Councils bid for £165m windfall to transform bus services across Lancashire

Travel on the buses in Lancashire could be quicker, simpler and more attractive if an ambitious bid for £165m funding comes off.

Thursday, 2nd December 2021, 9:48 am

County Hall bosses have teamed up with Blackburn with Darwen Council to apply for a slice of £3bn on offer from the Government to reorganise bus services across the UK.

The cash could help create a network of "superbuses," offering passengers much faster journey times thanks to the creation of more "bus only" lanes and priority at traffic lights.

The idea is to lure drivers away from their cars and onto public transport to cut the traffic logjams which choke places like Preston city centre.

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The two authorities have put together a joint bid to the Department of Transport. Blackpool are submitting their own application for funding.

"This level of investment could make catching the bus a more attractive option for everyone, including car owners, for their regular travel in order to reduce congestion, better look after our environment, and improve our health and wellbeing," said Coun Charlie Edwards, LCC's cabinet member for highways and transport.

"Our £165m vision to transform Lancashire's bus network aims to completely change the way people view and use buses, and make them a much bigger part of the solution to congestion and the need to achieve net zero carbon."

Bob Dunn, managing director of Preston Bus, is in favour of the bid - although he would like to see more done about car parking.

Lancashire has no fewer than 21 different bus companies operating across the county, each with different timetables and fare structures.

The bid for funding could bring many of them together in a London-style shared ticket system to make travel simpler.

The two authorities want to eventually provide an integrated service where many passengers could rely on waiting only a few minutes for their bus to arrive, before paying with their phone.

The new Bus Service Improvement Plan, developed by LCC and Blackburn with Darwen, is set out in a 224-page document which has gone off to the Government in the hope it will win the county a share of the £3bn Bus Back Better strategy.

Bus companies could share a London-style shared ticketing system.

The Government called on councils to create a vision of what could be achieved with a huge increase in funding and the two councils think they have done just that.

"The Government has set aside £3bn for the Bus Back Better programme over the current parliament and asked us to be ambitious in showing what we could do with much more funding," explained Coun Edwards.

"Our plan paints a really exciting picture of what could be achieved.

"Our Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) has been developed in partnership with Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and local bus operators across Lancashire, and sets out our shared ambition to improve the bus network over the coming years.

LCC transport spokesman Coun Charlie Edwards is "excited" by what could be achieved with funding.

"The new approach to partnership working under Bus Back Better means we are already working more closely than ever with operators and neighbouring councils which leaves us really well positioned to deliver improvements in future, and make the most of any extra funding we receive."

The funding is intended to pay for the development of more consistent and accessible timetable information. And it would also provide standard half fare tickets for 16 to 19 year olds.

Throughout Lancashire bus use has decreased significantly over the past 10 years. There was a 34 per cent fall in passenger numbers between 2009/10 and 2018/19. Then Covid hit the figures even more in 2019/20.

Passenger journeys are currently around the 40m a year mark in the LCC area and, with the new initiatives being brought in, it is predicted numbers could increase to 43m by 2025 and 46m by 2040.

Figures show only around 81 per cent of buses in Lancashire are running on time, compared with 94 per cent in Blackburn with Darwen.

There are already 12 bus lanes operating in the county and this figure is set to rise as public transport is given a higher priority.

A recent study showed only five per cent of people travel to work by bus, compared with 67 per cent driving their own vehicle.

"This is a good plan for Blackburn with Darwen working in partnership with Lancashire County Council, said the council's executive member for growth and development Coun Phil Riley.

"The key theme running through our plan is people. The plan must ensure that the services being provided meet local needs, so we will continue to engage with user groups, and together will establish a Lancashire Passengers Charter.

"This BSIP will be designed to be flexible to changes and demands, but with the right investment to deliver these changes, will go towards making Lancashire a great place to live, work, visit and prosper."

Bus companies in Lancashire have thrown their weight behind the joint bid for Government funding.

Bob Dunn, managing director of Preston Bus, said: "I am confident that the measures put forward in this plan will drive the recovery of bus patronage and with it a significant contribution to the government's levelling up and decarbonisation agendas in the area.

"We are concerned that the BSIP does not commit to any specific actions to reduce usage of the private car within Lancashire. Workplace parking levies and other controls on parking (which is in abundance in Preston) would support the aims of this BSIP.

"We will continue to lobby Lancashire County Council, Preston City Council and others to introduce more car control measures, particularly within the city centre."

And Stagecoach added: "We are confident that the measures put forward in the Bus Service Improvement Plan will drive the recovery of bus patronage and make a significant contribution to delivery of the government's levelling up and decarbonisation strategy in the region.

"The delivery measures proposed within the bid are ambitious and comprehensive. They will achieve a transformational change to the bus network in Lancashire through the delivery of real and meaningful improvements."