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The Bus Services Bill and opportunities for BRT

Gwyn Ephraim, Associate Transport Planner at consultant Arup, investigates the possibilities

Gwyn Ephraim
The key aims of the Bill appear to be aligned well with the role of BRT schemes
The key aims of the Bill appear to be aligned well with the role of BRT schemes


The Government is planning to pass the Bus Services Bill in 2017. The Bill aims to create conditions to: 

  • Grow bus passenger numbers
  • Tackle air quality hot spots
  • Improve bus services for passengers
  • Enable a thriving and innovative commercial bus sector
  • Help cities and regions unlock opportunity and grow their economy

The Bill aims to achieve this by:

  • Strengthening arrangements for partnership working in the sector, by introducing ‘Enhanced Partnerships’
  • Introducing new franchising powers with decisions at a local level
  • Providing for a step change in the information available to bus passengers

The Bill does not affect bus services operating in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or London.

What does this mean for BRT?

Experience of the development and implementation of BRT services in the UK has been that it represents a determined intervention by local authorities seeking to put in place a premium bus service to achieve certain local objectives – normally related to city growth and a need to attract passengers from car travel. 

Hence, whatever the pros and cons of the Bus Services Bill and its impact on the bus operator market, the aims of the Bill appear to be aligned well with the role of BRT ‘schemes’ – to grow bus passenger numbers and help economic growth through provision of a specifically-planned bus service.

The two main ‘levels’ of bus operating arrangements set out in the Bill are:

  • Partnership: An enhancement on current voluntary partnerships removing the requirement that specific bus infrastructure facilities needed to be provided in parallel to the operator partnership. Enhanced partnerships will set out clear agreements on bus vehicle type and specification, frequency and timing of services, maximum fares, and how passengers can pay. The partnership agreement can also exclude non-compliant services from the relevant partnership area – which will allow scope for ‘protection’ of BRT services from parallel competing services – which, it could be argued, can presently undermine BRT services and the associated investment in infrastructure.
  • Franchising: The franchising element of the Bill will replace the existing Quality Contract Scheme powers, which no authority has ever put into place. This new power will allow local authorities to effectively control their local bus services, much in the same way as is done in London by the Mayor of London/Transport for London. Operators would then bid for the right to operate the franchised services or apply for a permit to operate a service in addition to those specified for franchising. This will create greater opportunities for ‘full’ BRT systems to be put in place by allowing authorities to better align infrastructure investment with service routes – and again with an ability to address potential abstraction of passenger demand by other competing services.

BRT Networks

BRT schemes in the UK are generally planned and operated as single line services. The franchising arrangement may result in a step-change in BRT opportunities by providing greater scope for planning and implementing networks of BRT services, thereby bringing the possibility of cities being served by 

a well-defined ‘overground’ BRT network with a network brand. A 

co-ordinated BRT network (perhaps made up of two or three cross-city lines, with specifically planned interchange arrangements) could significantly increase bus-based journey-making possibilities within cities.

Building the case

Authorities able to consider franchising are presently focused primarily on Mayoral Combined Authorities. Authorities wishing to take forward franchising will need to set out a strong overall business case, considering:

  • how it would support their wider policies
  • any effect on other local authorities
  • whether it is affordable and achievable
  • whether it offers value for money
  • how and whether services will be procured and managed effectively

BRT schemes are already subject to business case approval processes, and hence the franchising (or partnership) arrangements represent continuation of an already established approach to BRT design and implementation – but with a greater emphasis on how the system will be operated (which up to now has been largely determined by operators).

Franchise (or partnership) areas can cover whole authority areas, or be applicable only to smaller sub-areas (or corridors). Consultation with affected bus operators, representatives of bus users, neighbouring authorities, and other interested parties is a key aspect of preparation and confirming the form and justification for the scheme. Cross-ticketing and improved dissemination of information on services are also key aspects gaining approval for partnership and franchising arrangements.

Gwyn Ephraim

Gwyn has worked for Arup for over 20 years in urban transport planning, mainly involving street-based transport (pedestrian, bus, bus rapid transit, tram, cars/road vehicles). He has worked on a permanent basis in the UK, Germany, USA, UAE and Ireland on a variety of transport projects from planning through to implementation. These projects range from strategy level to local schemes, including appraisal and business case work. Gwyn has particular experience on bus-based public transport projects, including major international and UK-based BRT projects (e.g. Kampala BRT, Swansea Metro BRT).

The future development of the bus partnership/franchising process could be an opportunity for the ‘BRT’ idea to flourish in the UK, bringing together the excellence of operators and the aspiration of city leaders for better journeys and better places – with Bus Rapid Transit playing a key role in enabling the economic growth of cities – connecting communities to the workplace, healthcare and education.

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