Council bids to reverse decline in bus usage

Essex County Council has said its plans to boost bus usage will help the county “bus back better” and help reverse long term declines in passenger numbers.

Figures from the Department for Transport reveal that 39.3 million journeys were made on local bus services in Essex in 2019/20.

That is 3.3 million fewer journeys than the year before and the lowest number since at least 2009/10 when the figures were first published.

That year 46.7 million local bus journeys were taken across Essex.

The number of passenger journeys per head has fallen from 33.8 million in 2009/10 to 27.1 million in 2019/20.

Essex County Council (ECC) says it wants to introduce an ‘Enhanced Partnership’ model which would involve mutual agreements between bus companies and transport authorities to decide on a vision for the future of public transport. This could include the likes of greener vehicles, better information and more frequent services.

However the authority declined to be pressed on whether a franchising scheme could be adopted if the partnership model does not produce positive results.

A franchised model – most notably in place in London – 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.

Other areas have started a process to deliver franchising as part of the own regional bus strategy. Newly elected mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Nik Johnson has said bus franchising is his “top priority”.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham announced in March that his region’s buses will be brought under public control in a London-style franchise system.

Councillor Lee Scott, ECC’s cabinet member for highways maintenance and sustainable transport, said: “This allows us to start a process that is a huge ambition to make buses a real sustainable alternative to other transportation usage in both urban and rural settings.

“This supports equality that ensures everyone can make the journeys they need and access jobs, education and services they all quite rightly deserve.”

He continued: “I know that some councillors would have wished to have seen a franchising exercise but that can take years to deliver and we want to make a difference now.”

Councillor Ivan Henderson said he believed franchising was the best way to get people back on buses in Essex.

Cllr Henderson said: “It is about time buses get the priority they deserve and members will know that there are more people who rely on bus than they do the train. It has not been recognised for that for far too long.

“As we know, the figures for buses have been going down because they have not been reliable and routes have been cut.

“Enhanced Partnerships have been tried across the country and that is why we looked at quality contracts and franchising because they weren’t working and because some areas believe franchising and quality contacts were better to force the operators to deliver a service that people deserve.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter