The North East appears to have won a temporary reprieve from bus service cuts due to come into effect this month, following an eleventh-hour government announcement of a £150m grant for bus and light rail operators across England.
The money will extend the support provided for public transport during the Covid-19 pandemic, when passenger numbers and fares revenue have been reduced, for six months until October.
The Department for Transport said that new deal ensures services will continue running as operators and local authorities work towards a sustainable future.
It is not clear how much of the £150m will come to the North East, as other big-city areas including Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire are also facing cuts.
The North East was facing a £21m public transport deficit in the coming year and significant bus service cuts, in spite of a £4.5m recue package by Nexus, the passenger transport executive.
The announcement of the region’s first bus service reductions, due on March 27 and affecting Newcastle and North Tyneside, was still on the Nexus website at the time of writing this report.
The Department for Transport said: ‘Not only will this new funding support operators and authorities as they adapt to changing travel patterns – it will also help the continued delivery of enhanced partnerships, with local authorities working closely with bus companies to draw on their operating knowledge and marketing skills.
‘Additionally, it will support local authorities and operators across England as they continue working on bus service improvement plans and delivering substantive improvements to local services’.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘The funding I’ve announced today [March 1] will ensure millions of us can continue to use vital public transport services and brings the total we’ve provided to the sector to keep services running throughout the pandemic to over £2 billion.
‘Not only that – as we look ahead and continue our work to overhaul services and build back better from the pandemic this funding will also help authorities and operators work together to provide even better services for people right across the country’.
Graham Vidler, Chief Executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, said: ‘This welcome funding will help operators have the certainty they need to run an extensive network of services over the coming months as we all adjust to life after the pandemic.
‘In the longer term, the bus network will need to adapt to meet passengers’ new travel patterns. Over the coming months, operators will be working closely with local authorities to plan future bus networks and introduce plans to grow passenger numbers. To aid these local efforts we look forward to working with the government to loudly promote bus travel’.
One of the four central aims of the Levelling Up White Paper published last month is to improve public services. The announcement on buses, though very late, is welcome and the £150m being provided across England may be enough to enable the North East to stave off at least the worst of the cuts it was facing for six months. But staving off a deerioration in services is not the same as improving them.
The longer term looks very uncertain. The new funding is described by the Department of Transport as its ‘final’ tranche of pandemic-related support to operators and as ‘dependent on local areas and operators co-designing a financially sustainable and passenger-focused public transport network, that works for changing travel patterns post-pandemic’.
The North East Joint Transport Committee already has an ambitious bus improvement plan for which it wants £804m over three years. That does not sound like the sort of public transport network that the Department for Transport is likely to regard as financially sustainable. Ambitions will have to be toned down, as this website warned on October 24. Tough decisions still lie ahead.