Steve Rotheram unveils plan to introduce bus-franchising and a London-style integrated transport network in Merseyside but admits ‘significant investment’ would be needed. Tony McDonough reports
Bus deregulation could come to an end in Merseyside as Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram unveils a plan for London-style franchised bus network.
However, Mr Rotheram admits his idea would need “significant investment” well above the current £64m the Combined Authority currently spends each year on the city region’s bus network.
Merseyside’s bus services were state run until 1986 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government removed local government control of bus services and allowed private companies to operate whatever services they wished on a profitable basis. The role of local government was restricted to subsidising “socially necessary” services.
The early years of deregulation had something of a ‘Wild West’ feel with operators competing aggressively on the busiest routes. For a short period, an operator in Greater Manchester was sending buses to Liverpool every morning to compete on the most sought-after routes, such as the 14 from Croxteth to the city centre.
Eventually the it settled down and now the bulk of the services in the city region are operated by transport giants Arriva and Stagecoach, with a number of smaller firms also operating on some routes.
However, the concern for a long time has been that while the busiest routes are well served, some communities in Merseyside have big gaps in their public transport provision, putting residents at an economic disadvantage, making it more difficult for them to access employment opportunities.
The Combined Authority is investing £460m in a new train fleet for Merseyrail and Mr Rotheram’s ambition is to create a fully-integrated transport network similar to London, where deregulation does not apply. Currently eight out of 10 public transport journeys in the region are made by bus.
Combined Authority papers, being published on Thursday, recommend that bus franchising is supported as the emerging “leading option”, among others, for the future of the city region’s bus network and services and that a detailed and independently audited assessment is now completed.
The recommendation is based on two-years of intensive work, including a year-long “Big Bus Debate”, in which local people shared their current experiences of bus travel and what they’d like to see in the future. Franchising would mean operators would have to be licensed by the Combined Authority to operate specific routes, ending the current free-for-all.
Mr Rotheram said: “Our communities rely on buses to connect them to work, education and training, family, hospitals and other public services, but too often the current, de-regulated system is letting people down.
“People have told me through our Big Bus Debate, that buses don’t run at the times they need them, especially early in the morning, late at night and at weekends, and that too many people find the current system to be confusing, unreliable and expensive. This has to change.
I am determined to deliver a London-style integrated transport system for the Liverpool city region. There are a number of ways we can achieve that through the powers in the Bus Services Act, but I am clear that whichever model we choose the outcome must be the same – a bus service that is simple, punctual, reliable and affordable.
“A system that is designed around what we know our communities and our local economy needs, provides people with a genuine quality alternative to the car and helps to tackle the climate emergency.”
Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £5bn fund for improving buses and cycling infrastructure. The Metro Mayor pledged that the city region “will be working hard to lobby the Government to make sure that our region gets its fair share of that money”.
He added: “Doing nothing is simply not an option. That’s why next week we will ask the Combined Authority to support the completion of the work required to fully assess the emerging option of bus franchising against the alternatives for our future bus system in the Liverpool city region, so as to deliver what people have told us they need from their buses and the whole transport system.”