Matthew Moll, Senior Consultant at The TAS Partnership, offers a response to Abellio’s proposals for bus franchising – and observes that commercial operation, if done properly, can form a blueprint to drive patronage growth across the country

Reading the interview in routeone with Alan Pilbeam, Abellio Deputy Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer, about its proposals for bus franchising, I was disappointed by how unambitious they are.

First, a few points: There was no acknowledgement that bus patronage has been declining in London too. That shows it cannot just be deregulation that is causing a loss of passengers. The assumption that bus priority would just appear if a network is franchised is also a bit presumptuous.

Yes, there are bus lanes that have been put in place only for the service to no longer operate. But equally, there are local authorities such as Liverpool City Council, which got rid of them to appease the motoring lobby. A well-designed partnership can solve these issues.

There was also no mention of the need to make sure that new, large-scale housing developments are well-served by buses, with them being built around the route of the bus service(s). That is something that franchising might be able to do better than the deregulated industry, because in theory, the bus service planning could be done by the same body that is also the highways and planning authority.

Is bus franchising inevitable under some circumstances?

Bus franchising is indeed an option in some areas for the post-coronavirus COVID-19 industry, especially those where the main operator may be in danger of going under.

Bus franchising
A risk with bus franchising is that it is used as an electorial bargaining chip by politicians, rather than as a tool to deliver real, genuine change

Given how determined certain politicians are to introduce bus franchising (and one may also say blinkered), then yes, in Greater Manchester and perhaps Merseyside it may also happen.

Even so, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) has put the process on hold – and maybe into doubt, given the COVID-19 funding situation.

I do concede the point that a franchised bus network could be transformational. But it must have the right people and the right amount of money.

Ironically, a better result would probably come from nationalising or municipalising bus operators. Then, at least the company would be at arm’s length from politicians, rather than being used as an electoral bargaining chip. Transport for London (TfL) fare policy has been based on Mayoral and now Department for Transport decisions, rather than any commercial logic.

Would multi-route franchising awards really encourage competition?

While Abellio believes that larger, area-wide packages are needed to attract new bidders, it seems to ignore the fact that doing so will exclude smaller operators that only have the resources for a handful of routes.

There may indeed be a large number of bidders the first time around. However, given that the next competition will be five to seven years later, will there be operators that are still interested when packages are due for renewal? The local companies that do not win anything certainly will not be around, leaving it up to the larger groups and overseas state-owned businesses.

Route by route tendering would bring true competition. It is an ongoing process that, if done right, would still leave room for innovation from the operator and allow smaller companies to compete with the bigger groups on a level playing field.

Bus franchising
Using route branding and various other initiatives, many commercially-operated services have delivered strong patronage growth figures

The tricky area is transition. It may require a hybrid approach, with an initial round of area contracts followed by a rolling programme of route-by-route contracts starting after two years.

Existing operators with only one depot and/or small networks should be directly awarded their existing work. Those with multiple depots and/or larger networks would be directly awarded a proportion of their current services, with the remainder purchased from them and then put out to open tender to encourage new entrants.

What can bus franchising learn from commercial operation?

Abellio’s only example of innovation in its franchising proposals appears to be zero-emission technology, something that, as with serving a wider network, does not need franchising to happen. It only requires a good partnership approach.

But this is an area that the pro-franchising lobby seems unable to cover well, as it might involve complementing commercial bus operators. So what have those businesses done that franchising can learn from and leave room for? Here are just four areas:

Embracing technology
Everyone talks about the Oyster card. Yes, it is a good system, as is TfL’s contactless capping. But commercial bus operators have been at the forefront of technology that TfL is only just embracing, or has not yet embraced, such as at-seat charging points and mobile ticketing.

Many operators, such as EYMS, took up smartcards in the early days of that technology. But they are now seen as yesterday’s product due to back office costs and transaction times. Just watch someone buy their smartcard-based weekly ticket from the driver using contactless payment.

Route branding
Get this right, as operators such as Nottingham City Transport, Go North East and Reading Buses have, and people take to it.

Bus franchising
‘Get route branding right, and people will take to it. It also advertises your service and it can be the linchpin of a successful marketing drive’

Branding is an easy way to advertise your service, where it goes and how often. It can be the linchpin of a marketing drive, while brands such as Stagecoach Gold aim to give a higher-quality service, standing out from those around them.

TfL’s attempts at branding have been dire and are constrained by the need to have every bus painted red (apart from those in overall advertising schemes).

London’s buses are monotone red, as unfortunately now are those in Cornwall. The latter have largely replaced First’s vehicles in rather attractive colour schemes, which include some noticeable route branding.

Wider marketing
This is admittedly an area where some operators do not excel. One of the big issues that has come out of the Greater Manchester franchising process is how unaware the public apparently is about multi-operator and multi-modal tickets.

While that has been used to bash the operators, the blame should be shared by TfGM. As the transport authority, it should be in TfGM’s interest to advertise these means of travel. If the stakeholders in Get Me There had really wanted to make an impact, why did they not post a smartcard loaded with a free day ticket to each house in Greater Manchester, along with local transport information?

Then there are the timetables produced by some of the PTEs. Compare them with those issued by the likes of Transdev Blazefield. You will see how much more attractive the operator’s material is.

Customer service
A by-product of the ‘every bus is red’ mantra is that London buses are a corporate mass in the same way that Arriva or Stagecoach buses may be seen where local branding has not been applied. The driver is just an employee of that faceless entity. Operators like Trentbarton have made their drivers ambassadors for the company, working in unison with branding to give a positive local feel to each service.

People like Transdev Blazefield Chief Executive Alex Hornby and Go North East Managing Director Martijn Gilbert provide a face of the management for a company in a way that would be harder to do in a franchised regime with its political oversight.

Look at the impact that James Freeman has had on First’s operations in Bristol. His honesty and his openness in the press means that articles in the local newspaper have gone from being anti-bus (as you might find in the Manchester Evening News) to neutral or even – shock, horror – pro-bus.

Franchising might be inevitable – but it doesn’t have to be bland

Bus franchising might be inevitable in Greater Manchester, and it is one of many options for the post-COVID-19 bus industry. But it does not have the be the bland, politically driven implementation that is currently being pushed.

Instead, it could be something that enables small operators to compete with their larger peers on a level playing field and allows for those things that the deregulated market does well to continue. The funding to provide attractive frequencies and journey times, with the commercial outlook to deliver a good-looking product, might just be a transformational recipe.

The above constitutes Matthew Moll’s personal opinion and not that of his employer.