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Manchester takes back control of its buses – will Sheffield be next?

After years of decline, Andy Burnham is bringing Manchester's buses back under public control. Now campaigners are calling on Dan Jarvis to do the same.

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Passenger numbers on buses outside London have halved since deregulation in 1986.

Harrison Qi on Unsplash.

After decades of cuts and a decline in passenger numbers, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham announced last week that he will take the city's failing bus network back under public control.

The move to a franchise model, which is due to be completed by 2025, will be the first attempt to reverse the disastrous deregulation of buses outside London that started in 1986.

Since then passenger numbers have halved except in the capital, where buses are overseen by Transport for London, ridership has doubled and fares are lower than the rest of the country.

Campaigners in Sheffield are now calling on Mayor Dan Jarvis to follow Burnham's lead and bring buses in South Yorkshire back under public control.

"Ordinary people are fed up with the state of buses in South Yorkshire," Jamie Sims of ACORN, a community union which supports the move, told Now Then.

"We have seen routes cut, high fares and chronic delays to services that people need to get to work, see their friends, or get to schools and hospitals. There is strong support across Sheffield for ending the chaotic and ineffective privatised bus system."

A change to a franchising model would see Sheffield City Region collect fares and decide bus routes and timetables. Individual services would then be contracted out to private companies as franchises, as happens in London.

The current deregulated system means that private bus companies set routes, timetables and fares, giving them an incentive to compete for the most profitable routes.

This leaves neighbourhoods further from the city centre with little or no service at all, while routes like Ecclesall Road are fought over by multiple operators, each with their own ticketing system.

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A spoof edition of the Metro created by ACORN as part of their campaign.

ACORN.

This model led to Manchester's Oxford Road becoming the busiest bus route in Europe despite low passenger numbers overall, with some companies operating identical services and fares in the city.

A report commissioned by Jarvis found that frequency on South Yorkshire's bus network "is poor or has fallen dramatically", and that passengers are faced with an "overwhelming" range of tickets.

After Burnham's announcement last Thursday, leaders in South Yorkshire sent a joint statement to Now Then saying that the state of the region's buses was "unacceptable."

They point to recent announcements of subsidised fares for young people and money for electric buses, but these investments will still see private companies keep control of the network.

Local leaders, including the heads of Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham councils, say that in the longer term they will explore "what good looks like, and how to get us there quickly."

β€œThat includes ownership structures. We have to make sure franchising works for us, but it is on the table. Our bottom line is we need a structure that lets us build the service we need."

It's unlikely that private operators like First and Stagecoach would give up control of South Yorkshire's declining but lucrative network without a fight.

In Manchester, bus companies have repeatedly tried to block the move to a franchising model through the courts and Stagecoach have applied for a judicial review of Burnham's decision.

As an alternative the companies have proposed an 'enhanced partnership' model, which would see them invest millions in the network but keep control over routes and timetables.

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Alex Noble on Wikimedia Commons.

Transport campaigners say that these partnerships rely on the good intentions of companies who have overseen poor services and declining passenger numbers for decades.

Sims says that pressure from campaigners, including ACORN and the TUC, has seen local leaders "accept the need for radical change."

"In order to make the changes [Mayor] Jarvis claims to want, he will need to take the buses under public control through a franchising system," he said.

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