A Leicester success story – First Bus and its 'depot of the future'

Earlier this year at First Bus we opened our 'bus depot of the future' in Leicester – a fully electric site that changed the game for public transport and air quality in the city.

Our bus depot provides Leicester with 74% of its 116 electric buses – a goal that has been met as part of Leicester City Council's Enhanced Partnership programme.

This partnership model sees us working alongside the Council and other operators to improve the city's bus network with its new infrastructure. It provides important learnings that can be used by other councils to improve their own networks. So, should councils embrace these types of Enhanced Partnerships or seek out other options such as franchising?

The success of the partnership model in Leicester

Back in May 2022, we entered into an Enhanced Bus Partnership Scheme with Leicester City Council and other local bus operators in the city to further improve the local bus network.

The Partnership committed the Council and its bus operators to deliver 100 different goals between 1st May 2022 and 31st March 2025, utilising combined investment from bus operators, the Council and further funds from the DfT to assist with the city's decarbonisation journey.

By September 2023, the Partnership had already delivered 75 of these goals, including an increase in bus punctuality, multi-operator flexi ticketing, and additional bus lanes. At the time of writing, it is on track to deliver the rest of these commitments by Summer 2024.

By contrast, a franchising model has taken around eight years from initial announcement to buses being on the ground in Manchester. Therefore, with just one third of the franchises currently operating, most customers are yet to see any change.

In Leicester, however, every route will have electric buses, significant bus priority, new waiting infrastructure, real-time information at all stops, digital 'best fare' capping (regardless of operator) and a daytime frequency of 15 minutes or better in a much shorter timescale.

The depot of the future

The Leicester depot is an excellent example of what can be delivered through an effective partnership with the local council, especially when it comes to helping the city reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality for its citizens.

First Bus has invested over £60m into the operation, which has now been fully electrified. With a large part of the partnership model focusing on improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions, 462 solar panels were installed onto the roof of the depot – which is expected to generate around 55% of the building's electricity requirements. Over the 25-year lifetime of the panels, the equivalent of almost 400 tonnes of CO2 is expected to be saved.

The depot also provides 86 of the Partnership's 116 electric buses and has 44 electric chargers, which can charge all 86 buses simultaneously.

To ensure colleagues are prepared for the move to electric, we have provided our drivers with tailored training which focuses on vehicle familiarisation, safety and design features. Engineering colleagues will also be upskilled to maintain the electric bus fleet to ensure we take them on this journey with us and develop vital local skills in the area at the same time.

What have the key outputs of the EP in Leicester been?

A fundamental modal shift in the city of Leicester is now apparent as a result of the success of the partnership, and there are key learnings that can be taken to help drive a blueprint for successful Partnership Models in other cities.

With 26% passenger growth, Leicester is currently outperforming the rest of the Midlands (+18%) and this is widely believed to be due to the partnership. One of the crucial factors in this is punctuality, as running buses on time attracts more people. In fact, buses in Leicester are 9.1% more punctual than last year.[1]

This has led to increased bus use and increased customer satisfaction. According to a recent survey by Transport Focus, 81% of customers in Leicester are satisfied with their journey, over two thirds said the bus was good value for money (66%) and almost 9 out of 10 (88%) loved their driver.

Why should councils consider Enhanced Partnerships?

Enhanced Partnerships are often overlooked, but councils should see them as a serious alternative to franchising. They quickly benefit both councils and citizens who use the bus network in the short and longer term.

For local councils, an Enhanced Partnership has several benefits and is less risky than other options such as franchising. Firstly, as mentioned already, an Enhanced Partnership takes less time to set up, as authorities have to jump through fewer procedural hoops.
Secondly, I would argue that this type of partnership model offers better value for the public purse. It leverages the expertise of operators who are able to deliver significant investment and have a proven track record of adapting swiftly to the ever-evolving market.

This can help to ensure that value for money is maintained and harnesses the experience and capabilities operators have developed over the years, ultimately benefiting both taxpayers and the broader community.

There are many benefits for customers who use the bus network too. Integrated ticketing means that customers can use different bus operators across the city, so travel is easier. Funds from the tickets can then be invested into implementing bus priority measures at a quicker pace, improving the bus network across the city.

With this in mind, councils should seriously consider Enhanced Partnerships when looking to improve their bus network – rather than going straight to franchising because it's the 'done thing' and more prominent in the media. There is a quicker, simpler and lower-cost way to bus reform – one that will not cost the taxpayer which is particularly relevant to people during the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

It's clear through the city of Leicester that Enhanced Partnerships can be extremely successful. This partnership model has improved the network significantly and is only set to improve further as the partnership delivers the next 25 of its goals.

Councils should look to the option that delivers the most impactful results for the overall population in its area, whilst also protecting the public purse. Enhanced Partnerships may well be the most efficient avenue for this, as they combine the best of a franchise model with private operator investment and expertise. This will supercharge delivery, so improvements are achieved quicker and at the best value for the taxpayer.

[1] Official stats from Leicester Buses Partnership via Leicester City Council.