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Mayor sets out plan to take back control of region’s buses

Published: Tuesday 14 May 2024

More than £75 million has been spent by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) over 18 months on subsidies to keep the region’s buses on the road.

Without this heavy subsidy thousands of passengers would have faced either inflation-busting fare increases or dramatic cuts in the bus network with many evening and weekend services wiped out.

And with the support only in place until the end of the year, Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), which is part of the WMCA, has already started talks with Government and bus operators over further funding to prevent reduction in services or steep fare increases in 2025.

Richard Parker, the Mayor of the West Midlands, said: “This is unsustainable, our bus network is broken and that is why we want to take back control so that it serves the people, communities and businesses who rely on regular, affordable and reliable bus services.

“I have directed our officers to put a report before the WMCA Board at the earliest opportunity to set out a roadmap for franchising the region’s bus services as quickly as possible – and get us ready to start that transition in 2025.

“We will consult communities and businesses, to create a network which enables people to get to work, school, college or hospital – providing access to essential services, an affordable alternative to the car and reducing traffic congestion.

“We are also talking to the Labour leadership, who if successful at the general election, will introduce measures to make it easier and speed up the process towards franchising – I will make sure this benefits the West Midlands.”

Buses are the backbone of the region’s transport network accounting for five million passenger journeys per week.

Although TfWM is covering about half the running costs of bus services, the private bus operators make decisions about routes, fares and timetables. Under the franchised model TfWM will decide these and award contracts to operators to run services to set specifications.

A successful bus network is a key part of our plans to better connect our people to job, education and leisure opportunities, decarbonise our transport network and grow our regional economy.

Faced by rising subsidies, the WMCA Board last year commissioned an assessment of future options for the network – this work will explore how a franchised network could be delivered. Under the current legislation the process, including public consultation, means the transition could begin in early 2025. The first franchised services will be operating approximately two years after that.

Pete Bond, director of integrated network services for TfWM said: “We now have a bus network which requires a long-term subsidy and so the current approach, in which we tender a number of socially necessary services on a case-by-case basis, may no longer be fit for purpose.

“This work requested by the Mayor will show if there are improved efficiencies and benefits from franchising, and if we can get better value for money for the taxpayer as well as shape the bus network by using funding in a more coordinated and efficient way. It will also highlight if further customer benefits can be made such as improved ticketing and fares and passenger information as well as further integration with tram and rail services.”

Bus operators have faced increasing cost pressures due to steep rises in fuel, maintenance, and staff costs over the last two-and-a-half years at the same time as a slow recovery in fare income following the Covid-19 pandemic. This has meant subsidies have needed to dramatically rise to keep buses on the road.

The report to the WMCA Board in July will set out the process in further detail along with the estimated set up and running costs.

Transport for West Midlands is putting unprecedented investment in bus services and infrastructure as part of our plans for a green transport revolution. Encouraging more people to swap their private cars for buses will help reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and cut carbon emissions.

Key investments include creating the UK’s first All Electric Bus City in Coventry and the development of cross-city bus routes with bus lanes and priority measures at key junctions to improve reliability and journey times on the region’s busiest commuter routes.

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