Smart Air

A very clever move by Stagecoach to propose bringing 105 electric zero-emission buses to Manchester.

Mayor Burnham has been vocal in suggesting that Manchester should be a trail-blazer for new powers to control the City’s buses, whilst the industry, unsurprisingly, has mostly pointed out that partnership is the quickest, cheapest way to bring an improved bus service.

Stagecoach is playing a positive game – it was the first operator in Manchester to introduce contactless ticketing last year, and now the proposal for the fleet of clean, green machines. Compare with the hardball approach of First, who state they won’t buy any new kit until the outcome of the direction of travel regarding franchising is known (apparently by the end of 2018).

The Mayor is also putting aside £11.5m to explore a business case for Manchester franchising alongside “other options that could improve bus services” in the region. That’s a not insignificant amount of cash.

Of course it’s all political. Stagecoach are effectively saying “we can bring major improvements without all this franchising malarkey” – and it’s a fair argument. If air quality is the current major concern, with thousands of premature deaths every year linked to it in major urban areas, Stagecoach are offering a quick and easy method to address this, with no long drawn-out political shenanigans. Now, suddenly, the Mayor is under pressure to justify spending millions looking at options to replicate London, just as London starts to take a nosedive with it’s own bus network. And, by the way, Stagecoach’s proposal dwarfs the London Mayor’s own proposal for 68 new electric buses in the capital.

The Mayoral game in our urban centres is a fascinating watch. Whilst Andy Burnham waxes lyrical about plans to control Manchester’s buses (with no discernible comment I’ve seen about tackling traffic congestion, by the way), his counterpart in the West Midlands Andy Street is going down an alternative route – even if that means beginning to paint the buses all the same colour. The purists of the paint booth may be horrified, but there are bigger fish to fry here. Street has the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 – and he wants a legacy. Transport figures large on the agenda.

There are plenty who argued that City-Region Mayors with their newly-found powers could only go down the franchise route for real improvement. Who’s going to argue against Andy Street delivering those improvements under a remaining deregulated environment? And, back in Manchester, could Stagecoach’s irresistible march to greater improvement mean that this northern powerhouse remains in a deregulated bus world? By all means, paint the buses orange again, if it makes some people happy, but I reckon the privatised bus world is maybe, just maybe, getting a bit of it’s mojo back…

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