Criticism for Leeds bus franchising proposals

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Proposals to alter the way buses are run in the region have been met with a mixed reception from a variety of key-players in Leeds bus operations

Major proposals to change bus operations in Leeds to a London-style franchising system have been criticised following a Leeds City Council Scrutiny Board meeting held last week.

The invitees to the meeting were the Association of Bus Operators in West Yorkshire (ABOWY), Tower Transit Ltd and HTC Group. Tower Transit Ltd operates 450 buses in London, and has experience operating in contracted markets. HTC Group is a social enterprise transport provider company which has a depot in Leeds. Representatives from three main Leeds bus operators were also in attendance; First Bus, Arriva and Transdev.

The inquiry was held to make an assessment on the provision and connectivity of bus service in Leeds, and discussed options to improve the operations. It also provided the opportunity to consider ‘de-regulation and the West Yorkshire bus context.’

ABOWY, representing all bus operators in the region, including main operators First, Arriva and Transdev, commented on the meeting.

Chairman Keith McNally told CBW: “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; and a joined-up investment strategy to reduce vehicle emissions and improve air quality.”

Among senior figures backing the proposed franchising laws is Cllr Keith Wakefield – former Leeds City Council leader and current chairman of West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport committee. The committee suggests that the region should be given a London-style service with multi-operator ticketing and cheaper and simpler fares – an attempt to reverse declining passenger numbers.

With a move to this type of service, which would fit in with the Government’s new Buses Bill, the deregulated bus market would be suspended. Bus operators would then only be able to provide their services under contract to the local transport authority – shifting the competition between bus operators from on the road to a pre-contract bidding stage.

The county’s largest bus company – First Bus West Yorkshire – has voiced the question of whether the change will be a good move.

Paul Matthews, the company’s Managing Director, said: “I still have not heard a convincing argument as to what franchising will do to improve the punctuality of bus services.”

He also said that cost was a large 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. 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.”

Paul also said that the lack of passenger growth would 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.”

Stephanie Elsy, of Tower Transit Ltd, said franchising would “expose bus services to the forces of competition that do not really exist in many UK cities, including, I suspect, Leeds.”

HTC Group’s Dai Powell said: “We are very positive on the Buses Bill. We think it will be better for passengers, authorities and operators.”

Keith of ABOWY also commented on suggestions to adopt a London-style system: “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.”