Next stop - Westminster! Politicians must prioritise protecting vital bus services
Private operators bring a great deal to buses – but the market cannot conquer all. It would be a crying shame if vital routes were scrapped through a lack of public funding.
If you’d told me a decade ago that buses would be a hot-button issue for an upcoming general election, I’d have been sceptical. A politician on a bus used to be as rare as a four leaf clover.
But that’s changing. These days, most MPs are eager to put on a hi-vis vest for a tour around a bus depot, and few can resist a photo opp behind the wheel of a double-decker.
The Transport Select Committee has described good bus services buses as “essential to quality of life”. And, of course, one of our (many) recent Prime Minsters promised that “better buses will be one of our major acts of levelling up”.
A colleague of mine met an influential parliamentarian on transport recently expecting to talk trains – only to be told “we don’t want to talk about trains – our priority is buses”. So it’s a puzzle, amid all this goodwill, that our industry is at the brink of a financial precipice.
A recap on how we’ve got here. During COVID-19, passenger numbers evaporated – but the Government was keen for services to continue operating. So financial support was delivered to the industry to keep the network going, and a fund called Bus Recovery Grant was provided to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic.
Bus Recovery Grant has been extended in three-month increments but is due to run out at the end of June, at the same time as the expiry of a £2 national fare cap. The industry needs £260 million a year to keep networks at pre-pandemic levels.
Why do services still need support? Passenger numbers have recovered to about 85% to 90% of pre-pandemic levels nationally. But that hides a patchwork beneath.
In some areas, particularly urban, customers are at record highs. In Manchester, for example, our bus company, Go North West, is thriving. But elsewhere, certain networks - including shire towns and rural networks, are struggling – particularly those that rely on a high proportion of concessionary passengers. And those tend to be the ones that leave people most isolated if they’re withdrawn.
Almost a third of the population use buses on a weekly basis. They’re vital in preventing loneliness and social isolation. And they’re particularly important to those who are trying to re-enter the workforce: 77% of jobseekers don’t have access to a car, and 40% of unemployed people say a lack of transport has inhibited them from getting a job.
But the market cannot conquer all. The UK will always require a mixture of commercially viable bus services and socially important routes that require a degree of subsidy
Having spent my life in the bus industry, I want to run as many buses as possible. Every one of our routes is important to the communities it serves. And we see a path to industry growth in the medium term: car ownership is falling among younger people, and environmental awareness – of the benefits of public transport – is on the up.
The private sector brings a great deal to buses in marketing, innovation and entrepreneurship.
At Go-Ahead, for example, we’re proud of setting up Britain’s largest apprenticeship academy which trains 700 bus drivers annually. We’ve pioneered technology air-filtering buses, which leave the air behind them cleaner than in front. We’ve attracted night-time customers with cheap evening fares. And we’re the largest operator of zero-emission buses in Britain.
But the market cannot conquer all. The UK will always require a mixture of commercially viable bus services and socially important routes that require a degree of subsidy. That mix has shifted because the pandemic has led to a lasting shift in travel patterns.
The Transport Select Committee reported recently that “it would be the height of absurdity for the Government to spend billions of pounds to support the ailing bus sector through the pandemic and then allow it to wither away”. And in terms of the Department for Transport’s £30 billion annual budget, the amount of money required to maintain a comprehensive network of bus services is tiny – it’s barely enough to build a mile of HS2.
Without long-term funding, as many as 15% of bus routes nationwide could be cut. This is not a party political issue - it would be a crying shame in communities of all political hue. It’s time to look beyond public, private, franchised and commercial models and simply do what’s right to protect our local bus services.
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