The four-year franchise debate rumbles on


Manchester is still assessing the case for franchising, with untold costs to operators, while Sheffield’s Labour MP is also reviewing local operations

The franchising debate hasn’t stopped Go-Ahead buying First Manchester’s depot and ops

I read a report the other day that Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) is still assessing the case for bus franchising – over four years after it first told the then Chancellor that it was keen to pursue the franchising option.

Now, I’m not saying that developing a business case for franchising is straightforward and it’s right and proper that the work is done professionally and not rushed. But over four years, and the work is still not completed? It must be costing a small fortune, and the uncertainty it must be creating for the operators must be a real issue.

Risky business

Mind you, it hasn’t stopped Go-Ahead buying First Group’s Manchester bus depot and operations for a cool £11m, so I hope for Go-Ahead’s sake Andy Burnham, Manchester’s Mayor, doesn’t press ahead with franchising once the work on the franchising business case is completed, and then they lose out in a competition for the franchised routes.

Meanwhile, I hear that the Mayor for the Sheffield City Region, Dan Jarvis, has asked the Labour MP for Sheffield South East, Clive Betts, to undertake a review into the area’s bus network. I’m not entirely clear what the motivation is behind this review, but I have little doubt that one issue that Clive Betts will consider is the merits or otherwise of franchising.

Dividing line

Now, I have a lot of time for Clive Betts, who is a highly experienced, sensible moderate Labour MP. But I have a hunch that if one trawled through Hansard you would find that Clive Betts does not support deregulation, so I just worry that he might find it difficult to give entirely dispassionate advice to Dan Jarvis.

I’m not sure it’s wise to give a politician – from any political party – the job of reviewing the workings of a bus network given that, at the risk of making a generalised comment, the debate about deregulation versus regulation/franchising tends to divide down party political lines. Although I concede that the odd Conservative MP and a smattering of Conservative councillors have previously expressed support for franchising.

Speed is of the essence

Finally, I really should make the effort to read the recently published Understanding Buses written by Chris Cheek, a respected expert on the bus industry. I have little doubt that it is full of interesting data on all aspects of bus operations.

For example, Chris Cheek tells us that for a typical town centre round trip of 6km, a journey speed of 9.5mph compared to 11.8mph requires two extra buses, 7,000 additional paid journey hours, four extra people and pushes costs up by 52%.

If ever you wanted evidence that congestion and journey speeds are absolutely fundamental to the operations and finances of the bus industry, this is it.