Bus services in England used by hundreds of thousands of passengers are set to be cut when emergency funding for Covid expires at the end of March, transport authorities have warned.
Passengers on buses have fallen sharply from 80% of pre-pandemic levels to less than 60% since the rise of the Omicron coronavirus variant and the introduction of work-from-home guidance in December, leaving businesses dependent on clawback grants to manage services.
Bus companies, which must give six weeks’ notice to withdraw a line, are drawing up lists of services to be cut after March 31.
Many services rely on local council grants in places where bus operators cannot make a profit. But authorities now do not expect to find the money to maintain such roads, typically serving isolated communities or hospitals and operating after peak hours.
Buses in areas whose budgets need to cover fixed-cost transit systems, like Tyne and Wear which has the metro, are expected to be hardest hit.
The funding crisis comes against a backdrop of a shortage of drivers, affecting buses as well as the heavy goods vehicle and logistics sector. About 6,700 bus drivers are needed, with about 10% of vacancies, according to the bus industry group, the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT).
But while the Ministry of Transport has tried to rush the recruitment of truck drivers, “there is no equivalent strategy facing the crisis of shortage of bus drivers”, specifies Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group. A plan is urgently needed, he says, “to avoid the problems of short-term driver shortages leading to long-term bus service cuts.”
The pandemic, driver shortage and financial deficit constitute a “perfect storm” for buses in 2022, according to Paul Tuohy, managing director of Campaign for Better Transport: “Covid has dealt a heavy blow to the bus industry, and without further government intervention we are likely to see severe cuts in services across the country. ”
The pandemic has struck at a cruel time for an industry that believed it was finally making political progress after a difficult decade in which more than 3,000 bus services backed by local authorities were either phased out or truncated. Calls for a national bus strategy were granted by ministers at a conference in London in February 2020 – an event which instead grabbed the headlines for showcasing the first confirmed case of the coronavirus at the time of an event in Westminster.
The strategy, titled Bus Back Better, was released in 2021 and framed by a pledge from the Prime Minister for £ 3 billion in funding to transform services. However, the industry feels it has been left behind. The autumn budget only confirmed £ 1.2bn, although the government says it will still have granted £ 3bn in ‘new spending’ for buses in this pandemic-stricken parliament. Meanwhile, the strategy’s commitments would actually require an investment of £ 7 billion, according to the CPT.
Among those encouraged by Boris Johnson’s declared support for buses was Tracy Brabin, West Yorkshire’s first elected mayor, who submitted a plan to improve central funding after being elected this year. “Good service where you can get around and expect a bus in minutes, not only in city centers but across the region, will be absolutely transformative,” she says.
Instead, however, operators are now “extremely anxious” and are looking to cut down on routes with lower ridership, says Brabin: “inter-community and inter-city bus networks are being abandoned.”
West Yorkshire intervened recently to save a road, the 205 from Pudsey to Dewsbury, which Arriva wanted to cut, at a cost of £ 120,000 per year. However, for cash-strapped counseling, with booming care bills competing for funds as well, such expenses can only be exceptions.
“A better bus network is vital for us in West Yorkshire… I am a user, a passenger, and it is not enough. We need the support of the government, ”says Brabin. “My concern is that the £ 3billion promised to us has been cut – and a lot of that money is being used to maintain the existing service rather than transforming it the way we wanted. “
The shortage of drivers has left people even more frustrated. Brabin recently waited at a Leeds stop alongside a man whose bus to Cottingley did not show up.
“When that bus doesn’t come, it has to wait another hour. Half an hour later, I ran into him on another serve and he was walking. It’s bad for family life, it’s bad for mental health – people are not in control of their lives as it depends on whether the bus comes or not.
In Tyne and Wear, passengers must check online whether their bus will be returning home, with daily cancellations at short notice. Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Transport North East, said: “Confidence in service is already low and driver shortages were affecting reliability even before the last Omicron cycle.
However, Hughes says the current woes are “nothing compared to what might happen early in the next fiscal year. Unless there is no more money, it is very likely that 10-17% of the services will be cut.
The prognosis is grim in England: Transport for the West Midlands projects a £ 50million deficit in bus funding after March without government intervention. Bus operators in the region have already informed them of their intention to cut eight routes, carrying 37,000 passengers per week.
While rural roads have been hit the hardest over the past decade in Britain, urban bus services are particularly at risk when tram and tram systems also require subsidies. Hughes’ budget is to cover the Tyne and Wear underground, whose emergency funding will also expire in March: “There is a shortfall of £ 20million. It has very high fixed costs. Transit systems will adapt, but not overnight. We can’t cut costs on the metro quickly – but you can do it on the buses, unfortunately for those affected.
“We are desperate for the government to take its finger off and tell local authorities what Covid-19 support, if any, there will be for bus and light rail services after March. “
A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: ‘We have provided unprecedented levels of funding for the bus industry during the pandemic, including the £ 1.5bn grant to support the bus service against coronavirus and the ongoing £ 226.5million made available as part of the bus recovery grant.
“As Omicron cases increase, we are closely monitoring the effect of the new restrictions on passenger levels and services, working with the bus industry to understand their potential impact. “
For many passengers who are already suffering from cancellations due to a driver shortage, it will be difficult to accept further discounts.
“We don’t have anyone to drive our buses. In the last six months complaints have exploded, ”said Dawn Badminton-Capps, England director of the Bus Users UK passenger complaints organization. “Mostly the services don’t show up – and people get wet and cold. In one town, another bus may be running soon – but for communities in places like rural Norfolk, that missing bus is there for the rest of the day.
“We have people who say their employer gets fucked up and wonder if they can stay on. It is not tenable for people to trust the buses if they do not show up.