Metro Mayor Dan Norris has warned that plans to boost buses will be left in tatters unless the government wake up to the reality on the ground.
This April will see the end of the emergency funding brought in at the start of the pandemic when passenger numbers collapsed. The Bus Recovery Grant allowed buses to continue to operate when fare revenue did not cover running costs.
However in the West of England, bus passenger numbers have recovered to only 70% of the equivalent period in 2019, and growth in recent months has been slow and erratic. This is coupled with the reintroduction of rules in mandatory mask wearing. Operators have told the Mayor that reaching 80% of pre-COVID patronage is the very best they are likely to achieve by April 2022.
The successor funding to the emergency covid Bus Recovery Grant will not be able to be used to subsidise services that are not commercially viable.
The Metro Mayor warns that in conversations with bus operators they have told him they will make large scale cuts if the situation does not change. Bus operators are required to confirm their plans for April to the Transport Authorities, including the West of England Combined Authority which Mr Norris leads by mid-January, so there is a looming deadline.
Mr Norris has written to the government to ask for an extension of the Bus Recovery Grant or for alternative funding to be put in place to cover the shortfall between operators’ costs and actual revenue, until such time as passenger numbers recover to a sufficient level that will sustain a viable commercial operation.
The Mayor says he has seen confidential advance information of extensive reductions in service levels and withdrawals that operators plan to make to maintain a commercial network in the absence of government intervention.
Mr Norris says: “I do not have the resources locally to save the buses we need to save. Unless the Government act there will be huge disruption to passengers and there is a risk of irreparable damage to our local bus network.
“The last thing our local economy needs is another hammer blow. But that is what is on the way if bus services are slashed.
It will also undermine our efforts to tackle the climate emergency, creating more traffic jams and more pollution. We need to be encouraging people out of cars and that means providing a consistent, reliable service. If you lose a service and people go back to their cars it will take a lot of effort to get them back on the buses again. It’s muddled, counterproductive thinking from the government.”
Urgent action is needed to address this issue and this needs to be announced as soon as possible to prevent pre-emptive service reductions by bus operators.”