Bus Services in the North of England– the case for a long term investment strategy

Here in the Liverpool City Region we're doing a lot right with bus.

Through our award-winning Bus Alliance with Arriva and Stagecoach, our two largest operators, we've seen a 16 per cent increase in fare paying passengers since 2013/14, bucking the national trend.

This hasn't been by chance but by insight, planning and investment. Innovation, thinking differently and working together is key.

This has included us introducing WiFi as standard, cleaner, greener buses no older than seven years on average and improved cleaning regimes. We've also been introducing ticketing that makes a difference– from the £2.20 MyTicket that gives under 19s unlimited day travel on any bus across the Liverpool City Region, to Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram's fulfilled pledge to introduce half price travel for apprentices. From 2020 we'll be trialling hydrogen buses– the first place in the north of England, with plans for 25 to be on our streets within the next few years.

Despite all these achievements we'd be the first to acknowledge that we're just scratching the surface; that's why the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority has set out a new 'vision for bus', listening to feedback from the Metro Mayor's Big Bus Debate and taking a long term view on where we ultimately want to 'be' with bus, ensuring services, ticketing and travel information are built around the customer. This is about transforming the bus offer, rather than incremental improvements. We're talking about improved network coverage, buses running on core routes 24 hours a day, at least one bus an hour on all routes, simpler, more straightforward ticketing with more ways to pay, and taking 'green' to the next level– moving from our 70 per cent low-emission buses to zero emission buses.

These can be achieved through the options in the Bus Services Act 2017 that are open to us as a Metro Mayoral Combined Authority, but it will come at additional cost and will take time to deliver. A long term, sustainable funding and investment strategy is key.

To deliver this, there needs to be a fundamental re-think of how we approach bus services in the future. Any model which draws heavily on the public sector through concessionary travel, supported bus services and new bus infrastructure must be able to deliver what we need it to. While we're doing a lot better than some areas in being able to maintain levels of service, we do have areas that are not served as best they could be and this is going to be ever more the case as our extremely limited resources get squeezed year on year.

Ultimately, successful business models need to be focussed on passenger growth and exceeding the expectations of existing and potential customers. If fares aren't good value then the people who most depend on the services can feel priced out of the market, whilst others who have more options aren't encouraged to give bus a go.

Reliability and punctuality are also key factors. As an example, the round trip from St Helens to Liverpool– a route with more than two million passenger journeys a year, takes 24 minutes longer than it did three years ago. This means more investment is needed just to stand still, putting more buses on the route to keep to the timetable with no additional passenger benefit. That's why we're trialling innovative traffic signal priority and asking people for their ideas on how bus services on key routes can be improved with a view to securing Transforming Cities Funding to make a real, practical difference.

By focusing on delivering growth through lower fares and bus priority measures you can really buck the trend of patronage decline. Underpinning this is the understanding that bus is a 'convenience good' not a 'comparison good'. People don't shop around; they often don't have choice which operator they make their journey with. They may not even know, or even care; they just want affordable, good quality, reliable services that get them where they want to go.

Encouragingly there's been a national wake up call to the importance of bus to communities and people's everyday lives with more powers and more freedoms available. These shouldn't just be limited to Mayoral Combined Authorities, but all administration types across the north and across the UK. Unless we have that, we'll continue to have a fragmented, confusing set up which will make it harder to learn from each other and secure investment and manage it over the long term.

Cllr Liam Robinson will be spekaing at this year's North of England Transport Summit in Manchester. You can hear him in Session 2: Bus services in Northern England - the case for a long term investment strategy. To secure your space, book here.