Interview – Gary Nolan, chief executive of Greater Manchester’s OneBus

Gary Nolan is the chief executive of OneBus, a partnership of 18 bus operators across the Greater Manchester city region.

Air Quality News spoke to Nolan about criticism of Greater Manchester’s bus services, the city region’s upcoming Clean Air Zone, and his vision for bus transport in the region.

Your aims are to improve bus transport across the region. How do you think that’s going so far?

I think we’re doing very well. To get all the operators to agree to a number of delivery promises which we, in turn, will make deliverable once we enter into a partnership with the local authority has been a task, but we’ve got there.

We need to get the partnership up and running to ensure that.

The big question is solving congestion. That’s one thing that is out of our control, and we rely on the other part of the partnership to sort it out to make buses better.

OneBus is a consortium of 18 bus companies in Greater Manchester. How did the consortium come about?

We were actually incorporated in April 2008 as the Greater Manchester Bus Operators Association, which represented a number of bus operators in negotiations with Transport for Greater Manchester and other stakeholders to try and improve the position of the buses. We emerged last year as OneBus to reflect the fact that we’re one voice for the delivery of our shared vision of improvements to buses and for bus passengers.

We represent about 98% of the commercial bus operations across GM. The number of members changes from time to time because of ownership issues [so] we talk about how much we cover rather than how many of us there we are.

There’s been a lot of criticism recently about the quality of Greater Manchester’s buses. There was a Manchester Evening News piece earlier this year that called it ‘patchy, expensive, nonsensical’. Why do you think Greater Manchester’s buses have this reputation?

Transport Focus does an annual survey of bus passenger satisfaction – they recently announced the results. Bus passenger satisfaction – which is the people that use the services – is 86% at the moment across Greater Manchester, so that shows you that there’s not really an issue. It’s probably slightly below in some areas, but there’s so much negativity about what’s happening that’s not reflected in the result.

I think you’ve got to bear in mind that London receives an annual subsidy of something like £700m a year – [that’s] £2m a day of public money funding in London. We don’t get anything like that in Manchester and it’s highly unlikely that we would, so you’re not comparing the two places and thinking that by having franchising in Manchester it’s going to give you an equivalent service as what there is in London without the money.

Greater Manchester is making a concerted effort to improve its air quality and carbon emissions through measures such as its new Clean Air Zone. What is OneBus doing to try and provide a clean up-to-date fleet that will be ready for the CAZ?

We’re in discussions with Transport for Greater Manchester to get government funding and they believe that they can get sufficient funding to convert the buses that are able to be converted to comply. It’s then up to us what do we do with the rest.

It’s likely to be somewhere in the region of 500 buses so you’re talking about £100m of spend. That’s the challenge that we’ve got.

Under the partnership, we could do some of that because we’d be willing to invest. We would invest in 450 new buses over the next three years. That would be our part of it.

TfGM has ruled out the idea of a congestion charge tackling cars rather than buses. Why do you think TfGM are reluctant to take that approach if bus transport is the way to go?

As far as we’re concerned, buses should be seen as the solution for air quality and not the problem, and the solution to congestion and not the problem.

It seems to me that politicians are favouring the car. I’m sure many people will say that’s because they don’t want to lose voters, but they have to appreciate that bus passengers, all 200 million trips that we have every year, are voters too.

I suppose in an area where you’ve got growing car population – there are 1.84 million cars now rest in Manchester, 75,000 more than there were in 2012 – that’s a blow to people and Greater Manchester don’t want to upset them by imposing clean air taxes on them.

Better Buses for Greater Manchester said to AirQualityNews previously that buses would be more efficiently run and could have better emissions standards set if they were taken back under public control. How do you respond to this?

I think to most of their arguments I would say it’s always easy to say what should be done when you haven’t got to pay for it or do it. It is expensive to replace the fleet. They are saying that operators are not replacing the fleets – we are. There’s a big deal approved for 70 low-inch buses across Manchester so that’s replacing the fleet – as I said, we’re working with TfGM on upgrading and retrofitting a number of buses.

Better Buses for Greater Manchester think that by 2021 we can have a fully emission-free fleet – who’s going to pay for it? Under partnership we can go somewhere towards it; under franchising, the public purse will pay for it.

The Manchester clean air plan is totally dependent on government funding for retrofits and improvements. I understand from Andy Burnham that no operator will face the £100 a day charge because hopefully, we’ll have all the funding to convert all the vehicles or buy new vehicles. Our partnership proposal of 450 vehicles over the next three years goes a long way towards solving that.

Do you have any information about when that will go ahead?

We do know the process is that they are spending £20m at the moment on having consultants in to review the options.

The 2017 act gives the mayor the powers to do it as long as he follows through a procedure which is looking at franchising and looking at alternatives to deliver it – franchising being the last resort. That’s where the partnership is the best option, but we’ve got no idea when the decision can be made or will be made, but there’s a public consultation process that has to be done before the mayor or the combined authority make the ultimate decision. We see that as probably being at the end of this year or early next year from what we’ve been told.

What’s your vision for bus transport in Greater Manchester?

My vision is for a professional partnership where operators invest and do everything that’s necessary to improve it from their side, and local authorities do everything that they can do to improve it through bus priorities, better access to buses, better information. We work together and we get a good result.