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TfGM’s handling of Covid-19 shows it isn’t fit to run buses

Julian Peddle Ipswich IP8
01 May 2020

I completely agree with Matthew Moll’s comment about the challenges Covid-19 presents the bus industry, but I draw exactly the opposite conclusion (“Covid 19 ‘could alter the terms of the UK bus franchising debate” LTT 17 Apr). 

The deregulated bus industry has reacted with great speed to the changing circumstances and unprecedented fall in demand. 

It has shown itself to be:

  • efficient – it is a low-cost industry in comparison to other modes. I estimate the weekly cost to the taxpayer of Covid-19 on the railways to be £180m, and to Transport for London about £103m. Whereas the provincial bus industry has been offered and is grateful for its additional £14m.
  • a quick mover and willing to take commercial risk, adapting operations to suit lockdown in just ten days whilst maintaining critical services without knowledge of any additional financial assistance.
  • able to work flexibly adapting to Public Health England guidance throughout its operations, and adopting social distancing
  • trustworthy – when existing rules and regulations have been relaxed, the industry has not abused these relaxations
  • capable of working collaboratively with local authorities and between operators to introduce coordinated timetables, interavailable tickets, multi-operator publicity and agree reduced networks that still meet the needs of key workers
  • reliable and dependable – service performance is at an all-time high now that traffic congestion is removed, and despite the fact that large numbers of buses are still running, air quality has dramatically improved, proving that buses are not part of the problem, but the solution.

Contrast this to the situation in Greater Manchester, home to the arch proponents of bus franchising. Mayor Andy Burnham and Transport for Greater Manchester have decided to use the Covid-19 crisis to try to introduce franchising by the back door. 

Despite Mr Burnham saying on Question Time that this “is not the time to play politics” he has done exactly that in his dealings with bus operators. TfGM attempted to delay Government support for the industry with a demand that operators agree to 11 conditions in an attempt to wrest control of the network from operators (‘Operators riled as TfGM attaches 11 conditions to tendered services cash’ LTT 03 Apr). It only backed down at the last moment when even it realised its demands were untenable.

Throughout the crisis, TfGM has shown itself to have incoherent decision-making, poor leadership and flawed policies. It continued running full tendered networks for three weeks after they became unnecessary based on passenger numbers carried; continued to run double deckers on school contracts with one or no children travelling; and changed its mind on service changes on several occasions.

Passenger information for tendered service changes has been issued late. For instance, it had been known that Manchester Community Transport would cease operations on 19 April for many weeks, but revised timetables including the withdrawal of three services were only available between one and three days before introduction. 

TfGM’s stance has diluted the goodwill of operators and wasted considerable management time. It has exposed operating staff to potential harm when there was no need.  

In this time of national crisis, the deregulated bus network and its operators have shown the ability to rapidly react to changing circumstances and provide essential transport for key workers. Contrast that to  TfGM, which could have used this as an opportunity to demonstrate how well a centrally planned system might work, but has displayed inefficiency and arrogance, thus making a difficult situation far worse.

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