This week’s DfT pledge of £167m for England’s bus operators comes on top of last week’s announcement that operators should continue to receive existing payments for concessionary fares, supported services and Bus Service Operator Grant.
The Government’s position on these payments was set out in a letter to councils from Stephen Fidler, the DfT’s director of local transport.
“We understand the importance of bus services to communities, key workers and people taking essential journeys, and we are determined to support them,” he said.
The DfT will continue paying BSOG to operators on the basis of estimated service levels before the virus outbreak.
Turning to what local authorities can do, he said: “Ministers hope, and expect, that as part of your response, you will want to support vital local bus service providers so that they can continue to play a central role in your communities after this pandemic
“In particular, we would urge you to continue to pay bus and coach operators for tendered services and home-to-school transport at the levels before any downturn in service provision or patronage, for at least the period of the outbreak.”
Fidler points councils to the Government’s emergency guidance on procurement, Procurement Policy Note 02/20 – Supplier Relief Due to COVID-19.
“This means that contracting authorities should continue to pay suppliers for the next three months (even if service delivery is disrupted/temporarily stopped) in order to ensure business continuity and protect jobs.
“Authorities should also pay invoices immediately on receipt to support cashflow.
“We would also urge you to continue to pay operators for concessionary fares at levels before any downturn.
“Nothing in the above should stop you from, as part of this funding, seeking to ensure that bus operators make an appropriate offer to passengers, for example by protecting vital services that connect communities to lifeline services such as supermarkets, or link key workers to their employment,” said Fidler.
“We understand that local authorities are also under financial pressure, hence the recent Government announcement of an additional £1.6bn support to local authorities to respond to coronavirus.”
The DfT has worked with the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) to make it easier for operators to adjust service levels (see panel).
Said Fidler: “The secretary of state is clear that he expects that, as bus operators amend their timetables, they should continue to provide appropriate service levels for key workers, most particularly to hospitals, and that buses are not heavily loaded because of reduced service patterns.”
“In doing so we would expect bus operators to do all that they can to ensure that they are always providing the services that local authorities consider are required.”
Operators will be able to send applications for temporary variation of services made at short notice to both the Traffic Commissioner and relevant local authority at the same time.
“As part of this process, we are asking local authorities to limit the time for consulting them to 24 hours instead of 28 days.”
Fidler said local authorities may want to rethink how they spend their share of the £30m of additional bus service support for 2020/21 that the DfT awarded them in February (LTT 07 Feb & 20 Mar). The grant was supposed to be for fund new or restored bus services.
“Given the circumstances, local authorities may wish to use this funding to support bus operators to run minimum service levels during this time.”
Senior Traffic Commissioner Richard Turfitt has issued emergency guidance emphasising that commissioners will support bus operators’ short notice applications to change bus timetables because of Covid-19.
Operators normally have to give 70 days notice of timetable changes in England and Scotland (28 days to local authorities and then 42 to Traffic Commissioners) and 56 in Wales. Legislation allows operators to seek short notice dispensation from a traffic commissioner in certain circumstances.
The new guidance encourages operators to make use of these short notice provisions.“The temporary variation might be treated as akin to a holiday service, where the registration automatically reverts back to the original route timetable at the expiry of the given period,” says the Senior Traffic Commissioner.
“Traffic commissioners must consider each case on its own merits but will be alive to the challenging operating environment. The commissioners will work with the Office of the Traffic Commissioner management to ensure that there is enough capacity to process an increase in applications.”
Hundreds of operators have reduced their timetables in the last fortnight, some on more than one occasion, as demand plummets. Most are trying to provide a service to key workers and people who rely on public transport to access facilities such as shops.
The Oxford Bus Company and Stagecoach in Oxford have temporarily agreed to accept each other’s bus tickets on some routes where they compete.
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