Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporting service
The mayor of West Yorkshire has warned some of the region’s bus services will have to be scrapped if Government doesn’t continue to subsidise services.
Financial support for bus operators, known as bus recovery funding, has been available during the past few months, as services suffered hits to passenger numbers, leading to a loss of revenue for operators.
However, the extra cash is set to run out in the Spring, and Mayor Tracy Brabin has said many operators have warned they may have to make cuts to services if more money is not made available.
As the Omicron variant continues to spread, experts say it is unlikely bus passenger numbers in the region – recently recorded at three quarters of their expected levels – will fully recover any time soon.
The Department for Transport has said it is discussing the issue with bus operators to see what help is needed, but stopped short of committing to extra funding beyond March.
A letter from Mayor Brabin, addressed to government transport minister Baroness Vere, claimed the uncertainties were causing problems for the future of bus services in the region.
It read: “Buses are the most used form of public transport in West Yorkshire and, whilst we are embarking on plans for mass transit, this will remain the case for many years to come.
“At the time of writing, we have just moved into the Government’s Plan B Covid response which carries a real risk that fewer people will make bus journeys setting back the steady recovery we have seen since the summer.
“Government recovery funding is due to end in March 2022 and there is no indication that it will continue beyond then. Bus operators are telling us that they soon have to register cuts in their services on the basis that recovery funding will cease in March, some SME bus operators are at risk of going out of business.
“I would ask that you take early steps to give Local Transport Authorities and Bus Operators the financial certainty everyone needs to provide a stable bus network upon which we can build our Bus Service Improvement Plan.
“I share the Government’s vision for buses and I want to deliver a publicly accountable service for the people of West Yorkshire but the uncertainties around funding are talking us backwards. I hope you can help unlock this.”
The Government introduced the Bus Recovery Grant in September 2021, which saw subsidies paid directly to bus companies. It was designed to taper off by the spring of 2022, as passenger numbers returned to usual levels.
However, a report by WYCA officers claims passenger numbers have stalled since November 2021, and were unlikely to return to 2019 levels for the rest of this year. It added that a national shortage of drivers was also compounding the problem for bus operators.
It is understood a response from Baroness Vere is currently being drafted, but in the meantime, the DfT said it “recognised the need for extra support”, and was working with operators to see what help could be offered beyond April.
A DfT spokesperson added: “We have provided unprecedented levels of funding for the bus sector during the pandemic, including the £1.5bn Coronavirus Bus Service Support Grant between March 2020 and August 2021, and the ongoing £226.5m made available under the Bus Recovery Grant.
“As Omicron cases rise, we are closely monitoring the effect of new restrictions on passenger levels and services, working with the bus sector to understand their potential impact.”
The three biggest bus operators in West Yorkshire – Transdev, Arriva and First – have all been contacted to see which routes could be under threat. All have yet to respond.