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In response to “Bus Franchising, The Debate Continues”

In response to “Bus Franchising, The Debate Continues”

I’m writing this article in response to a recent post on Steve’s brilliant ‘Bus and Train’ blog.

The post discusses how a franchised system could benefit the passengers of Norfolk and Suffolk, how the operating landscape has developed over the years and how rural and vulnerable passengers are being increasingly left behind by commercial operators.

Before reading my response to Steve below, you must read his article.

I, respectfully, disagree

I, respectfully, disagree with pretty much everything you’ve written Steve. But then again, isn’t that what the internet’s here for?

An attack on commercial operators

You open the post with somewhat of an attack on the author of the original article in the Cambridge Independent – pointing out the supposed irony of his statements “we want to provide an excellent community service” and “can’t fund unprofitable routes … would jeopardise the salaries that our drivers, mechanics and office staff … rely on” in the face of Stagecoach’s recent departure from King’s Lynn.

It reads as though you view Stagecoach’s abandonment of Norfolk as a betrayal to the staff and passengers who relied upon Stagecoach’s North Norfolk network. I view it in the opposite way: had Stagecoach stuck around, they would have been forced to cut back services to stem the losses the operation incurred.

Multiple Stagecoach buses in King's Lynn's bus station
Multiple Stagecoach buses in King’s Lynn’s bus station

An alternative view of what happened:

Instead, they left the area to allow the independent operators, who have lower cost bases and smaller profit ambitions – therefore a greater chance of success, to expand their networks to, almost, directly replace the previous offering from Stagecoach.

Most passengers in North Norfolk face a network that is the same or better than the Stagecoach one with only a handful of routes facing reduced frequencies or curtailment. Most of the Stagecoach staff have found jobs with other operators or elsewhere within the Group. Sounds like a good deal to me.

What’s more, Stagecoach decided to up sticks and leave before the busy Summer season – the busiest time of the year for Norfolk’s bus operators. This, in my opinion, will give the new operators a good chance to make some profit throughout the season to support the operations during the quieter Autumn and Winter months.

A Coasthopper branded Optare Solo SR seen in King's Lynn bus station before heading to Hunstanton
A Coasthopper branded Optare Solo SR seen in King’s Lynn bus station before heading to Hunstanton

Hell bent on profit?

Had Stagecoach been all consumed by greed and profit, they may have been inclined to keep their profitable routes, such as Coasthopper, running throughout the Summer depriving the new operators of that much needed profit.

In your article, you go on to mention: “What it is saying is if your service has been cut over recent years don’t expect it back because we won’t consider operating routes that are currently loss making, or even try to turn them around” and that it is “rather depressing if you are a passenger on a low income who can’t afford taxis everywhere”.

That’s not depressing, it’s reality. Commercial operators can’t run services that are loss-making and they often don’t have the resources to attempt to turn these routes around – that’s where smaller, dedicated operators (usually with some form of Council support and/or subsidy) come into play. Sadly there are few around. What’s more, there’s even less subsidy available.

Bus stop branding from Lynx for their Lynn to Hunstanton services
Bus stop branding from Lynx for their Lynn to Hunstanton services

The costs of franchising

Your argument in favour of franchising seems to ignore the fact that franchising costs a lot of money. Money which then couldn’t be invested directly into providing front line services. TfL’s franchised system works because of the £millions pumped into the system (currently and in the past). It’s impossible for cash-strapped councils to be able to find those sorts of resources.

Nottingham City Transport, an arms-length operator, recently said that TfL style franchising in its region would cost around £60m – for the same money they could run their present network for free! See here for the reference.

Nexus’ recent attempt at franchising bus services in the North East failed to get off the ground because of the costs that would be required to get such a scheme working – money that should be pumped into the existing bus networks.

You state, “it is inconceivable that the Council can be expected to subsidise on the scale needed to resurrect the rural bus market without getting some help“, assuming that the profit from the commercial services would be sufficient to cover the costs of running the franchised system in addition to supporting the loss-making rural routes.

Unfortunately, the profitable routes simply aren’t profitable enough to do so.

Would franchising help the smaller operators?
Would franchising help the smaller operators?

Lack of Council support

You go on to mention that “The operators do not get the support from the councils Kent does” – how exactly would that change under a franchised system. It would be the same Councils in charge of running the network(s).

You go on to mention several areas in which Councils are failing to support operators and passengers, namely: “never ending roadworks, which seem to improve nothing, making sticking to a timetable impossible” and “temporary traffic lights are placed to guard sites the size of a small pot plant with nobody working there anyway“.

They have the powers to do something about this now, but fail to act. A similar experience faced by operators up and down the Country – a recent example, of many I’m sure, from management at More (a Go-Ahead operator) is featured below:

School buses – a saving grace?

Whilst I agree with your comments about how certain bus services are failing – fitting around school times, lack of evening services, poorly timed connections etc; your statement that “franchising would allow public and school buses to be kept separate, so passengers had more choice” is midguided.

The reason why many bus services are timed around school departures is that they carry so few passengers that they can’t sustain the costs of having a dedicated bus.

Without those school journeys being interworked, many many bus services across this country simply wouldn’t operate. This won’t magically change under a franchised system.

Lynx branded DAF Geminis waiting in Hunstanton between school bus duties
Lynx branded DAF Geminis waiting in Hunstanton between school bus duties

Buses running later at night

You also bemoan, and rightly so, the lack of service provision in the evenings. 

Most services outside the big towns are finished by 7pm. Where is the incentive for people to use the bus to go to work if they can’t stay for a drink with their mates after work on a Friday because they’ll miss the last bus if they do? Or have to be out of a seaside resort while it’s still red hot? Later buses would solve that problem.

This is, again, due to the lack of additional funding to support these very poorly used services. If franchising is to solve this problem, it’ll require even more of that incredibly sparse resource: funding.

Some operators will take the view that supporting evening services themselves can bolster the daytime passenger numbers, which is to be commended. More should do it, but I understand why they are unable to.

When operators are unable, or unwilling, to support their evening and/or Sunday services, Councils and local authorities can step in to provide additional funding – though their ability to do so has shrunk since the recession.

Once again, there’s nothing to suggest this will change under a franchised system without considerable sums of cash.

Commercial sponsors maybe an option on the most popular evenings – getting funding from pubs, clubs and local events for their patrons to get back home might be a wise idea to support these particular services – this is something I agree with you on, Steve!

King's City branded Enviro 200 MMC operating in central Winchester headed for Winnall on Stagecoach South's route 1
A Stagecoach South “King’s city” branded Enviro 200 MMC operating a late-night route 1 from Stanmore to Winnall. Certain evening bus services are funded by the Winchester Town Forum.

Integrated ticketing

Multi-operator tickets can be an absolute godsend. I’ve done over 220 miles on a Discovery ticket before – all for £8.50. Name a better value ticket, I’ll wait!

The Discovery, formerly Explorer, ticket undoes your argument about franchising meaning simpler fares – as they already exist! Bus operators can, and usually do, work together – via a third party for legislative and partnership reasons – to provide better value travel for their passengers.

Whilst East Anglia may not have many, if any, multi-operator tickets for passengers to easily acquire; it’s common place elsewhere in the UK. If the local authorities, or indeed the operators themselves, really wanted to create a multi-modal ticket, they could.

Franchising isn’t required for these schemes to work, and there’s little evidence to show that franchising is a more powerful tool for delivering simpler fares than a Quality Bus Partnership – such as Oxford where you can buy a range of great value tickets for travel on both Oxford bus company’s and Stagecoach’s local services around the city.

A Stagecoach Gold branded Enviro 400 MMC meets an Oxford Park & Ride branded Wright Streetdeck in central Oxford's Magdalen Street
Partnership between Oxford bus company and Stagecoach in Oxford

Poor connections

There are many locations across the UK where low frequency services interconnect or where services that were once through routes have since been split.

Operators currently have the ability to ensure their services connect – by simply looking at the timetables! In the modern era of AI, automation and enhanced digital computations, it should be possible to automate the process – or at least automatically flag poor connections.

Once again, this is an area in which franchising would be overkill and unnecessary as the powers already exist. There’s no evidence that franchising would enable better connections – it would be the technology and/or manpower that would enable this.

Services successfully connecting in Wells on the popular Coasthopper services - along with other routes in the area
Services successfully connecting in Wells on the popular Coasthopper services – along with other routes in the area

I don’t disagree with everything though…

Which I’m sure Steve will be glad to hear!

Corporate sponsorship

With local authority funding drying up, operators will need to look further afield for third party funding to continue running their services.

There are examples of this working to good effect already – Acorn Stairlifts support the Sunday and public holiday journeys of the Dalesbus 856 (Northallerton | Hawes) operated by Dales & District.

There are other Dalesbus services supported by a commercial sponsor – such as The Harrogate Bus Company’s route 24 (Harrogate | Summerbridge | Pateley Bridge) which is sponsored by Harrogate Spring Water.

Charging more for car ownership

The final point that I agree with Steve on is about discouraging car ownership. I may disagree with the methods suggested – charging extra duty on the fuel is a wise idea; but reducing the duty for those who don’t live near a bus route would never work – it would be horrifically complicated to implement.

Make the car less compelling for discretionary journeys, and if possible for those commuter journeys, and you should see bus usage rising.

Increasing town centre and industrial estate parking charges to discourage private car use (with reductions in cost for car sharing); implement more bus and cycle lanes; and re-phase traffic lights to benefit public transport and pedestrians.

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