Smart Transport

Bus franchising can deliver for the UK – but the right approach is needed

Miki Szikszai, CEO of Snapper Services

By Miki Szikszai, CEO of Snapper Services 

London is one of the only UK cities that allows commuters to easily travel across it in a matter of minutes. With 24-hour underground tube routes and reliable bus and train systems, journeys that might take hours to walk can be completed in minutes.   

However, for residents of other parts of the UK, a dependable and affordable transport service might be viewed as something of a luxury. This discrepancy isn’t just because London is the UK’s capital city.

It also operates its transport according to the franchising model – in which local authorities set timetables, routes and fares before inviting private companies to operate the services under a competitive tendering process – with a more accountable service provision the result.

Trendsetting beyond the capital

We’re starting to see other UK cities follow in London’s footsteps and take on this approach. Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA) opened a public consultation on its plans to franchise the area’s bus services, with local leaders having voted unanimously to confirm franchising as the region’s preferred future model in 2022.

The move follows Greater Manchester becoming the first city-region to use powers contained within the UK’s Bus Services Act 2017 to appoint new bus network operators to run the area’s first locally controlled bus services since they were deregulated in 1986. As a result, Greater Manchester is also set to become the first area outside of London to have a regulated bus service since the 1980s.

The fact it’s taken so long might suggest that the move towards a franchising model is overly complex and difficult to achieve.

However, Jersey, which is not bound by UK regulation, has increased ridership and reduced public subsidy since inviting bids for a franchised network in 2013.

At Snapper, we’ve seen first-hand how a franchising model can deliver a significantly improved bus service for passengers when we’ve collaborated with transport operators in New Zealand.

As such, the shift to locally controlled bus services across Greater Manchester and Liverpool has the potential to provide success stories that inspire similar moves across the country.

Getting to that point will require the right approach – here’s how that could look and why it can deliver.

Managing complexity – introducing accountability

While it’s often believed that franchising is a complex process, this need not be the case. Given that the legacy model involves any number of private operators registering with authorities in a single area – causing potential miscommunication between operators and a lack of network alignment – franchising also has the potential to reduce complexity.

The traditional model also involves operators controlling timetables, routes, and fares while measuring their own performance. This flips under the franchise model, where local authorities themselves determine bus routes and fares according to their insight into how best to serve their local area and integrate with wider urban planning objectives.

This can mean an improvement in services, reduced congestion, and cleaner air, while the authority also gains greater visibility and control over the network performance. 

It also means operators are held accountable for delivering a service that meets the needs of the local area – as determined by local authorities – while their fee for providing the service can be tied to agreed KPIs.

This model can improve performance and create a more viable transport sector. It is, however, also a move that can result in the need for higher taxpayer support and is often resisted by operators, who want to retain control over setting fares and routes.

Overcoming these objections relies on ensuring services genuinely improve – and that operators are fairly rewarded for delivering services that fully meet the needs of the public. This can only be achieved through successful collaboration between operators and authorities.

Franchising success in New Zealand

One of the reasons why the UK is only now making the move towards the franchising model might be down to resistance from operators. The belief that franchising shifts too much power to authorities has historically caused friction between operators and transport authorities.

This is something that happened across cities in New Zealand when it made the decision to embrace the franchising model. For example, the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), which operates Metlink, started operating as a franchise in 2018 which prompted initial caution from operators. 

Snapper was able to support building a more collaborative and trusting relationship between the GWRC and operators using innovative analytics tools. These provided each party with the appropriate level of information to verify that the right bus was in the right place at the right time.

All relevant parties can see exactly what happened with a particular service, shifting the conversation towards how to continuously improve the service. Workflows were established to support the efficient resolution of relief requests for issues outside of the operator’s control. Trust was further built by protecting sensitive information. Operator data such as driver details is not shared with GWRC, while passenger information, such as ticketing data, is also not shared with the operator.

One of the major lessons we can learn from New Zealand is a data-driven approach built on full transparency can address the friction between operators and authorities to ensure the success of franchising.

The power of transparency

At Snapper, we’ve seen how access to sophisticated analytics solutions can improve the relationship between operators and authorities by providing transparency around network performance, which enables more effective collaboration between both parties.

With accurate and robust data insights, operators are rewarded when meeting the requirements set out by authorities, while local authorities benefit from full visibility into services and total confidence that their communities’ requirements are being met.

And while it is great that the UK Government is investing more in the decarbonisation of public transport through large-scale electric vehicle and sustainable fuel projects, better network management – a direct result of having access to reliable data, which informs more confident decision making – can reduce our carbon footprint now.

Ultimately, and most importantly, this means a better service for passengers. With a data-driven approach that makes the seemingly complex simple, franchising can be a route to authorities, operators and private entities working together to provide a better, more reliable transport service.

If that’s delivered in Manchester and Liverpool, we can expect many other parts of the country to follow suit.

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