BUS services in St Helens could be franchised as part of a “radical” service change across the city region.
Merseytravel is looking to take advantage of new devolution powers that allow local authorities to take back control from the bus companies.
The transport authority will now explore intervention options after getting the green light from Liverpool City Region’s transport committee on Thursday.
Matt Goggins, head of bus for Merseytravel, told the committee that services will be “severely compromised” if the authority does not act.
The transport boss said the transport authority plays a “critical role” in the sustainability of the bus network and offer, adding that it allocated around 80 per cent of its budget on supporting bus services in 2017-18.
“The contribution we make to bus operator income is around a third of the total operator income,” Mr Goggins said.
“However, our reducing budget over recent years has meant that we’re spending less and less money on bus services.
“So, our ability to retain the same level of service on that basis given the contribution in the public sector is, bluntly, severely compromised without doing something about it.”
Merseytravel identified five possible intervention strategies and following approval from the transport committee, will now proceed with detailed assessments of three of them.
One is a franchising model, which Mr Goggins described as a “much more radical” option than the others mooted.
He said this, in effect, would be a suspension of the current deregulated market.
The second option is to create an Enhanced Partnership (EP), which encourages collaboration between transport authorities and bus operators. In an EP, all members are bound by the terms of the partnership.
The third option is to continue the current intervention, working with the Liverpool City Region Bus Alliance, a partnership between Arriva, Stagecoach and Merseytravel.
Mr Goggin said an Enhanced Partnership and to a greater extent franchising, would potentially give Merseytravel and the Combined Authority more ability to influence what happens on the bus network.
“Franchising in particular means a greater financial stake for the public sector in the system,” he said.
“This in-turn may come with greater risks and significantly higher costs, in particular around implementation and the upgrade and management of the system.”
Mr Goggins said Merseytravel forecasts that without “effective intervention”, operating costs for bus operators will grow at a faster rate than passenger revenue over time.
Subsequently, the transport authority expects services to be cut to maintain profit margins.
He said: “In the past Merseytravel would have been in a position to step in, in this scenario, providing supported bus services.
“But we are increasingly unable to do this now due to our funding position, which means our objectives, things like access to opportunity, the things that are highlighted in the Transport Plan for Growth and the Bus Strategy, are compromised going forward.”
Cllr Les Rowlands, from Wirral Borough Council, said the intervention should help to “readdress the balance” between the public and private sector.
“I, for a long time have wondered about our losing influence over the bus companies,” he said.
“As a Merseyside travel authority, our responsibilities are to try and put in the best services we can for our travelling public.
“Some of that has been lost, and this report shows a way we can actually start to readdress that balance.”
The outline business case for assessment of the three options will return to the committee at a later date.
Liverpool City councillor Liam Robinson, who is chairman of the transport committee, said: “Effectively where we are moving to now is really the very detailed phase of the work that we expect will take some months really, looking at all of those options.
“So, what does re-emerge back to us will be a very strong, evidence-led recommendation, which we look forward to receiving.”
Source: St Helen Star