Tyne and Wear to consult on QCS

At its meeting on 26 July, Tyne and Wear ITA reaffirmed its commitment to plans for a Quality Contracts Scheme (QCS) and has requested Nexus to put the much criticised scheme to public consultation. Key features of the QCS proposals include capping future price rises, making travel cheaper for young people and students, introducing simple fares, bringing in London style smart travel and growing services. The ITA would fund improvements by taking control of fare revenue from private companies. It claims it will re-invest a greater proportion of these profits into local services. By reducing direct public funding, it believes it would be able to reduce the cost to taxpayers by £7m a year, yet avoid cuts that would see the withdrawal of child concessionary fares, schools buses and other socially necessary services under threat after 2015.

A QCS would make the ITA responsible for every aspect of almost all bus services in Tyne and Wear for a ten year period, intended to begin in 2015. It would see bus services still operated by private companies, which would be paid a fee for providing a specified service to the public under contracts of seven to ten years. These contracts would be let by Nexus on the ITA’s behalf, through a competitive process designed to get the best value for money. It is the first authority in the country to enter formal consultation on a detailed QCS proposal. The consultation lasts until 5 November 2013.

Tyne and Wear ITA is also inviting bus operators to develop a revised partnership offer as an alternative. The ITA heard that the partnership proposal from NEBOA presented to the meeting offered savings of £360,000 a year to the taxpayer from commercial companies taking over loss making routes funded by Nexus, new tickets for people changing between buses, including cheaper deals for 16 to 18 year olds, a commitment to maintain existing commercial services, an ITA veto on changes and increased marketing.

Secretary of NEBOA, Tom Dodds, said, ‘Tyne and Wear already has one of the best bus systems in the country, confirmed recently by the nationwide Passenger Focus survey, which reported a passenger satisfaction figure of 87% – the best of any of the metropolitan areas, and already higher than Nexus expects from its quality contract scheme. Our partnership offering has specific benefits for bus passengers, including cheaper “Bus2Bus” tickets for the thousands of people who use the buses of more than one company but don’t use Metro. While the ITA begins the formal consultation on its quality contract scheme, those benefits will be denied to travellers. Partnerships are being signed all round the country, most recently in Tees Valley and the West Midlands. At the moment it’s only Tyne and Wear’s councillors who want to risk a Quality Contract Scheme.’

MD of Go North East, Kevin Carr, said, ‘The desire for a quality contract scheme isn’t being driven by a need to make things better for passengers, but by a need for the ITA to balance its books. In the House of Commons last month, Transport Minister, Norman Baker, told Newcastle East MP Nick Brown that his advice to Tyne and Wear was to pursue partnership working with bus operators and to try to secure the best possible outcome for the bus passenger. The ITA seems to be ignoring that advice. The bus network up here is in good shape and could do even better with a partnership.’

A spokesman for CPT said, ‘Buses are the most critical and most used mode of public transport in the UK and CPT firmly believes that working in partnership with bus operators and local authorities/stakeholders ultimately provides the best deal for bus passengers. A commercialised market allows for competitive pricing structures, leads to improved services and a vibrant bus industry. Many of the areas in the UK recording the highest customer satisfaction rates have built their success through working in partnership.’

A spokesperson for Bus Users UK said, ‘We were a little surprised that Tyne & Wear ITA has decided to go down this road, given that decline in bus patronage in the area is less than in other ITA areas and given the high level of satisfaction noted for the region in the Passenger Focus Bus Passenger Survey. We are pleased to see that the partnership option has not yet been ruled out, as we consider that good partnership working is essential to producing passenger satisfaction. Nonetheless we are concerned that the greatest loss in bus ridership in England is across the major city regions outside London and we will certainly be watching progress on this matter with interest. The passenger growth Tyne & Wear expects to achieve is impressive and although we haven’t yet had time to ascertain how this growth is expected to be achieved, we will be interested to see whether a Quality Contract is capable of producing the outputs suggested.’

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