Five things I learned from our bus franchising masterclass

We tried something different with the format for this event rather than the usual array of fifteen minute corporate presentations that most transport conferences rely on. Instead we gave much more time for a small number of speakers to really get into the detail of the topic through a series of masterclass sessions (in a way that over the course of the day everyone could attend all them). The sessions focused in detail on how our guest speakers had made franchising work in their own areas and ensured that everyone would go away with much more confidence that franchising can be done and done well. The day’s success also rested heavily on the great job that our speakers did in clearly explaining the context and the lessons learned.

Everyone will go away from the event with their own takeaways but here’s the five key things I learned.

1. Franchising can deliver better services with more innovation and at less cost in a wide range of diverse circumstances. From a city that loves its cars and low density housing (like Perth in Australia) to a prosperous island with high car ownership like Jersey as well as the  bicycle capital of the western world, Groningen, in the Netherlands.  The idea that’s sometimes put about in the UK that franchising is only for the largest cities is nonsense – it can work anywhere.

2. Planning and procuring bus services is not putting an astronaut on Mars. Buses run between obvious places and you determine the fares structure that people pay to use those services. Get it wrong and you can tweak it relatively quickly and easily (not so easy to move a rapid transit rail service if you put it in the wrong place). However you still need to apply intelligence and common sense on both the principles and the details. From depots to staffing and from IT systems to how you assess tender bids. It all requires careful thought and…

3. …you would also be well advised to learn from those who have done it. There is really no substitute for talking to people who have thought all this through in their own part of the world, learnt the hard way what to do and what not to do and have got a thriving bus service at the end of it. Which is what the event was all about of course.

4. Have the guts not to go for the lowest bid if the numbers and the quality don’t stack up. The maxim ‘if it looks too good to be true it is too good to be true’ applies to franchising like anything else. Not always easy for the public sector to reject the cheapest bid. But there are many instances around the world of authorities feeling good in the short term for driving a hard bargain but repenting at leisure over a much longer period of time as the cheap bid unravels in the form of poor service and an operator demanding more money to keep the show on the road.

5. Having an operator who, for whatever, reason really want the franchise to work helps a lot. It could be because they are hungry for it and building a reputation, it could be because they have the track record. Whatever the reason – it’s best to be confident that the people on the other side of the table care as much about a reputation building outcome as you do.

Follow this link to download all the presentations from the conference.

Do not underestimate the potential impact of the bus services bill

This article appeared in PSE Oct/Nov 16.

If the Bus Services Bill delivers on its promises, then it will give local government the powers to make the best use of existing subsidies to give the public a far better service than they get now, writes Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group.

If cities don’t work without good public transport, then one reason why the regional cities are not currently fulfilling their potential is the lack of levers they have to plan and manage their bus networks.

Plan and manage means the ability to ensure there is one network, one brand, one ticket as part of wider integrated public transport networks which are readily understood and easy to use. It means there is one body (democratically accountable locally) where passengers go to find information and give feedback. One body which business knows they can work with to ensure that new developments and regeneration opportunities have bus services from the get go. This is what London takes for granted and what cities from Singapore to Washington, and right across Europe, take for granted too.

However, since buses were deregulated throughout Great Britain (except for London) in 1986, cities have had to negotiate the best they can from local monopolies who have used the monopoly profits to fuel their wider corporate expansion as well as their campaigns (directly or through a network of bought and paid-for surrogates) to block any reform. These monopolies were successful in ensuring that the powers to allow transport authorities outside London to specify and franchise bus networks (essentially the same powers London has) in the 2000 Transport Act and the 2008 Local Transport Act were too complicated and restrictive to use in practice.

The 2016 Bus Services Bill, currently before Parliament, is the third attempt. And it came not from the Department for Transport but from former chancellor George Osborne’s Treasury as part of the dowry for those city-regions that opted for a mayoral combined authority (although the legislation allows for other areas to also gain franchising powers at the government’s discretion).

New powers on offer

Astute politicians have always recognised that you can achieve noticeable impact across a wide area very quickly with relatively modest investment in bus services compared with showier infrastructure schemes. For example, the success of the mayoral concept was partly built off the back of Ken Livingstone’s early focus on buses. Osborne has gone, but the legislation is still on track to be enacted and fully usable by incoming city-region mayors in spring 2017.

And the legislation is not just about a simple route to franchising – it also offers up new powers for those authorities who don’t want to go down the franchising route by extending the limits of what can be achieved from the existing deregulated framework.

These ‘partnership’ options could deliver on many, although far from all (fully integrated ticketing in particular), of the benefits of a franchised approach – but only if operators sign on the dotted line. And with the power of veto that comes with partnership options comes a strong negotiating hand with which to water down outcomes.

Lastly, although the Bill gives transport authorities more powers over what services are provided, it seeks to head off giving local transport authorities the option of running those services directly through blocking the creation of any new municipal bus operations.

Learning lessons for previous legislation

Although the Bus Services Bill as it stands is currently in good shape in terms of the franchising and partnership sections, the lessons of previous legislation is that it only takes a few words to be inserted in the wrong place and it would be rendered as hard to use in practice as its predecessors, which is why we and other local government bodies are watching carefully to make sure it remains intact and on time.

It is important to stress that this legislation matters not just for local transport but far more widely than that. Buses get the jobless into jobs, they give young people access to education and opportunity, and they give access to healthcare whilst contributing to better public health. In short, every pound of subsidy that supports bus services results in multiple public policy benefits.

At present, too much of that precious public subsidy is being lost in the inefficiencies of the current system, through excess profits being diverted elsewhere and over-bussing on core corridors, whilst leaving the local authority to cover the cost of off-peak services. If the Bus Services Bill delivers on its promises, then it will give local government the powers to make the best use of existing subsidies to give the public a far better service than they get now. Do not underestimate the impact that this could have.


To access the Urban Transport Group’s Bus Services Bill hub visit: