Stagecoach Manchester is axing the popular 358 Stockport to Hayfield bus – why bus franchising is probably to blame. And potentially the solution.

Published on 4 August 2022 in , , , , , , ,

A Stagecoach Manchester bus on the 358 route, stood at New Mills bus station

Okay, hold on to your hats, we’re going to talk buses. In specific, bus franchising.  And some interesting implications there-of.  Why? Because recently I found out that Stagecoach Manchester is to axe the 358 Stockport to Hayfield bus. It’s a bus I know well as it serves Marple and I’ve often got it to go to New Mills and Stockport. But from the end of October, the route is planned to be axed. In the middle of July, Stagecoach Manchester submitted the relevant paperwork, and if nothing changes, the 358 will be gone as of 30 October 2022.

On the face of it, this would seem to make absolutely no sense at all. The 358 runs an hourly service, seven days a week. The first buses run before 6am, and the last one arrives back at Stockport at twenty to one in the morning. It servers multiple villages that have no other bus services, and is a feeder for Hayfield’s residents to get to their nearest train station at New Mills. To me as a passenger, it always seems to have more than enough passengers on board to make it all worthwhile.

But that still hasn’t stopped the axe coming. And when I sat down to try and work out why, the obvious cause was bus franchising.

What is bus franchising?

If you don’t know, bus franchising is coming very soon to Greater Manchester.  In 1986 buses in England, Wales and Scotland (except London) were de-regulated.  Without getting too much into the detail, prior to that it was hard to create and change bus routes.  After de-regulation, any company with the appropriate licences could do whatever they wanted.  

It’s generally regarded to have been a disaster.  Local councils and governments have very few levers to influence services, and all of them involved subsidising services.  There’s no ability to plan a coherent and complementary service.  Fares have gone up.  Bus passenger numbers have been declining in deregulated areas for years. There isn’t even the competition between companies that the system was supposed to provide.  Competition was supposed to breed innovation, but all that happened was that most of Britain’s bus companies ended up owned by big companies.  Companies like First.  Stagecoach.  Go-Ahead.  Arriva.  They ended up with some nice near-monopolies in their area, so why bother competing against each other?

The Bus Services Act of 2017 set in motion the first big attempt to change things.  It gave local transport authorities more powers over bus services in their area.  In December 2017 it was announced that Greater Manchester would be the first area to start implementing a new franchising scheme.  Under the new system, all local buses in Greater Manchester will be franchised by Transport for Greater Manchester.  They’ll set the fares.  They’ll set the service levels.  They’ll even set the colour of the buses.

Various legal challenges from bus companies followed but all were unsuccessful, and the first franchised buses will appear in the county in September 2023.  By 2024 all local buses in Greater Manchester will be run under the scheme.

The success of it will be watched closely by many other parts of the UK who are interested in taking the same steps.

The county boundary bus conundrum.

Now one thing to note is that franchising only applies to “local” buses in Greater Manchester.  Basically those that run in the Greater Manchester county area.  But obviously not all bus routes stay within one county.  And nor should they. People want to travel in and out of Greater Manchester, especially if – like me – they live near a county border. Within a couple of miles of my leaving my front door I can leave Greater Manchester and be standing in Cheshire or Derbyshire. I obviously do not want to stay entirely in Greater Manchester. So I’ve been particularly interested in what happens next.

Now there’s nothing to stop bus routes crossing the county boundary in the future.  Indeed there are plans for that.  Bus companies will need to apply for permits to enter the county. There’s a model for this already in London. Bus franchising is the norm in Greater London, which never had deregulated buses. If a company wants to run a service into the capital from a neighbouring county, they have to ask permission. Greater Manchester will do the same.  In theory, it will be fine.

But we all know there’s a difference between what happens in theory and what happens in practice.  In practice, things get complicated.

The gory bus detail.

To explore the issue, let’s look into the detail of some cross-boundary bus routes. I’ve picked three that I know well as I’ve used them all due to the fact they serve the area near me. Those routes are the 199, the 394 and the 358.

The 394 runs between Glossop in Derbyshire, to Stepping Hill Hospital.  It runs through Marple, where I live.  It’s run by High Peak Buses, based in Dove Holes, Derbyshire, who run most of the bus services in Glossop.  There’s a bus every two hours, five days a week.  It’s actually a pretty simple case study as it only runs thanks to subsidies provided by Transport for Greater Manchester and Derbyshire County Council.  When bus franchising comes along, it either gets franchised, or it stays as a standalone subsidised service.  Either way, the buses still run.

The 199 is also run by High Peak under the Skyline brand.  It’s a long distance bus service, running between Buxton and Manchester Airport.  On its route it passes through Derbyshire, Greater Manchester and a slither of Cheshire.  For some of the places it passes through (like Disley and High Lane), it’s the only local bus service.  It’s a commercial service, again run out of the Dove Holes depot.  There’s a bus every half hour, seven days a week.  With franchising, it should be fine.  High Peak apply for a permit and it carries on as normal.

All good, yeah?

Ah, let’s look at the 358 – the service Stagecoach are going to withdraw.  This is a bus run by Stagecoach Manchester, going between Stockport, Greater Manchester and Hayfield in Derbyshire.  It runs out of Stagecoach’s Stockport depot. 

The 358 is, incidentally, the only cross-boundary service Stagecoach runs from the depot. (By the way, for the sake of completeness, it has a complimentary service, the 360 that bypasses Marple, but that only runs one journey around 5am on a weekday. For simplicity, when I mention the 358, assume I’m also including the 360.)

As a cross-boundary service, all that needs to happen is Stagecoach apply for a permit, yeah?  Sorted.

Nope.  Sorry.  This is where we get really complicated.

It’s all about the depots.

See, when Greater Manchester gets bus franchising, the plan is that the bigger franchises will run out of depots owned by Transport for Greater Manchester.  You can find that mentioned in the tender documents (page 4).

It hasn’t been said why this will be the case, but there’s one obvious reason. And it comes down to the fact that each of the big bus companies basically dominate a particular area. In Greater Manchester, Stagecoach has six bus depots. They have a strong presence around each of those depots.  This means that under franchising they’d be in a very strong position when it came to the tender process.  Any other new operator would need to buy new depots, buy the buses.  Stagecoach already have them.  They could undercut everyone else.  It’s similar for other bus companies in the area.  First have a strong base in Oldham.  Go-Ahead around Salford and Bury.  Diamond around Bolton and Wigan. 

If the existing companies were allowed to keep their existing depots, they’d be in a great position to win a franchise. A new operator would need to open brand new own depots, and that would cost more. The existing companies would be able to offer lower bids by the nature of having everything they need. It’s not hard to see why TfGM want to own the depots and create a level playing field. 

This means something simple.  When franchising is implemented in Stockport, Stagecoach won’t necessarily have a local depot to run the 358 from.  Their existing Stockport depot may have been handed over to someone else.

Incidentally it’s worth mentioning that this problem isn’t unique to the 358. Stagecoach also run the 237 bus from Manchester to Glossop. Different routes and depots, but it has exactly the same problems. And is also planned to be axed in October.

Now Stagecoach Manchester have yet to publicly say why they’re withdrawing these routes. So all this is speculation based on the knowledge we have, and putting two and two together. But it seems likely that franchising will there’s a risk that two busy bus routes may no longer be viable for their operator.

Why is Stagecoach doing this now?

Here’s the thing. Bus franchising doesn’t come into play in the Stockport and Tameside areas served by the 237 and 358 until the end of 2024. Stagecoach could have happily run both bus services for two more years without problem. So why bring all this to a head now?

And this is the point where we do descend into pure speculation. Because we simply don’t know. But there are potential reasons.

Firstly, they could simply be trying to make trouble. Stagecoach – in common with other bus companies – are not a fan of franchising. Indeed, Stagecoach took part in legal action to try and stop it. They failed. But for Stagecoach there’s a huge amount of risk with franchising.

Stagecoach Manchester is Stagecoach’s biggest bus company outside London. It’s the biggest bus company in Greater Manchester. With franchising the worst case scenario is they lose out on all franchises in Greater Manchester. Assuming they decide to play ball and not simply walk away.

Alternatively they may simply be trying to extract some extra cash out of Transport for Greater Manchester by making the routes subsidised. A few extra pounds for a couple of years.

And finally, it’s possible that as part of their due diligence ahead of franchising, they have reviewed the situation internally, understand there’s an issue, and know it needs to be resolved. And that it’s likely to be better to resolve it sooner rather than later.

And whatever the real reason Stagecoach are doing this now, the fact is that there is an issue that needs to be resolved. Arguably it’s far better to get thinking about this now. If Stagecoach waited a year or two, everyone in Transport for Greater Manchester may be far too busy to think about it.

So what’s the solution?

One solution to this would be for Stagecoach to transfer the 237 and 358 services to a depot outside Greater Manchester. Except they don’t have one nearby. They could create one somewhere in Derbyshire, but for two bus routes and – to potentially be the only services the company would run, the economics aren’t likely to stack up.

Another solution would be for another operator to take them on. Realistically this would most likely be High Peak who run most of the bus services in the borough of High Peak. There isn’t really anyone else based local enough to take them on.

Finally, there’s an answer to the cause of the problem. Franchise them. The 237 and 358.  In the short term, Transport for Greater Manchester agree with Stagecoach to retain the services in their current form until franchising comes in, then they become franchised routes. There’s a model for this already as well in London. Transport for London runs bus services outside the capital, including one route all the way down to Dorking. There’s no real reason why a Transport for Greater Manchester service should have to stop at the county boundary. To cement the deal, maybe some short term cash will be used as an incentive.

Most likely it’s this latter option that will prevail. Neither TfGM nor Derbyshire County Council will want two major bus routes to disappear overnight. Most likely Stagecoach Manchester will win the tender and both routes will keep on going, most passengers oblivious to the fact there ever was likely to be a problem.

All’s well that ends well, eh? We can stop worrying? Well probably, yeah. Chances are it will be alright in the end. Maybe I will be wrong, but somehow I would be amazed if both routes aren’t still running in November.