Bus services in England face cuts as Covid funding comes to an end

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Bus services across England could be axed within days, transport groups have said, as operators decide before a funding deadline whether the routes will remain viable.

Services in the North East and South Yorkshire are known to be at risk, but many more routes could be cut as Covid grants which supported routes during the pandemic expire.

Bus operators normally have to give six weeks’ notice before reducing services, and the Covid subsidies expire at the beginning of October. The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), which represents operators, said the coming week would be “critical” to assess what will continue to run.

The grants were introduced to help maintain routes that had lost passengers during the pandemic. They were extended in the spring for a further six months with £150m to avert feared widespread cuts to services, but the Government warned that no further funding would be available.

The Urban Transport Group (UTG), a network of city-region transport authorities, has highlighted “particularly drastic” cuts now expected in South Yorkshire, where 120 routes, one in three, are being reduced, and 51 could be axed altogether.

UTG director Jonathan Bray said: “The buses rely on the poorest in society, without access to cars – if you talk about the cost of living crisis, this is another blow to the people who already have the least. “

Despite the end of emergency funding, the Government is in the process of awarding more than £1.1 billion to selected authorities under its Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP). The controversial competition ultimately saw fewer than half of the applicants receive BSIP funding, which cannot be used to maintain existing route networks. Bray said: “It’s a bit crazy to cut services and improve them, but that’s what we’re looking at.”

Kent County Council warned last month that it would have to cut dozens of routes, despite receiving £35m in BSIP improvement funds.

Tyne and Wear’s transport authority, Nexus, said around 100 buses a day had been off the roads since March and it expected further cuts.

In Somerset, FirstGroup has told passengers it will withdraw several unviable routes.

With fuel and staff costs escalating and patronage still down, long-standing Bournemouth bus operator Yellow Buses collapsed into administration earlier this month. The majority of routes were saved after Go-Ahead subsidiary MoreBus stepped in and recruited many of its former drivers. However, not all passengers will be so lucky if routes are removed.

Operating costs have escalated by about 20% since the start of the pandemic, according to CPT, while passenger numbers remain 15% lower on average across the country. CPT chief executive Graham Vidler said: “Markets are varying but there is a big gap to deal with – that’s why we’re going through this review. It’s going to be a difficult process. The coming weeks are critical.”

Vidler said the areas most affected would be those with more commuters or concession travel: “A lot of people only commute for a couple of days, and a lot of the older population seems reluctant to travel at all, having been asked to avoid public transport during Covid.”

Related: A quarter of bus routes were closed in England in the last decade

He said there would inevitably be “necessary and proportionate” reductions in bus networks due to new travel patterns, but warned the changes risked being much more damaging and widespread. “The government needs to step in – possibly with an extension of these Covid subsidies.”

Labor said the government’s £3bn ‘Bus Back Better’ strategy was in tatters, with most of the funding announced eventually swallowed up by Covid emergency grants.

The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “In a cost of living and climate crisis, cutting the buses millions depend on is sheer vandalism and would be a direct betrayal of the promises the Conservatives made. Communities at risk of abandonment need action, but this hapless government has disappeared.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We have committed to investing £3 billion in bus services by 2025, to improve fares, services and infrastructure, and given almost £2 billion since March 2020 to bus operators and local authorities to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

“To maximize this investment, local authorities and operators must work together to ensure services are commercially sustainable and reflect passenger needs post-pandemic.”

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