A regional super-council has claimed it may have to bring some bus services back under public control following news that two of the region’s biggest bus operators are up for sale.
Operators First Bus and Arriva have both recently been put up for sale by their parent companies, prompting uncertainty over the future of bus services.
The developments come as councillors in Calverley and Farsley ward criticised Firstbus for cutting an early morning number 9 service, which is described as a lifeline for early workers.
A meeting of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) transport committee heard commitments from bus companies that services across the city would be secured for the future.
But, following the meeting, a statement from WYCA read it was “considering all options” to ensure services were safeguarded, adding: “This may involve taking into public control, bus services which are currently provided by bus companies on a commercial basis.”
Parent company First announced earlier this year that it sought to sell its bus operations in the UK, while German transport giant Deutsche Bahn has made moves to sell off its Arriva bus services.
Speaking during the meeting, committee chair Coun Kim Groves said:
“We are in discussions with potential bus operators – we are also looking into other options.
“We acknowledge that these announcements have created uncertainty – 90 percent of people use buses.”
Leeds councillor and committee member Neil Buckley asked for assurances that First’s 285-strong regional bus fleet would remain in place once a potential buyer steps in.
First Bus’s Paul Matthews said:
“These are very early stages of separation. It could lead to a sale in whole or part of the business. I understand the uncertainty it crates for staff and partners.
“The commitments that have been made will transfer across, this process could take a couple of years before it happens. By the end of this month we have to place orders to ensure that we meet the low emission zone commitments.
“Outside of this, I have had assurances, the investment commitments that have been made will be honoured in full.
“They are being put into Leeds and West Yorkshire because the commercial case is there to remain in Leeds, so the case will remain there whether or not First runs the services.
“I can understand the uncertainty. Many people will know operators have changed hands a lot over the years. Whatever the ultimate owner, the business is solid, the business is pure and investment commitments will be made.”
Following the meeting, the combined authority added that it had also approached the Department for Transport to alert it to the potential risks to bus services in the region. WYCA also asked for a review of the current model of bus service governance and regulation in the event that the sales process reaches an a unsatisfactory outcome.
Following the meeting, Coun Groves said:
“Driving up bus usage is essential in our efforts to grow the region’s economy while cutting congestion and improving air quality and we are confident our exciting plans in partnership with the bus operators will do just that.
“However we also have to acknowledge the uncertainty created by recent announcements. With 85 per cent of public transport journeys in West Yorkshire taken by bus, it is essential that services continue uninterrupted.
“We will be impressing on the current operators and any potential buyers the need to ensure services are safeguarded through any sale process and we continue to move forward with our plans through the West Yorkshire Bus Alliance.
“It is only prudent that we also prepare to respond to any circumstances which puts vital services at risk.”
Bus services were transferred from government to private ownership following the 1985 Transport Act.
Concerns grow over cuts to early morning 9 service
However, devolved regions with metro mayors, such as Manchester and Birmingham, now have powers to franchise bus services.
Meanwhile, Councillors Amanda and Andrew Carter have objected in the ‘strongest possible terms’ to the withdrawal of the 6.38am 9/9A service. In a letter to operators First, they said:
“This is the only early bus to Horsforth from Pudsey and will greatly affect those who make an early start in Horsforth as the next scheduled bus is 8.13am. There are no alternative buses at this and this must not be allowed to go ahead as it will severely affect residents in Pudsey and Swinnow.
“By removing the early services, First are penalising anyone on a low income or doing shift work and who cannot afford to drive or pay for taxis.
“We know the early services may not be filled to capacity, but it’s an essential part of the service. This cannot be allowed to happen.”