Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporter
A masterplan to improve bus services in West Yorkshire is expected to be submitted to Government within the next two months – but full bus franchising might not happen for up to another five years, regional transport chiefs have claimed.
A meeting of a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) committee discussed plans for the county’s submission for the Government’s “Bus Back Better” scheme, which could unlock funding for improvements.
The proposals have to be submitted by the end of October, and are expected to mirror some of the pledges made by West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin’s pledges to improve services and simplify ticketing.
Senior WYCA officer Dave Pearson told a meeting of the Joint District Consultation Sub-committee:
“The Government has set us a deadline whereby we need to produce the bus service improvement plan, and it sets out what we need to do with buses in West Yorkshire.
“It’s given the rather clunky ‘Bus Back Better’ strapline as its title – I’m sure they could have done better than that, but that’s what it is.
“The key themes are a faster, more reliable, more frequent bus services. We need to move away from this complexity of fares, of different companies having different prices, and customers struggling to know what the best value is.
“We need to look at how the bus network can evolve to meet more modern travelling demands, and if we want to get more people from private cars to using the bus, we have to make it easy to understand and to use.
“If we submit this plan, there is a funding stream that sits behind this. We have a very tight deadline to do this.”
The bid comes alongside a recent pledge from West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin to simplify fares and bring buses back under public control via a franchising model.
But, according to a presentation slide, such a franchising model could take years of consultation and planning work, and it is thought a scheme could be “procured and operational” at some point between “late 2025 and early 2027”.
It added that West Yorkshire’s bus service improvement plan should cover “significant increases in bus priority”, “lower and simpler fares” and “modern buses and de-carbonisation”.
Mr Pearson added that work had already started on improving the network, as simplified fares for young people, and a new mapping style to make buses in Leeds easier to understand. He added:
“If bus operators aren’t able to fully commit to delivering a better service for the people of West Yorkshire, then that might lead us more into needing to take franchising powers to essentially direct them to.
“If we want to recover bus patronage from the pandemic and maintain the level of public funding, it’s very much in their interests to do that.”
Clive Woods from the Leeds Passenger Forum said:
“My concern is that we have these laudable intentions, but the reality often doesn’t match.
“When I look at what has happened to buses in our area, the numbers using them have gone down, the services have declined in frequency, we are getting a lot of cancellations, and that makes it difficult to get local people to trust the bus.
“Even before Covid, the numbers of passengers in West Yorkshire have been in decline. I am concerned we have had a partnership, but in our area, buses have reduced in frequency and journey times have been increased.”
Mr Pearson said: “What’s different this time is that this is structurally different in the way the bus service works. This addresses the route of deregulation and the separation of bus companies from local authorities.
“This tries to push the bus industry into multi-operator ticketing and other things they were probably reluctant to move towards in days gone by.”
It was suggested, during a discussion on fares and ticketing, that a “contactless capping system” could be introduced to bus services in the region.
Mr Pearson added: “We have a system in London where you will pay no more than a set amount no matter how much you travel. People generally say it’s something they would like to see in West Yorkshire.”