Transport, co-ordinated

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One of the topics of discussion was Transport for Greater Manchester’s Bee Network. JONATHAN WELCH

Adrian Morton pays a visit to the annual conference of the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers in Coventry

A chance catch up with a friend, my former Operations Manager at Mortons Travel Andrew Gilbert, paved the way for recently finding myself in the city of Coventry. The city suffered heavily from bombing during World War II and little architecture remains from before that period, save for parts of the medieval cathedral; I have to admit, it’s not a place I found myself wanting to rush back to.

Andy is now a Project Officer for the in-house bus operations team within Highland Council. He was asked to speak at a conference at the Coventry Transport Museum, advising delegates on the council’s experiences of its recently formed internal bus functions, more of which later. The event was hosted by ATCO, the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers, an organisation previously unknown to me and something I felt coach and bus operators would be interested to hear about. You may be forgiven for thinking that this is something new; on the contrary, this gathering represented 50 years of the association.

The current Chair is Damien Jones, Deputy Director for Transport Operations, Environment and Waste at Devon County Council. Damien opened the meeting by first recapping on the past 50 years and explaining why the association was formed. It came about as a result of the Local Government Act of 1972, which set out transport coordination functions. It was enacted on 1 April 1974 and by November of the same year the very first ATCO meeting was held, in what is now the University of Westminster. The starting point was one member per local authority, and 20 people attended. Strong characters were instrumental in the expansion of the organisation, with the initial growth coming from the South West. The first summer conference was held in Bristol the following year.

Devon has been a strong supporter of ATCO since its formation and thus far, including Damien, has provided five Chairs. The ethos is to promote best practice and innovation in transport coordination, and the body is still gaining momentum.

To give a little context, the year of ATCO’s formation, 1974, also marked the 40th anniversary of the 1944 Education Act, was the year Ceefax went live and the very first microwave oven was sold, and the average price of a house was just £4,378!

Delegates were interested to hear about the experiences of The Highland Council in and around Inverness. RICHARD WALTER

Little fanfare

Damien explained that in a wider context ATCO is about professional officers sharing expertise both internally and externally in a number of areas. Those can include commissioning, procurement, financial management, reacting and adapting to change and working across boundaries. That is, ATCO says, all often achieved with little fanfare, frequently using antiquated systems and quite often tucked away in a forgotten corner of the council’s offices.

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In the delivery of his speech Damien highlighted that the purpose of such meetings is also about the future and looking forwards. It is a good place to influence and change future policy, he said. He also spoke about an inherent need to bring on a new generation of passenger transport professionals and build on the representation from across the regions and nations.

The next guest speaker, who replaced another at very short notice but provided a very informative and knowledgeable speech, was Phil Lightowler, Head of Public Transport for Kent County Council. His presentation centred around The Ebbsfleet MaaS (Mobility as a Service) pilot project. How MaaS was defined was a little tricky to understand but the basics were:

  • Use of integrated technology to gain behaviour change for modal shift away from car ownership;
  • A disruptive force for good and changing travel behaviour;
  • To promote and facilitate multimodal user-centric and flexible choices;
  • Major reshaping of the travel and mobility marketplace in which the consumer’s perspective will change fundamentally from current mode to a solutions-based marketplace, addressing individuals’ overall mobility needs, and;
  • The introduction of a multi-modal easy payment mechanism, real-time information, more responsible and seamless public transport that could reduce car ownership and move people towards public transport.

It stated back in 2019 when the team began investigating the idea of mobility as a service. Selling the concept wasn’t easy, as MaaS doesn’t just roll off the tongue! They persevered as it was their inherent belief that the private car dominated world we see today was not going to be the future and younger people do want an alternative. MaaS is seen as a tool to enable modal shift by providing a one stop travel choice platform.

Transport officers from across the country attended the forum to share best practice. ADRIAN MORTON

Thinking big

Originally, Phil explained, they thought big: the whole of the county, bus, rail, everything from day one, but the challenges were huge. Instead they started small and thought about where it could work and why, and if successful how it could be applied over a wider area of the county.

Ebbsfleet was chosen as it is the location of a new ‘garden city’ providing 15,000 new homes, effectively filling a gap between Dartford and Gravesend. As a ‘garden city,’ sustainability was key, so a heavy focus was put on bus services, improvements to existing services and links to rail stations. The area is also home to Bluewater, one of Europe’s largest shopping centres, and so Kent County Council’s Fastrack Bus Rapid Transit service was born.

MaaS funding was secured as part of the council’s Bus Service Improvement Plan. Financial support also came from Highways England and additional enhancements were sought for e-bikes and demand responsive transport. The provision of the MaaS platform is currently out to tender. A new brand is also being developed and the Irizar ie tram fully electric buses are already in the build to replace the current buses on the Fastrack network.

Busy bees

The MasS presentation was followed by another highly interesting insight by Antony Crompton from Transport for Greater Manchester, who introduced the Transport for Greater Manchester Bee Network. Currently this is being rolled out throughout Great Manchester as a fully integrated transport network, which aims to bring together bus, tram and active transport. The goal is to create a transformation in the way people travel, including such things as integrated fares, with one identifiable and accountable brand.

As Antony explained, the cornerstone of the Bee Network, accounting for 75% of all public transport trips in Greater Manchester, is providing a bus network that supports links to jobs and essential services, particularly for the 27% who do not have access to a private car. In a bid to reverse the decline in bus travel, it is said to be the biggest reform in nearly 40 years, with the mantra of bringing buses back under local authority control. Franchising, to those unsure, is the system used to procure and coordinate bus services under a single transport authority. Previously only permitted in London, the Bus Services Act of 2017, after continued pressure from Greater Manchester, gave the city’s Mayor (and indeed Mayors of other cities) the power to introduce a franchising scheme, subject to an assessment of the existing bus market.

Under a fully franchised system, bus stops, information, ticketing and fares, routes and frequencies, revenue, marketing and branding, customer relations and depot ownership are all the obligation of the local authority. The bus operator is only responsible for the employment of staff, maintenance of the fleet and service delivery and performance. The operator receives a set daily amount, subject to its performance targets being met.

The roll out of Manchester’s franchising was completed in three tranches, the last of which was recently awarded but has yet to be implemented; this is set to take place in January 2025. Overall there were 10 large contracts and 25 smaller ones, most of the smaller ones encompassing school services. Many parts of Greater Manchester are served by routes originating outside of the boundary and which also play an important part in the delivery of services. Under franchising, operators are required to apply for Service Permits, which are granted on the condition that the route does not have an adverse effect on franchised services, and providers must meet Greater Manchester’s operational standards, including selling and accepting Bee Network tickets.

Accountability

Antony explained that local control and accountability are key elements of the Bee Network, with performance targets for reliability, timekeeping and customer complaints. To that end, daily (for the day prior), weekly and quarterly reviews are undertaken. Daily includes the morning run out as well as such things as punctuality, ticketing and anti-social behaviour. Weekly is more main trend, patronage and revenue. Quarterly reviews per franchise encompass all of the above, with a review of the franchise execution ahead of quarterly payments, where deductions are calculated for poor performance and indeed bonus payments for exceeding targets.

Bus patronage is reported to be up by 30% from 2022/23 levels and by 2030 the authority hopes to run a bus at least every 12 minutes on key orbital routes and provide 90% of the population of Greater Manchester with a service on weekdays by either bus or tram, at least every 30 minutes and within 400metres of their home. Demand responsive transport will be put in place to cover parts of the city region where this is not possible, TfGM says.

Many people have been watching to see how The Highland Council’s initiative plays out. ADRIAN MORTON

In house services

Quite possibly of most interest to the delegates from the local authority transport teams, hungry to desperately reduce costs, was the delivery of a presentation by The Highland Council on its in-house bus operation. To put the Highlands into perspective, the area that this authority covers is 20% larger than Wales but with a population of just over 238,000, which is considerably less than that of the city of Aberdeen.

The Transport (Scotland) Act of 2019 repealed sections of the Transport Act of 1985. When it came into force on 24 June 2022 it restored the council’s powers to provide a service for the carriage of passengers by road that require a PSV operator’s licence to do so. As the same legal identity cannot hold both a PSV operator’s licence and a Section 19 or 22 permit, and since many of The Highland Council’s schools utilise these permits, it was decided to use S.22 bus permits, with the eventual aim of having an operator’s licence in an arm’s length external organisation.

Due to much of the area being very remote, there are on average less than two tenderers per contract (including taxi operators). This lack of competition means contract prices are high, with annual costs in 2017 increasing from £13m to £18m by 2020, delegates heard. Post-Covid, contract prices were renegotiated (several would otherwise have been terminated), some routes were also retendered, while most had contract extensions. Overhead costs could no longer be shared with other private hire work, although the tables are now slightly starting to turn a little, Andy told us.

If Skye is taken as an example, the results of the 2022 tenders saw prices increase by a staggering 81%. Tenders for 2023 in other areas across the Highlands, in general, rose by £9.3m (59%), driven again by a distinct lack of competition and a further decrease in the number of tenderers, to just 1.6 for each contract.

Andy explained that the pilot proposal for the in-house bus operation was initially for six routes, all based on Inverness, but a seventh was added after tender prices were received. Ali MacDonald was seconded from the council’s Public Transport team as Project Manager and three Project Officers were appointed, two internal and one external. Some new buses have been leased from Dawson Rentals; others purchased through Ensign Bus. A site for use as a depot was found on an industrial area in Inverness, which we were told was not without its challenges, as no one wants to be next door to a bus garage, the council having no spare space in any of its utility depots.

Within two years the operation has nearly doubled in size, with a peak vehicle requirement of 13. A coach has recently been purchased (with another to follow) for us on school contract hires such as the swimming baths or theatre, bringing further savings to the council.

On-bus advertising is also being examined as a further source of revenue. The

council keeps its passengers up to date with any service interruptions through its Facebook account and uses MyTrip as an on-line ticketing app and platform for users to track their bus.

It was explained that with an initial set up cost of £289,000 the in-house bus operation has succeeded, with passenger figures up 45%, in part due to the reliability of the operation, which measured as an on-time performance stands at 96%. In the first year alone, the operation is reported to have saved The Highland Council near £1 million. As further routes and services join the fold, that figure is only set to increase.

Manchester’s Bee Network was the basis for much discussion around modal integration. JONATHAN WELCH

Dutch view

Lastly, as it transpired he would be in the country for another purpose, a short presentation was delivered by Wilco Bros of Royal Haskoning DHV, a Dutch consultant in sustainable mobility and public transport. His aim was to highlight the Dutch approach as inspiration for possible solutions. The Dutch face the same issues in local government in the supply of transport for schools, special educational needs, social and health care, he explained. These are required by law and bringing these all together is not only beneficial to the end user but has the distinct advantage of sharing resources and is budget responsible by helping to reduce costs, he said.

The Dutch system aims for public mobility and modality, using where possible transport hubs, with demand responsive transport utilised for special needs, where there is an absence of public transport and evenings where loading preclude the use of normal buses. The aim is for a national ticketing system for trains, trams, metro and buses with regional pricing and concessions for the likes of students, with cooperation between those regions as there will likely be differing approaches. One Public Transport Authority may be responsible for several provinces and municipalities, which brings benefits to all, including operators, in addition to being an instantly recognisable brand for users. Collaboration between all parties is seen as the key to success, he told us. There are synergies to the Bee Network in Manchester, Wilco explained, and to other schemes around the UK, but it was most interesting to hear what could effectively be termed at the ‘Dutch approach.’

The conference was both engrossing and informative, I found, and as a former operator it was a great insight to the work involved on the other side of the fence. To members, sharing best practice and ideas with a group of friendly like-minded individuals in similar roles can only be considered advantageous. I very much hope to be invited back next year.

More can be found about ATCO and membership online at atco.website

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