Sheffield transport: Growing clamour to return buses to public control
Sheffield buses are now so bad they should be taken back into public control.
That’s the demand from a growing number of passengers and politicians who believe privatisation has failed - as shown by falling numbers and rising complaints.
Some 35 years after deregulation, and in the throes of a climate emergency, there is a clamour to bring back the glory days of mass transit.
The current craze is for ‘franchising’ which sees control of fares, timetables and routes taken off bus companies, although they remain in private sector ownership.
Manchester is doing it, West Yorkshire wants to do it and Sheffield should do it too, some say.
But franchising in Manchester is set to cost £135m. The process started four years ago and will not be complete for at least another three.
Expensive, slow and complicated - but in Sheffield, some MPs want to go further and renationalise the entire network.
Whatever the method, the yearning is the same: more frequent and more reliable buses and the return of routes that have been axed over years. Public service over private profit.
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But what do the bus companies think?
Nigel Eggleton, managing director of First Sheffield, which runs 235 buses, is opposed. And he believes talk of public control fails to address the root cause of the problem.
The best way to transform services is to ‘discriminate against the private car’.
He said: “Franchising is incredibly expensive, slow to implement and will fail to deliver on its promises. Nationalisation has huge costs, huge inefficiency and an unwillingness to deal with changes in the market. I hear these demands with some frustration at the lack of understanding.
“Local authorities must be prepared to discriminate against the private car.”
The problem - no matter who runs the buses - is that cars still rule the road, he says.
They are usually quicker, more reliable and, of course, don’t involve waiting at a stop in the rain.
They’re relatively cheap to run - fuel duty hasn’t increased for 10 years - and in Sheffield there is plenty of parking, some of it free.
London is often held up as an example of a popular public transport system. But it severely discriminates against motorists with its £15-a-day congestion charge, ultra low emission zone and Controlled Parking Zones where residents pay an annual fee.
Mr Eggleton says more priority lanes and lights would be a big help in Sheffield, as well as contactless tickets and ‘integrated’ fares valid across networks.
He added: “I’m excited and optimistic about how good public transport could be.
“South Yorkshire has some of the lowest fares in the UK. We have a good relationship with the Passenger Transport Executive and at last national government is interested in buses.”
Manchester agreed to franchising in March. Metro mayor Andy Burnham said he wanted to have a London-style transport system by May 2024. Tickets will be ’integrated’ across buses, trains and trams and all the buses will be the same colour.
In South Yorkshire, bus companies and councils are drawing up plans for an ‘enhanced partnership’ which would see investment from both sides and simpler fares.
It is an ‘interim’ arrangement while other models – including franchising – ‘are further explored’. The move ‘unlocks’ additional government funding, as set out in the National Bus Strategy, according to South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis, who said it was a way to get results ‘as soon as possible’. Franchising was a complicated and very expensive process ‘that can take many years’.
He added: “The Bus Service Improvement Plan, which is due by the end of October, will provide the basis for a review of operating structures due to complete in early 2022.”
In South Yorkshire, bus passenger numbers were down 13m in the two years before the pandemic, falling from 101m in the year to March 2017 to 88.2m in 2019.
The pandemic and social distancing saw numbers plunge. Today, they are still 20-30 per cent down, although the fuel crisis is reportedly sending people back to public transport.
Stagecoach has called on the UK Government to create a stimulus package to incentivise a return to Britain’s buses.
Sheffield MPs who support franchising include Conservative Miriam Cates in Stocksbridge and Paul Blomfield of Sheffield Central.
Mr Blomfield said: “South Yorkshire’s buses worked well under public control. Privatisation over thirty years ago led to rising prices and declining services. We need to reverse that trend and my colleague Clive Betts’ report for Sheffield City Region is right to point to franchising as the way forward.”
Fellow Sheffield Labour MPs, Olivia Blake, Louise Haigh and Gill Furniss want to go further and buy back the bus companies.
Louise Haigh said: “Bus passengers in Sheffield have been subjected to years of underinvestment in the bus network which has resulted in unreliable services and deterioration of the network. I believe that the long-term solution must be that we bring buses back into public ownership.
“We face a climate emergency and as leaders we’re asking people to change the way they travel. If people are less reliant on their car, then we need to offer them a cheaper, reliable and environmentally friendly alternative – that has to be public transport.”
Gill Furniss added: “Deregulation of bus services has failed, as we respond to the climate crisis and as more people return to work, we need to ensure bus services work for the passengers.
“We need to take a serious look at nationalisation.”
Bus campaigners have also grown frustrated at the pace of change.
Roy Morris, of Better Buses for South Yorkshire, addressed Mr Jarvis directly.
“I guess you’re worried about how much franchising costs and that you won’t have the money to run the buses. But the service is in decline anyway, it’s been in decline for the past 30 years since Thatcher’s crazy privatisation and it’ll carry on declining unless you take more control.”