What happens when municipalities take control of buses? – BBC news

Image source, Read city council

  • Author, Becky Morton
  • Role, Political reporter

Buses are the most widely used form of public transport in England, but routes have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years.

Bus use fell during the pandemic, but even before that it was steadily declining in areas outside the capital.

One area bucking the national trend is Reading. The city – 40 miles west of London – was hit by Covid restrictions like everywhere else, but before the pandemic, journeys on local bus services had also increased.

Reading is one of only five areas in England where the local bus company is owned by the council.

Reading Buses CEO Robert Williams says this means profits can be reinvested in services.

“We can look at the longer term, we are not constantly chased to ensure that our profit margin is a certain level, because our mission is to provide the best possible service,” he says.

“You have local people living and breathing in the area, running the services and figuring out what needs to be done. It is not a central headquarters, hundreds of kilometers away.”

It also means that when the council puts money into things like bus lanes, it sees a direct return: better services, more passengers and higher income from fares, which can then be reinvested.

According to campaign group We Own it, an extra £3 million goes to the city’s bus network every year because it does not pay dividends to private shareholders.

The council says this means it has been able to invest in one of the most environmentally friendly bus fleets in the country, including 66 biogas-powered and 24 electric buses.

Until the 1980s most bus services were provided through state-owned companies, often run by councils, but in 1986 services outside London were deregulated and privatised, leading to the mass sale of municipal bus companies.

A franchise system was introduced in London, with Transport for London deciding the routes, timetables and fares and operators offering to operate services for a fixed fee.

This has helped the capital see an increase in bus use, with services less affected by cuts, unlike other parts of the country.

In 2017, metropolitan mayors in England were given the power to introduce bus franchising, but at the same time councils were banned from setting up their own bus companies from scratch.

If it comes to power, Labor says it would give all areas the same opportunity to introduce franchising as Metro Mayors, and councils and regional mayors could set up their own bus companies.

Mr Williams is in favor of the council-owned model, but doubts how easy it would be to replicate it more widely.

“You have to be able to afford to buy a depot, buy the vehicles and employ the people,” he says. “Setting it up from scratch is not a quick job.”

In Reading he points out that the council has owned the local bus company for more than 100 years.

Labor claims its plans do not require additional funding from central government.

But Williams is skeptical about whether municipalities, which face enormous financial challenges, have the money right now to set up their own bus companies.

According to him, investments are also needed to improve services.

In Reading he says bus services receive very little subsidy from the council as it benefits from its location as a busy commuter town.

“If we tried to replicate this in the middle of the countryside, we clearly wouldn’t be able to maintain the same kind of network,” he adds.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Buses in London operate under a franchise system

Paul Swinney, director of research and policy at the Center for Cities think tank, says there are easier ways to realize the benefits of greater control over bus services than outright public ownership.

If a company is government-owned, it is the taxpayer who assumes the risk if it goes bankrupt, he points out.

Instead, the think tank supports the expansion of the franchise system that exists in London and has also been adopted in Greater Manchester.

Mr Swinney says that under a franchise model, councils and mayors can still control bus routes and ensure they are integrated into a coherent network with other forms of public transport such as trains.

They can also maintain fares and choose to subsidize less profitable routes, which are still vital for certain groups.

While he says this won’t necessarily make one-way journeys cheaper, it will make it easier to introduce daily limits across the network.

The only difference with full public ownership is that it is private companies that operate the services.

Mr Swinney says past experience shows that some level of government subsidies will still be needed.

In London, for example, the subway generates surplus revenue that is used to subsidize buses, which operate at a loss.

Other options for municipalities include generating money through congestion charges or parking charges.

Image caption, Greater Manchester’s “Bee Network” was launched last year by Mayor Andy Burnham

Mr Swinney also believes funding is needed to establish new franchise models.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority calculated that it would cost £134.5m to bring the region’s buses under public control and has used central government funding as part of its devolution deal to pay for this.

The process has been implemented in phases and is due to be completed by 2025, but Labor mayor Andy Burnham says immediate improvements have been made, including more frequent buses, later and earlier services and better connections to trains and trams.

Transport for Greater Manchester says the latest data shows its buses are now more reliable, with passenger numbers rising.

However, not everyone is convinced by the idea of ​​greater public scrutiny of buses.

During the recent mayoral campaign, the then Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, attacked his Labor opponent’s plan to bring buses back under public control, saying the party had not said where the money to do this would come from would come.

Labour’s Richard Parker, who won the contest, has pledged to build a “London-style integrated transport network” to make buses more affordable, reliable and frequent.

In Reading, being council-owned has not made bus services immune to the challenges faced in other parts of the country.

It has suffered a drop in commuters during the pandemic and the rise of working from home has hit the number of people traveling by bus to the train station to enter London.

“That just underlines the risks of running a bus company,” Williams said.

“Anything can affect your passenger numbers, whether you control it or outside of it. If municipalities get it wrong, have the wrong service level or don’t get the growth they expect, taxpayers have to pay for it.”

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