Leeds: Buses to be brought back under public control – updated

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A bus on the A647 bus lane. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth

Bus services in West Yorkshire will be brought under public control, as it becomes the third major region to reverse four decades of deregulation.

The Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin has taken the decision in what promises to be the biggest shake up to public transport in the region for decades. 

The landmark move – through a process known as franchising – means routes, frequencies, fares and overall standards for buses in the region will be set by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority instead of private operators, who will instead be contracted to run services on the Combined Authority’s behalf. 

Buses in West Yorkshire were ranked as the worst in England in a passenger survey published this week by the watchdog Transport Focus. Only 66% of passengers were satisfied with their last journey on Arriva buses in West Yorkshire, the lowest rating of more than 50 bus companies nationwide. The operator cited a shortage of drivers for failing services and said it now had a large number of trainees about to complete their courses.

It’s hoped franchised model will allow the Mayor and Combined Authority to better deliver on ambitions for a greener, joined-up and easier to use transport network. 

Some 69 organisations and 1,176 members of the public took part in a  consultation on the options between October and January. Almost three quarters of people fully supported franchising. The authority also received a petition of more than 12,000 signatures.

Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin said the current deregulated system has seen a decline in patronage over many years and the increasing use of public funding used to support services.

“I’m delighted to announce that we are taking back control of our buses in West Yorkshire, empowering the public to hold me to account for better services,” Mayor Brabin added.

“For too long, buses have been run in the interests of private companies, not passengers. Franchising will help us build a better-connected bus network that works for all, not just company shareholders.    

“But we know that change will not happen overnight – the hard work we’ve been doing to improve the bus network continues while we work at pace to bring this new way of running the buses to our 2.4 million residents.” 

Combined Authority meeting

Combined Authority members decided to back the proposal at a meeting today (Thursday, March 14).

New bus service contracts as part of the scheme should be in place in 2027.

Ms Brabin told the meeting: “What a historic moment for West Yorkshire. We are bringing buses back into public control and we are putting passengers first. This is the biggest change in the way buses are run for the region over the last 40 years and will impact on generations to come.”

Opening the meeting, Ms Brabin said the future of bus services was vital to the region. She said: “But we know the current system is not good enough. We hear it from the public all the time.”

A report to the meeting said more than 1.7m bus journeys were taken each week in West Yorkshire. It said: “But evidence shows passengers face many challenges, resulting in poor satisfaction and fewer people choosing to travel by bus, with bus patronage in long-term decline.”

At the same time, the bus network had got smaller and the Combined Authority was having to spend more on the running of bus services, up from £17.1m in 2018/19 to £21.4 m in 2021/22.

The report said the authority was paying for socially necessary bus services which would otherwise not be provided by bus companies. These made up around 15 per cent of all bus journeys.

Leeds City Council leader James Lewis said told the meeting: “The think the time is right to move on. The bus companies have had their chance.”

To ensure a smooth transition, franchising will be introduced in phases, with the first franchised buses up and running in parts of Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield from March 2027. In the meantime, the Combined Authority says it will continue with its £2 Mayor’s Fares, increased frequencies on key routes, investment in bus stations and shelters and new bus services. 

Reaction

A spokesperson for Arriva Yorkshire was today positive about the decision. She said: “We welcome confirmation of Mayor Tracy Brabin’s intention to move towards a franchising model for local bus services in West Yorkshire.

“We know from our experience in London and across Mainland Europe that franchised networks can deliver the successful and high performing services that local communities deserve. We look forward to working closely with the Mayor and her team to help achieve their ambitions for improved bus services for passengers in West Yorkshire.”

Director of civic watchdog Leeds Civic Trust, Martin Hamilton, also welcomed the decision. He said: “The bus services in West Yorkshire are currently inadequate to support the transport needs of the population.

“Bringing the service under public control will mean that decisions on routes, frequencies and the overall quality of the bus service will be determined by need and not by profit.

“It will take several years before a franchising system is fully up and running. In the meantime, it is vital that the combined authority continues to work with bus operators to improve the service and to speak to bus users about the sort of service they want when franchising is introduced.”

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