Plan agreed

Bus franchising ‘not the panacea people think’

Easdales and McGill's
McGill’s is opposed to the plan

A vote to bring buses in the west of Scotland back under public control has prompted one operator to say that franchising will not bring about the improvements that campaigners expect.

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) agreed today to use new powers to nationalise the bus network amid concerns around declining passenger numbers.

Franchising will give SPT the power to regulate bus fares, routes, ticketing arrangements and bus branding.

The private companies that control the routes oppose franchising. Ralph Roberts, the chief executive of McGill’s Group, the UK’s largest independently owned bus operator, criticised what he called SPT’s “quest for power”.

In a statement issued after the vote, he said his company would take part in consultations but warned that changing the system would not necessarily bring about the changes being sought.

“The bus users of Strathclyde consistently tell us that their number one issue in using buses is congestion, which affects service reliability, journey times and cost of travel,” he said.

“The biggest priority for SPT should be to push local authorities to manage their infrastructure under the powers they already have which will allow bus users to make more consistent, quicker and cheaper journeys.”

He added: “Under the status quo, private operators in Strathclyde have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in zero-emission buses. There are six times the number of zero-emission buses in Strathclyde than there is in Manchester so clearly, franchising is not the panacea that some people make it out to be.

“If SPT and local authorities had done their job in this regard over the last 20 years, bus use would have grown rather than declined. As it stands, a world-class bus system cannot operate on third-world infrastructure.”

Campaigners believe franchising would enable bus routes to be connected with trains, ferries and Glasgow’s subway via a single ticket as is happening in some other UK cities.

Glasgow subway
Campaigners want services to integrate with other transport providers like the subway

Greater Manchester became the first UK city region to re-regulate its buses since 1986, creating its “Bee Network” in September 2023. London’s buses have always been regulated, while Wales joined the movement last week

SPT said that franchising would take five to seven years, cost up to £15 million and would require more funding from the Scottish government.

Stephen Dornan, the SPT chairman and SNP councillor for Govan, said: “This is a bold and ambitious plan from SPT, which sets a strong approach to tackle a declining bus market.

“It gives us opportunities to build for growth and deliver a network that is attractive, accessible and affordable to both passengers in our communities who rely on the bus to get around, and those who we need to get ‘on board’ by offering an attractive alternative to the private car.”

Mr Roberts insisted that buses are the most popular form of public transport with high levels of customer satisfaction.

“According to the most recent Transport Scotland statistics, bus services across Scotland shared £51 million in core funding from government for delivering 79% of public transport journeys.

McGill’s says rail services receive a far bigger share of public funding

“At the same time, rail services in Scotland received £1.4 billion from the public purse for delivering only 16% of public transport journeys – perhaps indicating where problems lie.”

He said the SPT needed to consider the implications of today’s vote.

“SPT needs to be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water in their quest for power,” he said. “They claim that the cost of undertaking the franchising process to the point of implementation is estimated at up to £15m and we will be interested to see exactly how this figure is justified.

“McGill’s Group will be taking part in the consultation due to launch in April and will set out our position more fully at that point.”

Scottish Labour Transport spokesperson Alex Rowley welcomed the SPT decision.

“Scottish Labour has long campaigned for local bus services to be taken under public control and I very much welcome Strathclyde Partnership for Transport’s decision to explore the option of bus franchising.

Alex Rowley
Alex Rowley: the bus market is not delivering (pic: Terry Murden / DB Media Services)

“Glasgow and the surrounding towns in the Strathclyde area – much like the rest of Scotland – suffers from an overheated and broken bus market that is clearly not delivering for people using bus services.

“The SNP must engage fully with SPT as they explore franchising and ensure they have the support they need to make it a reality.

“The powers introduced in the 2019 Transport Act aren’t worth the paper they are written on if Councils can’t use them and years of brutal cuts to Councils by the SNP and the Greens have piled pressure on local transport.

“While the exact nature of bus service requirement will differ from area to area across the country, I believe all areas can benefit from public control of bus services.

“Communities across Scotland deserve quality, locally-controlled bus services and the SNP must work with Councils and Local Transport Partnerships across the country to make this happen.”

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