Covid-19: How the year of the bus became the year of bust

Pic Credit: Wes Hicks – Unsplash

2020 was supposed to be the Year of the Bus. A newly elected Tory government promised £220m to improve services which had been in decline since 2010 when another newly elected Tory led government created the cuts.

The initiative ticked every election promise box. It was going to reverse service cuts – mainly in the shires as part of levelling up. It was going to produce a brilliant new demonstration package of co-ordinated bus and train services in Cornwall – one of the poorest areas of England. It was going to be green -promising the first total electric powered bus service in an English city. It was going to be faster with more dedicated bus lanes and expressways and it was going to be easily accessible by introducing a national data system for services and fares available on the internet.

Then came Covid 19. And as a new National Audit Office report revealed on Friday the bus plan crashed off the road.

unglamourous buses

Buses have never been a glamourous subject. As the NAO report shows they are mainly used by the poor, over 70s, the 17-21 age group before they get their own wheels and single women seeking a safe way home.

It also suffered huge service cuts and big fare rises for many of its passengers outside London. A useful map in the NAO report shows how passenger traffic has declined by an average of 10 per cent between 2010 and 2019 – falling highest in places like Tyne and Wear, Lancashire, Teesside, East Sussex and Lincolnshire but rising in Bristol and Brighton and Hove.

Pic credit: Suzy Hazelwood Pexels

Some 3000 routes have disappeared with bus mileage down from 243 million to 112 million and the average local authority support for services dropping 38 per cent with 42 authorities slashing expenditure by over 50 per cent. Some of the worst examples are West Yorkshire, Surrey and Northamptonshire. Average fares went up 18 per cent between 2010 and 2019.

free bus pass

The biggest cost to local authorities has been the free bus pass – now estimated at £650m a year – a national service – but funded by the local authority where you live. Funding from central government to bus operators has dropped from 31 per cent to 24 per cent between 2010 and 2019.

One of the problems is that since the de-regulation of services the government has had little control – so it can make a lot of noise about improving services – but it can’t force private operators to do it. The plan for a national data system for bus timetables and fares – depends on whether individual operators want to spend the money.

When Covid 19 hit the government was faced with a dilemma – only key workers were encouraged to use public transport – slashing revenue. The government did provide extra cash in tranches to bus companies to keep them going. But it also raided its shiny new support budget to improve services.

The plan for a co-ordinated Cornwall transport service from Plymouth to Penzance was dumped.

So was the money put aside to restore cut services. And it looks like – despite interest from 50 different towns and cities – to be the first to run an all electric bus service – is being delayed by Whitehall inertia.

And other promises to improve express bus services = especially in the West Midlands – have been undermined by the operators themselves.

First Worcester cut service

One check I did on Google First Worcester company had created a furore by halving the number of express buses between Worcester and Birmingham north of Bromsgrove – forcing people to use more expensive services elsewhere. Yet this is an area given priority in the government’s new bus plan and it happened before the Covid 19 crisis hit.

There are some bright spots. Bristol has improved passenger use by 36 per cent. Nottingham has increased bus use and invested in clean bio gas buses and new trams by imposing a work car parking levy. And London, which was not examined in this report, has seen bus use up 89 per cent.

The lesson is clear to all. Grandiose plans to ” level up ” the poorest parts of the country are going to be very expensive if they are to work. And if they don’t deliver there will be a political price to pay for falsely raising people’s hopes. You have been warned.

5 thoughts on “Covid-19: How the year of the bus became the year of bust

    • In Tyne & Wear (Greater Newcastle & Sunderland), the fall in Bus numbers can be connected to Car Ownership, the latter impacting on Bus timetables. I have spent many an 1hr 40mins on a bus from Newcastle to X which according to the timetable was 50mins. The impact on bus timetables was that the company had to have replacement buses, obviously eating into the profitability of the route.
      Another factor was the movement of the Labour force from the riverside to industrial parks. An example, if your place of work is now 8-9 miles from your home, how long does it take by public transport? The answer is 1hr 20mins or 1hr 40mins. But others have bigger nightmares, a friend worked in Milton Keynes, sometimes she had to walk 20 mins to get public transport if she missed the last bus at 6pm, so being able to drive she purchased a car, which she would never have purchased if their was a more frequent bus service.
      So in the end it becomes a vicious circle, and we end up copying the States, the poor are unable to purchase a car and unable to find decent employment because bus services do not serve the area the factory is located.
      So, when a minister says we will create an industrial Park in an area of high unemployment which will create jobs, check the bus routes to this park and the hours it will run.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Its about right is this as you can only get a bus pass at 60 if you live in certain parts of the UK 66 in the other parts another unfair Inequality. yet theres no discrimination against us according to so called Judges Dwp etc they need to look at our case properly and fairly. and the DWP needs over hauling or scrapping it is unfit for the people it is suppose to serve….


  2. I’m in my 40s, never did manage to get my own wheels….not that I have anywhere to go but I’m more concerned about the fact (you didn’t specifically say in the article David) that paying by cash will no longer be an option. Instead forced to carry a tracking device with all your personal info including bank details for those who can get them…that is constantly transmitting it wherever you go! It is the way the world is going….


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