It’s time to take off the boxing gloves on bus franchising

"Allow us to crack on with franchising." So said Andy Burnham after a High Court judge ruled in favour of the Manchester mayor in a hotly contested judicial review of his plans for reforms to bus services.

There is no clear, line-painted road for cities to follow in introducing franchising so it's time for bus companies to stop complaining, take off the boxing gloves and to engage constructively on the 'how'. For England's nine metro mayors, there are several considerations in creating a system that works for the travelling public, for the public finances and for the environment.

The need for decisive action

Top of the list of priorities should be investment in encouraging a modal shift to bus usage. For buses to be attractive, we need to get them moving faster – which means decisive action around bus lanes and bus priority, or schemes such as road pricing and parking levies.

Transport for London's (TFL) new plan for buses reflects the capital's successes in these areas and commits to a 10% improvement on 2015 bus speeds. Investment to help bus journeys go more quickly will create a virtuous circle of growth in patronage, and will reduce the subsidy needed within a franchising regime.

De-risking the complexity of bus franchising

The transition to franchising is complex, and it is time to look at ways to de-risk and simplify it. Does it make sense for the public sector to take the burden of capital investment in depots or buses onto their balance sheets? While Manchester is set to go down the route of depot ownership, London retains a private model of capital investment in depots and buses.

Under a franchised regime, authority over services will be held by a public body. It is vital, though, that individual public leaders are on top of service delivery. In Singapore and London, both cities where Go-Ahead operates, we are held to account by public sector leaders who want to know, on a daily basis, that services are running to time. Those relationships are characterised by honest and open discussions about improving services, rather than rigid adherence to contractual or transactional relationships.

A price-to-quality ratio approach

One other honest conversation may be around the price-to-quality ratio. Punctuality costs money with extra resource but there is a balance – nobody wants to pay for 100% reliability, but most expect it. In Sweden, operators bid to run services at a specific level of punctuality, which impacts their tender price. For example, they may decide that they able to achieve an 85% on time performance with a certain level of resource - but that achieving 90% will cost too much relative to the value applied to that 5% improvement by the tendering authority.

The Swedish-style structure allows an authority to place a value on performance that doesn't depend on a highly subjective evaluation of an operator's promised approach in a tender response. Equally, quality improvements can be measured through meaningful incentives and bonuses, as in London.

A fundamental shift in market delivery

Throughout all this, it's important to remember that collaboration is key. A false dichotomy exists around public versus private which often devalues the efforts of everyone in the industry. Governments and operators have always worked together on bus services – as shown during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. The role of the private sector is codified clearly in the franchised model and a success requires a relationship that goes beyond the contractual.

And finally, patience and realism are vital around timelines. We need to be honest with ourselves, and our stakeholders, around the cost and time taken for franchising. Positive change requires a fundamental shift in the way the market is delivered, with a transfer of network knowledge and know-how. Enhanced Partnerships can be a stepping stone.

Working together to achieve a punctual bus service

When Go-Ahead entered the Manchester bus market in 2019 with the acquisition of a former FirstGroup depot, it was in the knowledge that we would have to operate the business either under the present commercial regime or a franchised one. We are comfortable in either and we believe both systems have their place.

Given the shock to travel demand and the importance of recent pandemic funding, the industry should be more sympathetic to franchising and the role of the public sector. For any of the nine metropolitan mayors, it's not, ultimately, franchising itself that will win votes. Passengers don't care about regulatory structures. They care about a reliable bus service which arrives punctually and gets them home speedily. That's what we need to work together to provide.

Peter Robinson is Director of Bus Development at The Go-Ahead Group, one of the U.K's leading public transport providers.