Radical overhaul of bus network could bring £50m boost to West

First bus

A radical overhaul to tackle decades-long failings in how buses operate could bring a £50million boost to the greater Bristol region. - Credit: Google

A radical overhaul to tackle decades-long failings in how buses operate could bring a £50million boost to North Somerset and the greater Bristol region. 

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) and North Somerset Council (NSC) are set to play a leading role in making buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to use and cheaper. 

They are drawing up plans for an “enhanced partnership” with operators after central government recognised that the current model is not working. 

The Bus Back Better strategy, hailed as “the most ambitious shake-up of the bus sector in a generation”, comes after the pandemic slashed passenger numbers by 90 per cent, and usage still has not recovered. 

A report to NSC’s executive meeting next week says: “This represents a landmark opportunity to use significantly increased national government funding as part of what is a radical reshape of how public transport is planned and delivered in England. 

“This signals the beginning of the end for the commercially-viable bus service model that currently dictates the make-up of local bus networks.

“An opportunity of this magnitude should not be missed nor underestimated.
“This level of intervention is very much needed with our bus sector model failing steadily since deregulation in the late 1980s, after years of under-funded levels of investment and Covid-19 compounding these issues, threatening the current bus network format’s very existence.” 

In the first lockdown bus use nationally dropped to just a tenth of pre-pandemic levels, and last month had recovered to just 60 per cent, with figures for the West of England even lower. 

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The Government’s strategy aims to boost passenger numbers beyond pre-Covid levels and make buses a practical and attractive alternative to driving, by making them more frequent, reliable, easier to use and cheaper. 

That could mean a London-style network, with fully integrated services that run into the evening and weekends, multi-modal tickets, and more prioritisation for buses. 

The strategy held up Bristol’s £235million metrobus network as one of England’s “pockets of hope”, places where significant growth has been seen despite the national trends. 

The latest intervention could be worth £50million for the West of England. 
Enhanced partnerships are considered less risky than franchising the bus network, an option metro mayor Dan Norris said in his manifesto he would investigate. 

A report to WECA’s joint committee meeting next week says such a scheme would take several years to bring to fruition and could face opposition. In Greater Manchester operators have challenged “unlawful” £134.5million plans to bring the region’s bus network back into public control. 

WECA officers said: “The option of embarking on development of a franchising scheme instead of an enhanced partnership was considered. 
“Such an arrangement would give more control over the bus network but would not reduce operating costs, nor would it bring in more revenue. In fact, it would place a substantial revenue risk on the franchising authority.

“Development of an enhanced partnership would be the most pragmatic way to bring improvements to the bus network at a much earlier date and would not preclude development of an assessment of franchising.”