in the region, and this could result in lower fares and more frequency of service.

Paul Truswell, chair of the City Development scrutiny panel, said: “Basically we are saying that what is good enough for London, should be good enough for Leeds and West Yorkshire.

“Because since deregulation, bus providers have been able to run services where they like, when they like.

“Services have been chopped and changed, they are missing, they’re late and fares have gone through the roof.

“People are voting with their feet, which is one of the main reasons for the loss of patronage.

“I think franchising does actually allow us to have an enforceable quality contract between passengers and communities and their elected representatives.

“[At the moment], we don’t have that accountability and responsiveness in terms of fares and routes and quality of vehicles.”

He stressed: “The message is not a party political one, because everyone has said almost exactly the same thing - it can’t go on as it is.”

LEEDS AND WEST YORKSHIRE BUS SERVICES - IN NUMBERS

185 million - bus users in West Yorkshire

11% - decline in bus usage in the region in 10 years

100 -ticketing options in just ONE Leeds suburb under the current system, it is claimed

£2.5bn - economic benefits (nationally) from bus networks

900 - buses in the First West Yorkshire fleet

30.9 million - miles travelled by First West Yorkshire buses

MUCH TO DO...BUT FRANCHISING IS NOT THE ANSWER

Bus industry bosses have told the Yorkshire Evening Post that while they recognise there is “much to do”, franchising would be counter-productive and would bring additional burden on the taxpayer.

Paul Matthews, managing director of First West Yorkshire, said: “Our objectives and those of the council and combined authority on growing bus usage are well aligned and we welcome this debate. We also recognise there is much more to do, particularly around simplified smart ticketing and tackling increasing congestion, but we don’t need a franchise to do that. Franchising would have no effect upon making services more reliable.”

He said successful partnership projects such as the Elland Road Park and Ride had contributed to a “stable and frequent” core bus network, adding that ”many price cuts and new buses have helped increase customer satisfaction and passenger numbers”.

Nigel Featham, regional managing director for Arriva Yorkshire, added: “We recognise the ambition of local authorities to have the option of gaining devolved powers. We are ready to work closely to achieve these goals and would argue that this is going to work best by playing to the different strengths and experience which bus operators and local authorities can bring to the challenge of providing a bus network which is comprehensive, easy to use and complements wider, strategic goals.”

LAST STOP FOR OLD SYSTEM?

Bus services outside London were deregulated in 1986. Since then, there have been two systems of bus provision – one for London and one for the rest of Britain.

In London, services are operated under contract by private companies through a competitive tendering process. In the rest of the country, it’s a free market meaning that anyone can operate bus services. Bus operators are free to run whatever services they like, the fares they will charge and the vehicles they will use. This results in an “uncoordinated network with a confusing array of ticketing options” and a “two-tier system”, a report from the Urban Transport group has claimed.

Under bus franchising, the deregulated bus market would be suspended and bus operators would only be able to provide services under contract to the local transport authority.

Source: Urban Transport Group

Michael Tennant.

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