What is bus franchising and why is it important?

Franchising is currently suggested as one option to deliver bus service transformations envisaged as part of the GCP’s Sustainable Travel Zone proposals (named Making Connections 2022).

Bus service franchising means that decisions about routes, frequencies, hours and days of operation, and fares are no longer at the whim of operators, but are taken by a Transport Authority which is democratically answerable to the public.

Richard Wood, Secretary of Cambridgeshire Sustainable Travel Alliance founder member Cambridge Area Bus Users, explains in a bit more detail:

“We should move to franchising under the Bus Services Act 2017, which would require competing operators to offer a best price/quality mix for running each service, give Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (the Transport Authority) control over routes, times and frequency of operation, and permit cross-subsidy from profitable routes to help support routes that are not financially self-sustaining.

This would also allow the Transport Authority to:

  1. negotiate deals with selected operators who could share increased revenue from improving ridership
  2. bear all revenue risk on selected non-self-sustaining routes (as with current contracted services)
  3. take on the rôle of Traffic Commissioner, allowing for penalties to be imposed on bus operators who fail to fulfil contract specifications
  4. purchase or lease operating centres (garages and out-stations) and lease these to new operators
  5. require operators to issue standard tickets valid across the whole network
  6. prohibit operators from on-street competition (eg offering competing travel deals valid only on their own services)
  7. specify a minimum quality of vehicle (eg Euro VI on mainly rural routes, zero-emission on city routes)
  8. require all operators to install RTPI (real-time passenger information)-compatible and smart traffic signal-compatible ticket machines (leasing machines to small operators).”

Will franchising definitely happen if the Sustainable Travel Zone comes into operation?

Franchising is currently suggested as one option to deliver bus service transformations envisaged as part of the GCP’s Sustainable Travel Zone proposals, (the other option being an ‘Enhanced Partnership’), but isn’t a concrete part of the GCP’s plans. Interviewed on BBC Cambridgeshire, GCP Transport Director Peter Blake said the proposals weren’t dependent on bus franchising. This is because the powers to deliver changes to the bus network are held by the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, rather than the GCP. Dr Nik Johnson, the current Mayor, is currently exploring the possibility of franchising the bus network across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in tandem to the GCP’s Sustainable Travel Zone proposals. In his forward to the brochure for the Sustainable Travel Zone consultation, he states:

“A severe lack of investment and vision for buses goes back decades, and we need change. The Combined Authority is continuing to work on a strategy that aims to reform our bus system. Franchising is one future option being reviewed, alongside ways to attract funding and investment. We need to collaborate and collectively look at the available options…”

Buses in Cambridge