Proposed cuts to bus services show impact of Covid on public transport – but what can be done?

The latest round of budget cuts by one of the region’s biggest bus operators has put the North East’s public transport system in the spotlight.

At a time when the public is encouraged to get out of their cars and increasingly use more sustainable travel, Go North East’s consultation on drastic service cuts seems, on the face of it, to be meaningless.

But transport operators are facing unprecedented pressure following the collapse in passenger numbers due to the coronavirus crisis – and although Covid restrictions have now disappeared, the numbers have yet to peak they were before the pandemic.

Read more: Another blow for North East bus passengers as operator reveals discounts on dozens of other routes in the region

Go North East said it was clear “some services will not recover to the point of being viable without external support changes”.

A statement added: “Given the huge changes to the way many people work and live, including things like working from home and shopping online, it’s only right that services are adapted to respond effectively to new request templates.

Tobyn Hughes managing director of Transport North East at the Leamside line in Washington

“We are now in a position where we must consider making changes to ensure the sustainability of our bus network.”

The proposed reductions, primarily in the southern Go North East region of Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham, are extremely significant. Tobyn Hughes, the chief executive of Transport North East, said it was the biggest round of cuts he had seen offered in a decade and a half in the industry.

He said: “It has to be said that Go North East is the biggest set of proposed cuts I’ve seen in 15 years, and the biggest since the mid-1980s. The reason Go Ahead (the parent company of Go North East) is doing this so they can have a financially stable bus network.

“They’re just trying to be financially stable and stop making losses. The underlying problem is the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s changed the economics of public transport and we’re now starting to see the long-term impacts term.

“It took a long time for people to get back on the buses, not least because people are working from home and people are going out less. Older and more vulnerable people are just being more careful because it’s an enclosed space. “

Mr Hughes explained that passenger numbers are now between 80 and 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels – but operators do not expect a return to those highs for some time, if at all. The government stepped in to subsidize bus travel and extended public transport support for another six months in March.

However, he made it clear that at the end of this period the support will end – meaning public transport companies across the country will now have some tough decisions to make.

Despite the issues, Mr Hughes revealed that once the Go North East consultation is complete, Nexus will step in to ensure no community is left without bus service.

He continued: “Our transport plan relies on more people using buses, not fewer. We want clean air in our cities and to meet our carbon reduction targets, and for people to travel in a sustainable way.

“Nexus will step in with a bailout to handle the worst of these cuts. It has already done that in the north when there were cuts earlier this year.

“Go North East will also discuss with local authorities what can be done. Nexus has financial issues themselves so spending more on buses is overkill for them, but local authorities have agreed a package for Nexus in january.

“The reason was that he was in a financial position to be able to step in when the bus cuts happened – we knew they were coming and we wanted to make sure Nexus was able to step in and rescue the services. There is not an unlimited amount of money, but Nexus will ensure that no community is left without bus service.”

The cuts have come at a strange time in the North East, however – the region recently received £163m to improve bus routes and cut fares. But despite it being a substantial sum of money, the North East had tabled a proposal for £804m, meaning the region only received a fifth of the money asked.

This plan included a massive set of measures such as new stations and parking sites, more services serving rural areas and off-peak hours, and the creation of a multimodal ticket allowing seamless travel between services bus, metro, train and ferry. . Decision makers will now have to choose which projects go ahead and which are abandoned.

Of course, some of this money must be earmarked for rural communities. In the Allen Valleys region of Northumberland, a bus is a rarer sight than the legendary black cat which is said to stalk the moors.

At a recent Northumberland County Council cabinet meeting, Councilor Colin Horncastle, who represents the South Tynedale ward which encompasses the region, said seven of the eight parishes he represents have no bus service . The village of Blanchland – long popular with tourists – has been bus-free for as long as locals can remember.

Councilor John Riddle, who represents the equally rural borough of Bellingham in Northumberland, believes innovative solutions need to be found.

He said: “As a rural councilor my patch is very patchy with the public transport service. Bellingham itself is relatively well served but the other villages are poor to non-existent.

“We have a huge amount of money. In my opinion, there is no point in running buses without anyone on board. I think we need to look for a more innovative solution.

“In Canada years ago they ran buses that you called, kind of like a taxi service, and I think you’re better off in deep rural areas rather than subsidizing a service running without people. That doesn’t does no good for anyone and only increases your carbon footprint.

“I think on-demand services are the only show in town, but I’m very happy with this money that has been given to us and I’m sure that Glen Sanderson, as head of the council, will get us our fair share. Let’s see what we can do.”

It’s not just the buses that have problems – there were warnings this week that the popular Shields Ferry could close as early as 2025, without urgent funding to build a new landing stage at North Shields.

The existing north pier is rapidly deteriorating to the point of soon becoming unsafe, and there are warnings that failure to build the replacement downstream would mean the ferry would have to close – marking a sad end to centuries of maritime heritage.

Elsewhere, there have been problems on rail services, with strikes raging on lines across the country for weeks.

TransPennine Express services have been hit by strike
TransPennine Express services have been hit by strike

Tobyn Hughes said: “At the moment rail is a hardship and again the underlying problem is Covid. Britain’s railways as a whole are subsidized by government at a much higher level than ever before in due to the impact of Covid.

“There has been a growth in leisure travel but this is not enough to offset the loss of commuters. Rail subsidy is at historic levels and the government considers this not to be financially viable. pressure on relations with unions and the main industrial action.

“We expect to see more rail service in our area, but that’s a short-term challenge.”

Of course, the people impacted by all the challenges facing public transport are the passengers. Alistair Ford of the Tyne and Wear Public Transport Users Group, believes the model being used is flawed and called for a seamless transport system as seen in the capital.

He said: “We understand the core issues. It’s all about the shareholders, so if a service isn’t making money it’s cut. It’s a flaw in the way we look at public transport.

Alistair Ford of the Tyne and Wear Public Transport Users Group
Alistair Ford of the Tyne and Wear Public Transport Users Group

“The social, economic and environmental benefits are not taken into account. It’s just profit. It’s a flawed model of public transport.

“The only part of the country that hasn’t seen a reduction in passenger numbers over the last decade is London. We get fare increases every year – public transport is becoming less attractive to use and there are fewer people on the buses.

“We support these private companies, we pay dividends to shareholders via grants. We support this and we have no say. This is what we are trying to change.”

Go North East is consulting on its proposed changes. A statement released by the company said: “We are working closely with local authorities on all possible replacement options in the event of a reduction in services, while noting their budgetary challenges.

“We have analyzed our services in detail and developed a set of proposals. Help us shape the future of our bus network by completing our consultation survey. Your feedback is very important as it will help us determine the proposals finals that will be introduced.”

The survey is open until May 31, 2022 and can be viewed on the Go North East website. Once this is closed, all the feedback will then be collected, analyzed and the proposals modified if necessary in order to implement any changes from July 24, 2022.

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Melvin Z. Madore