Borough must change bus service style following Government guidance

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams

Councillors discussed the future of the town’s bus service at a meeting on Tuesday night – including how to increase usage and the possibility of going electric.

In March, the Government announced a new national bus strategy that requires all local transport authorities commit to a new model for operating by June – and produce an improvement plan by October.

The council, which is the local transport authority for the borough, has received £100k of funding support for this.

From July, the council will only receive the COVID-19 bus services support grant (or any new sources of bus funding from the Government’s £3bn budget) if it meets these requirements.

There are currently 25 bus routes operating within the borough, of which 11 are commercial and 14 are supported services, meaning that the council pays into them. This is costing it £870,000.

The national bus strategy will require the council to commit to either ‘enhanced partnerships’ or a ‘franchise model’ to continue to receive ongoing funding.

A franchise model is where the authority specifies the bus services to be provided, determining the routes, timetables and fares.

Services are then operated under contract by private companies through a competitive tendering process.

An enhanced partnership is a negotiation where the operators make these decisions, and agree to improve aspects of the service in exchange for improvements to the borough which benefit them.

For example, the bus operator provides more buses or reduced fares and in return, the council may introduce bus priority measures.

Tim Golabek, Royal Borough service lead for transport and infrastructure, said:

“At the moment, the model is very different – it is purely commercial or supported.

“There’s no enhancement to it. It lasts for however many years that tender was for.

“(Enhanced partnerships) are a substantial step up from where we are today – to find through negotiation win-win outcomes for the users of the service.”

Initial meetings are currently being held with all of the bus operators in the borough to discuss the potential for enhanced partnerships.

An urgent paper will be taken to cabinet to formally sign off the commitment to enter into enhanced partnerships with operators.

The possibility of electric buses was also discussed in the meeting.

One difficulty is that economies of scale reduce the cost of electric buses, which are more expensive – and the low service demand in Maidenhead reduces the attractiveness of that option for operators.

Cllr John Baldwin (Lib Dem, Belmont) asked that electric buses not be ‘dismissed’ as too expensive, as ‘there are more subtle considerations’ of value for money.

But Royal Borough officers that there were other more pressing and more achievable goals for the time-being.

“Moving people from cars to public transport is the bigger step compared to moving buses from diesel to electric,” said Chris Joyce, head of infrastructure, sustain-ability and economic growth.

Demand for buses within the Royal Borough is one of the lowest of any local authority area in the country.

The pandemic caused demand to fall even lower, across the country, as faith in public transport has fallen and more people have stayed working from home.

Mr Joyce said that the enhanced partnership will help incentivise bus operators to provide an improved service, encouraging more uptake from people across the borough.

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