Is bus franchising now back to square one?


The bus franchising landscape has seen several developments recently. They undoubtedly serve to reset discussions about whether it is the right avenue to follow for large city regions.

Two groups that may have stood to benefit from bus franchising have publicly stated their opposition to the idea. Like the ‘big five’, they believe that improvement is best delivered through partnership.

Of course, neither of them speaks for the whole of the industry outside the big groups. Abellio beat them both by articulating its support for franchising.

Additionally, it remains to be seen how many smaller operators favour franchising. The risks are likely to outweigh their appetite for it in most cases.

Nevertheless, officials in some areas continue to promote reregulation. The old chestnut of it delivering “a London-style network” is aired regularly, although the privatised industry has surprisingly also now used that cliché.

In at least one region, promotion of franchising as a panacea ignores the fact that partnership is delivering patronage growth.

Also glossed over is how operators there have shouldered the financial risk of introducing a scheme for discounted travel for young people that has delivered great success by some measures.

But what could be the killer blow for wholesale franchising is Stagecoach’s partnership proposal for South Manchester.

An investment of £142m, with no financial risk imparted to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, is difficult – if not impossible – for even the biggest advocates of reregulation to ignore. That’s before ongoing major spending from Manchester’s second largest operator is considered.

With plans such as these, the industry can swing the pendulum back into its favour. They may be headline-grabbing. But that, arguably, is the whole idea.