In a move set to transform public transport in Liverpool, the Liverpool City Region has taken a decisive step towards bringing its bus services back under public control. Liverpool's metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram, announced on 6 October that the city region will be reversing deregulation and introducing franchising on routes, allowing the region to set routes and fares.
Rotheram expressed his excitement over this development, hailing it as the commencement of a new era for public transportation within the region. He emphasised: "For too long, our residents have been forced to contend with a second-class service that places profit before passengers and leaves behind the very people who need it most."
Buses in Merseyside have been widely seen as unreliable and expensive, according to consultations with passengers. A six-week public consultation also revealed that 69% of the public support franchising, and all six of the region’s local authority leaders recommended that a franchised system would provide the best value to the taxpayer.
Under a new franchising model, private operators will still be contracted to run bus services, but the Combined Authority will have greater control over fares, routes and timetables and the ability to reinvest any profit back into the network to improve services for passengers. The proposed changes are expected to pave the way for a more integrated public transport system, featuring contactless ticketing and capped fares across Liverpool's bus and train networks.
Buses in Britain outside London were privatised and deregulated by the national government in 1986. Several European countries debated whether or not to follow England’s example of deregulation in public transport. Private sector participation in the sector increased in almost all countries in a belief that private sector operators would increase cost-efficiency and quality of transport services, although full deregulation occurred virtually nowhere else.
Legislation passed in 2017 in England gave powers to Mayors to introduce franchising, although the process has proved difficult. The question remains if many other urban authorities will follow this path.
The decision made by the Liverpool region means it will become the second urban authority to overturn decades of bus deregulation in England. In late September 2023, Greater Manchester announced it brought back the first part of its bus network under public control. West Yorkshire also announced it may also take back public control over bus services, although a decision will only be made in Spring 2024.
Liverpool's metro Mayor, Steve Rotheram, acknowledged that while this transition would be transformative, it wouldn't occur overnight, with several stages to go before Liverpool could introduce the system.
To ensure a smooth transition, franchising will be introduced in phases, with the first franchised buses starting to run in St Helens by late 2026 and the move to a fully franchised system across the whole of the Liverpool City Region by the end of 2028.
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