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Alan Pilbeam: why Abellio embraces bus franchising

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Bus services across the country have suffered in recent years as the effects of public spending cuts to local authority budgets have bitten. Council bus budgets have been cut by 45% since 2010, with as many as 3,000 routes reduced or scrapped across the country in that period.

At Abellio, we know that public transport is crucial to the economic success of our towns and cities, bringing communities closer together, and meeting local and national government targets on emissions and air quality.

A strong bus network is crucial to this, but the current picture is far from reassuring. This is why we have seen interventions from both the Conservative government with the Bus Services Act and, in recent weeks, Labour’s pledge to spend £1.3bn on bus services if they were to come to power. Andy Burnham (Lab), the mayor of Greater Manchester CA, also recently came out to say buses were “fundamentally not run in the public interest”.

This follows over 30 years of a deregulated market in most parts of the UK. Under the current system, outside of London, bus operators choose what prices they will charge and which routes they want to service (generally the profitable routes), which can leave many areas without good connections – undermining the economic and cultural integration of those areas, and increasing the reliance on private car journeys.

There is a huge amount of discussion about bus services nationally and how local authorities, particularly metro regions, are using new powers available to them to reconfigure services in the interests of their communities. If a franchise system is adopted, communities will be able to actively have a say in the design of their services so they effectively meet the needs of the region.

And while some other bus operators are shunning a franchise model, Abellio is embracing it. We believe it is essential for bus operators to collaborate with local communities and their local authorities to ensure they get the best possible service for their local areas. Franchising provides opportunities for these local communities to receive the bus services their people want, and gives local leadership accountability for the efficient running of the service.

Bus services are not just about getting people from A to B, nor are they there to simply deliver a profit to their operator – they play a much more crucial role at the heart of their communities than that. We understand the critical role of buses to the economic success of city regions, the effective delivery of public services in health and education and making a success of housing and developments. The wider public deserves to have a say in their public transport structure which is why we believe franchising is the best model for providing the bus service local people really want.

The Bus Services Act (2017) has allowed local government to take ownership of bus services, allowing them to meet region-specific, social-economic objectives and ensure each bus service meets the needs of local people. Indeed, the House of Commons transport committee have called on government to remove the barriers not only to local authority control of their bus service operating model, but also for franchising specifically.

Playing a major role in London’s franchised bus network has given Abellio experience of how this can work for communities and we are committed to playing a future part in providing services in other city regions. Bus franchising has worked successfully in London, and we believe the franchise model can offer the best accountability and value for money for local people in other areas of the country.

Listening to what local people want from their public transport is essential to ensuring companies can provide the optimum service. Putting local people in charge of these services via franchising not only provides value for money, but the power to adapt the service to their needs. This is what Abellio is committed to.

Alan Pilbeam, deputy managing director and chief operating officer, Abellio

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