Major changes planned to Lancashire bus services

It is part of an England-wide government initiative designed to make buses the default choice for short-distance journeys.

Transport authorities such as Lancashire County Council will be obliged to draw up improvement plans that set targets for journey times and increased reliability – including by focusing on priority measures, like bus lanes, to help speed up trips.

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Councils will also encourage more frequent services – particularly during evenings and weekends – so that buses provide a safe and reliable transport option for key workers.

In a big boost to their power over buses, local authorities will be able to have a say over fares and ticketing – and promote better connections between buses and other modes of travel to create a more integrated transport system. Local authorities will also be charged with addressing gaps in the bus network across their patch.

The county council’s cabinet member for transport and highways, Charlie Edwards, said that he was keen to see the concept of on-demand bus services introduced in Lancashire for those areas where the bus is not currently a viable option for residents.

“I like the idea of smart bus routes, so that if you don’t live on a road with a bus stop, there could be certain buses that you type in [to an app] where you want to get [it], then they’ll route the bus around…so that everyone can have access to that service,” County Cllr Edwards said.

He added that a working group established to create Lancashire’s bus improvement plan would make value for money, reliability and innovation the document’s key themes.

Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen councils are the transport authorities in their own areas – with Blackpool already taking a leading role in bus service provision in the resort through its ownership of Blackpool Transport.

Local authorities have been told that they must have their plans completed by the end of October – and will then have until next March to develop the strategies needed to get their ambitions on the road.

Councils were given two options for how to improve bus services in their area – with Lancashire opting for a so-called “enhanced partnership” model. Cabinet members endorsed a decision to reject the chance to create a franchising system in the county.

Under the partnership plan, private bus operators retain a greater role in developing the services they deliver, whereas with franchising – a move which is currently being pursued by Greater Manchester and has operated in London for decades – local authorities offer contracts to firms to run pre-determined routes. They collect the fares and pay an agreed fee to the operator – meaning the financial risk rests with the council.

Papers presented to the cabinet noted that it could take several years to develop a franchising system in Lancashire – during which time the county would still need to set up an enhanced partnership to secure the immediate improvements in services that the government is demanding. Members were told that the partnership model could be “delivered more quickly and potentially at a lower ongoing cost”.

Under either scenario, the changes hoving into view over the next nine months represent the biggest shake-up of buses in Lancashire since deregulation in 1986. Up until that point, services had been the domain of regional commissioners who dictated routes, timetables and fares – and created publicly-endorsed local monopolies for bus service provision.

A report by thinktank the Centre for Cities in 2019 found that one of the main disadvantages of deregulation was the fact that local authorities were no longer able to use profit-making routes to subsidise less popular services. After deregulation, any subsidies had to come direct from councils’ coffers.

While that situation left some areas underserved by buses, the most popular routes were swamped with duplicated services as private operators sought to gain a share of the more profitable parts of the market.

However, the thinktank report noted that, in general, deregulation had simply created private sector bus monopolies.

“The market has consolidated into five major operators controlling 70 percent of the national bus market with little overlap or competition between them. Without market regulation by cities or government, these local monopolies give existing operators the market power to set higher prices for passengers and provide a worse quality bus service for many residents away from profitable routes,” the Centre for Cities concluded.

“The potential for new operators to compete for passengers outside of London is, in practice, limited – because challengers know that dominant existing operators will respond to competition by temporarily improving services or reducing fares to drive new entrants out of the market,” the report added.

Buses are the most popular mode of public transport in the UK, with over four billion journeys made during 2019/20 – more than double those taken by train.

However, the pandemic saw passenger numbers fall – and one of the aims of the government’s national bus strategy, unveiled earlier this year, is to return bus use to pre-Covid levels and then exceed it, by making the vehicles a more attractive option than the car.

Ministers also want to see the introduction of 4,000 “green buses” on the nation’s roads.

Local authorities will receive a share of £25m to develop their enhanced partnerships and bus improvement plans – and will then be eligible for a slice of a £3bn funding pot for buses over the course of the current parliament.

Lancaster Guardian