The North East Combined Authority has voted for a plan which could give councils power over when and how often bus services run in Tyne and Wear
What is a QCS?
A Quality Contract Scheme is a legal power over bus services by a council. In this case, the North East Combined Authority will set ticket prices, routes and timetables across Tyne and Wear and on some routes in and out of County Durham and Northumberland.
NECA will also decide what types of buses are used. Nexus, the public body which devised this scheme and currently manages the Tyne and Wear Metro, will collect fares and pay bus companies to provide bus services through contracts. This is a big change to the present market, where buses companies decide on prices and routes.
What is wrong with the current system?
NECA believes a QCS will be better than leaving things as they are. It argues people are put off using buses because fares have gone up on average 3% more than inflation for a decade.
Today, councils pay bus operators to provide less-used bus services, and subsidise some fares – as well as funding the free bus pass for older and disabled people.
This adds up to £56m-a-year in Tyne and Wear, money is running short and the cost of the free bus pass – which councils must pay by law – is growing, meaning that the other bus services councils pay for will have to be withdrawn.
So, everyone agrees it is great?
Not exactly. The bus companies – mostly Stagecoach, Arriva and Go-Ahead – strongly disagree with the move and recommended a voluntary system that gives them more freedom. They say a QCS a “huge gamble” that could lead to higher fares, worse services and higher tax bills in the long run.
Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, also has “serious concerns”. He said profitable services in urban Tyne and Wear subsidise the rural bus network in Northumberland and County Durham. He is worried that subsidy would dry up under the new QCS.
Will it mean services cost more or less?
Nexus says fares are likely to go down. Future fare rises will be limited to inflation levels and only changed once a year.
New cheap fares for people aged 16 to 18 will be the same price as today’s fares for children.
There will be discounts for students and a new deal for older and disabled people who want to travel before 9:30am.
Nexus says around four in five adult passengers will see prices stay the same or go down when the new QCS fare zones begin.
Won’t this cost councils lots of money, then?
The idea is it will actually save councils money. Bus companies now make about £20m profit in the region every year, but Nexus estimates 80% of that money leaves the region. NECA says more of this profit from fares will be re-invested locally and this in turn will protect services now funded by councils that might otherwise be lost.
How would an Oyster card-style system work here?
In London, the one Oyster card allows you to travel on any bus, any train, any tube or any ferry. They can use Oyster as a season ticket or they can use Oyster to pay for single journeys.
The Tyne and Wear version will be called the Smartcard. Having one will get you on any bus, any Metro, the ferry or local train.
If you travel paying for single journeys and reach the daily ticket price, what you pay is capped – so you will always get the best deal, without needing to plan your day in advance. The technology for the Smartcard is in place already.
What if I am travelling in or out of Tyne and Wear from County Durham or Northumberland?
Most bus routes in and out of Tyne and Wear from County Durham, and some of those from Northumberland, are included in the plan for the whole route. That means the Smart tickets, the QCS network and lower prices will be available when you travel into Tyne and Wear.
Will there be fewer buses and will buses go the same routes?
Routes will be the same as now on the first day of a QCS, Nexus says. The difference is people can suggest improvements through new Bus Boards in each area.
Council leaders want to protect services and begin to grow them. They hope it will ultimately mean cheaper fares and bus and rail networks that work together better.
If the QCS does not happen, Nexus and NECA say cuts are inevitable, particularly to young people’s fares, school buses and evening services now paid for by local councils.
How will the process work if QCS is passed?
It will be April 2017 before a QCS starts – council leaders will make a final decision next year after an independent panel has reviewed the 900-page scheme agreed by NECA this week. If it goes ahead it will take Nexus two years to let contracts and gear up for change, with lots of information and engagement with customers on fare changes, smart cards and other benefits.
What happens to the bus companies and their staff?
About 3,000 people now work on bus services in Tyne and Wear, which in future will be included in the Nexus contracts.
Staff will work on the same routes and their jobs, wages and pensions will be protected by law – plus Nexus has said it will give further protections to staff – even if they have to change the bus company they work for. The scheme is supported by the Unite union.
What will happen if bus companies take legal action in the meantime?
Bus companies are worried they will lose business to rival bidders. They have threatened legal action against NECA and Nexus. Both public bodies insist they are using the law properly, however.
Nexus says QCS is legal and based on the best available facts and figures. It has also said all possible steps will be taken to make sure legal action doesn’t slow down its plan for a QCS.
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 26 Oct 2014