The Bus Services Bill was finally published last week. It aims to shape the future of services in England outside London, and contains clauses designed to boost passenger numbers. But the Bill is not as revolutionary as it could be, and that’s good news for operators. Tim Deakin explains
The Bus Services Bill, the most significant piece of legislation for the industry since the deregulation-spawning Transport Act 1985, was published last Friday (20 May).
But what exactly is the Bus Services Bill? Such is the complexity of the language used (it’s “not an easy read,” says the Confederation of Passenger Transport), that the DfT has prepared explanatory notes to accompany it. They give a punchy summation of what the Bill is expected to accomplish.
“The Bus Services Bill provides local transport authorities with a wider set of tools to use to address inefficiencies in their local bus markets and to work with commercial bus operators to provide better local services for passengers,” says the overview.
It continues by explaining that the devolution agreements already signed by the government and 10 regions – North East, Tees Valley, Liverpool City Region, Sheffield City Region, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West of England Combined Authority, East Anglia Combined Authority, Greater Lincolnshire and Cornwall – include “a commitment to introduce a simpler route to bus franchising than currently exists in the form of Quality Contract Schemes (QCS).”
At first reading, that may send a shiver up the spine of some operators, but delving deeper is key.
The Bill also introduces two new levels of quality partnership schemes (QPS) – the Advanced Quality Partnership and Enhanced Quality Partnership – and it makes existing QPS more attractive.
Those LTAs who desire a franchising arrangement, meanwhile, will find that requirements for robust assessments of whether such schemes are value for money, worthwhile, and – most importantly – affordable, remain. In short, it could have been lots worse for most bus operators.
Focus on quality
The Bill creates an Advanced Quality Partnership (AQP). AQP differs from the existing QPS model by removing the requirement for local authorities (LAs) to provide infrastructure such as bus lanes or improved shelters.
Infrastructure improvements may still form part of an AQP, but requirements have been relaxed to what the Bill terms as ‘improvement measures’. They may include parking enforcement or traffic management schemes, for example.
In many ways, an AQP shifts much of the burden of improvement to the operator. While this may seem a little unfair at first, it should be viewed as a positive. Doing so makes partnership even more attractive to LAs, and the bus industry has shown that it is capable of stepping up to the plate when called upon to do so.
An AQP will include requirements for service quality, among them being the marketing and promotion of services, and timetables and fare levels. Also present will be stipulations about how passenger information is provided, and mandatory participation in ticketing and smartcard schemes.
DfT’s continued backing of smartcards may come as a surprise. It clings to a view that smartcards are the best option for fare collection; many operators disagree, and regard them as old hat. Contactless payment is the way forward, they tell routeONE, and it is curious that more has not been made of the latter option.
Taking out the TC
Another new form of partnership created by the Bill is the Enhanced Quality Partnership (EQP). It is similar to the AQP and existing QPS models, but still has a number of key principles.
Among them is the requirement for majority support from operators concerned. This removes the existing QPS stipulation that affected operators may submit admissible objections that must be resolved individually. Instead, operators may still object, but only if a sufficient number do so must the LA revise its proposals and offer them for reconsideration.
Other stipulations are the ability for an LA to set minimum standards for some or all services in the area of partnership, and – like other partnership schemes – prevention of it dictating prices of an operator’s own tickets or compelling operators to run routes that they don’t want to.
The EQP route is highly detailed. It requires an analysis of the local bus market, and prior to implementation the LA must be satisfied that the EQP will bring about benefits to passengers by improving services, and/or reducing noise and air pollution.
Under the Bill, bus service registration powers may transfer from the Traffic Commissioner to the lead LA in an EQP, and that includes decision-making when registrations are submitted.
Where the EQP includes route requirements – concerning frequency and/or timetables – the lead LA must take on this responsibility.
If the EQP only includes operational requirements – such as vehicle or livery specification, payment methods or ticketing structure – the lead LA may choose whether or not to take on registration powers. When it does, “responsibility… would transfer for the entirety of the area affected by the scheme,” says the DfT’s overview.
Elephant in the room
The power to franchise services remains. While nine of those areas that have signed devolution agreements are combined authorities with elected mayors, it is worth pointing out that the 10th – Cornwall – meets neither criteria, and a proviso for more examples in this manner is made subject to LAs’ track record and capability, along with appropriate local economic geography.
Importantly, LAs will be prevented from providing services themselves; they must be in the hands of commercial operators, and plans are mandated to take into account small- and medium-sized operators to ensure that they are not at a competitive disadvantage. Also to be considered are the policies – transport and otherwise – of neighbouring LAs.
Provision for cross-boundary commercial services is made by a local service permit scheme, under which operators may also apply to provide services wholly within the franchised area, but that the network does not cover.
There is an elephant in the room, however. It is the requirement during franchise planning for operators to provide franchising authorities with information, dating back up to five years, concerning passenger numbers and revenue received for individual routes, among other less contentious items.
If required to do so, operators will have no choice but to comply. Should they not, the Bill provides Traffic Commissioners with the ability to take enforcement action.
Similarly vexatious is likely to be the fact that the Bill leaves any decision about compensation where businesses are ‘confiscated’ via franchising to the LA. No requirement for compensation is mandated, and at a time of budget pressures, it is unlikely that any will be offered.
The other bits
The Bus Services Bill contains much other material, concerning ticketing, traffic regulation orders, service registration and the ability of LAs to compel operators to provide ‘open data’ about their services and fares for use in publicly-accessible search engines.
Few operators will have a problem with the latter, and while the Bill does nothing to simplify franchising while opening up further avenues of partnership, there is an underlying concern – as articulated by our Westminster correspondent (see p20) – that those operators who do find themselves subject to franchising definitely get the short end of the stick.
But the Bill is only in its infancy. It will be scrutinised by MPs, and the DfT admits that it’s likely that some parts will be amended.
And that’s where operators come in: If there are sections that you believe are unfair, engage. Engage with your MP and your trade association. But do so quickly, because the Bill is currently scheduled to become the Bus Services Act in early 2017.
The Bus Services Bill will be well-received by operators who do not have the threat of franchising hanging over them. It makes partnership working even more attractive, and facts demonstrate that this is a proven way of building passenger numbers cost-effectively.
But the Bill’s attitude to franchise implementation is harsh. It provides no guarantee of compensation for operators that lose out, while at the same time itcompels them to provide commercially-sensitive data about their existing services.
Fortunately the number of operators in the latter position is likely to be minimal, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make your views known to those who can act on them.