(Major changes to bus services in Wales)
Saturday 16th April 2022
It’s an interesting time for buses and trains in Wales.
The Welsh Government took over running the nation’s rail franchise in February last year thereby bringing trains back into public ownership. Until then, and since October 2018, the Wales and Borders franchise had been operated by Keolis (60%) and Amey (40%) trading as Transport for Wales Rail Services; before that it had been Arriva Trains Wales, run by Arriva. The name Transport for Wales introduced by Keolis/Amey has continued under nationalised ownership of the trains. It should be noted this state takeover is not yet formalised as a permanent arrangement having being brought about by the pandemic decimating the franchise’s finances but no-one is expecting it to revert back to the previous arrangements.
Transport for Wales is also the name used by the Welsh Government for its arms length not-for-profit publicly owned subsidiary company which provides support and expertise on transport projects in addition to that company’s wholly owned subsidiary now running the trains (Transport for Wales Rail – but only using Transport for Wales in the public domain).
There’s a lot of Transport for Wales names around; and it looks like there’ll be a lot more in the future as the Government sets its sights on bus franchising, bringing all the nation’s bus routes under “One Network, One Timetable, One Ticket” which just happens to be the title of the White Paper published at the end of last month setting out proposals to take the nation’s bus services back under public control and give them all one common brand – presumably Transport for Wales.
The 42 page document is out for public consultation until Friday 24th June and includes 21 questions for respondents to complete so it’s not a quick five minute job to respond. Unlike the DfT’s Bus Back Better National Bus Strategy, the Welsh paper is devoid of any glossy photographs so I can’t bring you any illustrations here to lighten up the text. However, here’s a photograph of James Price the Chief Executive of Transport for Wales (the arms length publicly owned subsidiary company of the Welsh Government) (as opposed to the Transport for Wales Rail operator) (its wholly owned subsidiary).
By a happy coincidence James kindly came along to the twice-a-year Young Bus Managers’ Conference which just happened to be taking place in Cardiff over two days last week and at which I was carrying out my usual hosting role. James was happy to speak to us about all things Transport for Wales which obviously included reference to the White Paper just published. So it was interesting to hear the background to the franchising proposals first hand from the top dog.
Encouragingly he said how impressed he was at seeing so many keen and enthusiastic young managers from the bus industry and acknowledged that any franchising arrangements must take account of the significant expertise that lies in the industry.
James initially chaired Transport for Wales when it was first set up in 2016. At that time it employed 100 people who were engaged in giving advice to the Welsh Government on transport matters, not least all the preparations for taking over the rail franchise from the DfT as well as many miles of track and infrastructure from Network Rail in the Cardiff valleys in preparation for the South Wales Metro project. This extensive development is due to be introduced in 2024 and encompasses light rail conversion of some sections and ‘turn-up-and-go’ frequencies – although in Wales that apparently means anything down to as good as every 15 minutes, which for me, means knowing a timetable (my criteria for ‘turn-up-and-go’ is every 10 minutes – might just accept 12 – or better). That aside it’s an exciting project.
Transport for Wales has grown over the last six years to now employ 3,000 people including those in its subsidiary company actually operating the railway.
Unlike Transport for London where the Mayor chairs the TfL Board, the Transport for Wales non-executive Board chairman is independent, albeit appointed by the Government. Scott Waddington was reappointed for a second term of three years earlier this year in January to this role. He has extensive business experience, particularly in the hospitality sector and was chairman of the Welsh CBI in 2010 and 2011.
The Welsh Government sets the policy and strategy for Transport for Wales and Lee Waters MS, Deputy Minister for Climate, is leading on the current proposals to franchise buses.
The idea for greater public control of buses has been around for a few years in Wales and has had a rocky gestation period. The Bus Services (Wales) Bill which would have granted local authorities statutory powers to franchise bus routes was withdrawn in summer 2020 “for further consideration” and some thought the proposals may have gone away.
But they’re back with a vengeance in this new White Paper which proposes updated arrangements with Transport for Wales becoming the franchising body together with representation from regional Corporate Joint Committees (CJC) (established under the Local Government and Elections Act 2020), which are basically neighbouring councils joined together where their resources would otherwise be too small, forming – what’s become a bit of a two word buzz phrase in transport – a “guiding mind” to “bring all aspects of the bus system together”.
The White Paper envisages local authorities developing “a plan for a bus network” while the CJCs would bring “these together to form a regional plan” with Transport for Wales working to “combine these networks into a national plan” which in turn would be reviewed by the “guiding mind” board which would include political representation from the Welsh Government. This final plan would in turn be “informed by expert and public views” facilitated by “an operator representative, a staff representative and a public transport user representative” also sitting on the Board.
It certainly looks like that “further consideration” of the proposals now ticks every conceivable box but whether it’ll lead to slick and effective decision making – something that’s intrinsically necessary to keep a bus network in tune with an ever changing market – is another matter.
As someone who spent 27 years running buses in a deregulated environment where decision making on improved bus routes/timetables/fares/tickets/vehicles/marketing etc could be enacted from original gestation to on the ground implementation in a timescale measured in weeks/days/and sometimes hours this process sounds like a recipe for bureaucracy and delay.
But that’s the problem with franchising as TfL know only too well (bus service changes put out to public consultation and implemented sometimes years later) and Transport for Greater Manchester are about to learn.
The White Paper also gives the freedom for local authorities to establish their own municipal bus companies but quite why the originators of this idea thinks the time is ripe for such a development is a mystery bearing in mind the rather precarious financial position of some of the UK’s remaining municipally owned operators.
The upside for franchising is the Holy Grail of “One Network, One Timetable, One Ticket” and I wish Transport for Wales well in achieving that, not least promoting it widely and making it actually happen on the ground. My experiences of using fledgling tickets of this kind have not always been positive as long term readers of this blog will be aware. The excellent 1bws ticket introduced in 2021 across all bus operators in North Wales is great if you and the bus driver know about it (too many don’t) as are the integrated rail and bus Explore Wales tickets, if you can find out about them and rail and bus staff know about them (too many don’t).
Provided the Welsh Government consistently puts the necessary funding into improving bus routes in Wales I’m optimistic things may just come good. There are already encouraging signs in the investment that continues to be made in improving (a) the TrawsCymru network (another new route (T22) will start this year linking Caernarfon, Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog and there are electric powered buses on order), (b) Fflecsi DRT services (there seems to be a strong dose of realism these will need ongoing financial support rather than a ‘three year trial’ approach – indeed it was encouraging to hear James Price recognising the need for subsidy and observing it was at ‘pocket money levels’ compared to the subsidy per passenger paid on some of Wales’ rail routes) and then there’s (c) the transformational (and I don’t often use that word unless it really is) improvements to the Snowdon Sherpa network of routes from last weekend.
This is part of a commitment of a few hundred thousand additional pounds funding from the Welsh Government for the year ahead to provide a step change in bus provision across the Snowdonia National Park and the result is very impressive. I’d intended to take a trip out there last weekend but circumstances prevented it but it’s definitely worth a visit in the coming weeks, by which time buses will be sporting a new livery and branding which will also encompass bus stops and publicity including a very impressive map and timetable brochure outlining what the new network offers.
Hourly timetables have replaced previous arrangements with more limited offerings as well as excellent connection opportunities between routes across the Park. It’s very encouraging to see this come about and I look forward to reporting back on the step change following my visit last September when I reported how the Sherpa branding was now looking tired and dated and needed the very shot-in-the-arm it’s now received.
If this is what franchising will do all across Wales, then I say bring it on.
But it’ll need a lot, and I mean a lot, of money. And not just for one year either (which the Snowdonia money currently is).
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