As a result of the large-scale reductions in passenger revenue experienced since the first national lockdown in March 2020, the DfT announced Covid-19 Bus Service Support Grants to ensure key bus services could continue to operate with reductions in vehicle capacities to keep passengers safe.
Initial temporary funding of £167m was made available, in addition to preserving Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG), a discretionary grant paid to operators of eligible local bus services to help them recover some of their fuel costs, at pre-pandemic levels. In May 2020, further funding of £254 million was announced in order to increase capacity on buses by returning service levels to as close to pre-COVID-19 levels as possible and ensuring extra vehicles were on the road where necessary to enable social distancing on board. This funding formed the basis of the Covid-19 Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG) Restart package, replacing the Support Grant announced in March.
CBSSG Restart applies across England, with the exception of London. A similar scheme to support bus operators is also operating in Scotland and Wales.
In November 2020, the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) announced that local authorities and bus operators in England should form ‘recovery partnerships’ to guide the transition period to normal services and support operators when the DfT’s Covid Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG) ends. Recovery partnerships, said the CPT, would have a ‘flexible timeframe’ and be backed by continued Government funding. Partnerships would agree what the bus network should look like in their area and what support is needed to deliver it while passenger numbers return.
Recovery partnerships should not be implemented until the requirements for social distancing come to an end, said the CPT, so that operators can once again run services at full capacity.
Alison Edwards, Head of Policy at CPT says: ‘A recovery partnership is an agreement between a bus operator(s) and a local authority that enables them to decide how to deliver a network that suits the needs of passengers, and can also deliver growth in passenger numbers. The rise in flexible working will lead to a fundamental change in the nature and character of city centres, and we need to make sure bus services adapt to support this.
‘Obviously, the pandemic has had a huge impact on fare revenue. But buses have a unique role to play in keeping the country moving, and ensuring that key workers can get to work. Unfortunately, there's been really strong government messaging about not using public transport during the pandemic, and those messages have had a real impact on travel patterns.
'There is recognition that, even when we exit the pandemic, we're not going to suddenly see all those passengers get straight back on the bus, partly because of this government messaging, and we to see this turned around – we need to see the Government launch a pro-public transport messaging campaign.'
The CPT recommends that three tests are met before recovery partnerships are implemented – removal of social distancing, positive messaging around the use of public transport, and the return of a significant number of passengers.
We need to see all levels of government and industry working together to send a positive message about bus travel, but we don't yet know for sure how travel habits may have changed, says Edwards. 'This is where recovery partnerships come in, during the transition period. We don't want to be in a world where there are drastic cuts to services when CBSSG Restart endsbecause of a lack of sufficient funding to keep bus networks running until passengers have returned. And we also need to prepare for our longer term ambitions and aspirations: modal shift away from the private car, driving economic recovery, moving towards net zero goals, improving air quality, reducing social inclusion and generally levelling up.’
Partnership working has really delivered for us pre-pandemic, says Edwards. She mentions Bristol, a leading proponent of partnership working, which saw pre-pandemic bus use grow by 52%. During the pandemic, she adds, bus operators have worked in partnership to deliver transport to vaccination centres, and to roll out dedicated apps offering demand responsive bus services for NHS workers. ‘Partnerships can really deliver. It’s really important that local authorities and bus operators come together to agree what the bus network should look like in this transitional phase, and to consider a future which may well be radically different to the past.’
The CPT has also warned against halting CBSSG Restart too soon. 'If funding is withdrawn before passenger numbers have returned in sufficient numbers, we risk undermining the aim of recovery partnerships,’ says Edwards. ‘Inevitably there will need to be some public funding in place. We are in constant dialogue with the DfT team, and they completely understand the need for a recovery partnership transition as a stepping stone from where we are now to longer term aims such as bus priority measures.
‘I really do think that partnerships are the way forward,' says Edwards. 'In this critical time, we don't want to spend time and money on re-organising governance frameworks. The time and the money should be spent on making sure that we deliver the outcomes we want, which is good bus services that get people where they need to go.’
CPT members are 100% up for working in partnership, adds Edwards, and to work hard at getting passengers back onto buses. That essentially means faster and more convenient services that run on the routes that passengers need. 'Yes, the quality of the bus is important, and once we get to a place where operators can run commercially again, it’s really going to help their bottom line to continue with their investment in really great vehicles with WiFi, USB charging points, streamlined ticketing and high quality interiors,' says Edwards. But commercial viability is a necessary first step.'
Matt Gamble, Principal Consultant, Transportation, Atkins, recently wrote an article for LTT on Perspectives on the recovery in the market for bus travel. He noted: We have an opportunity and an urgent need to consider whether the structures for delivery of bus services – and the assumptions implicit in those – are still appropriate. The fundamental, however – however we deliver bus services – is to reduce journey times and make them more predictable.
'Bus operators have part of this in their gift through vehicle configuration and fares stru tures and fare collection systems. The significant aspect though is in the allocation of road space.
'The recent National Audit Office report, Improving Local Bus Services in England outside London, included a figure showing nine government departments whose policy objectives are influenced by the delivery of public transport services. It’s clear from this that bus is central to government’s mode-shift, decarbonisation and levelling-up agendas.
'Trends in demand may become more, rather than less peaky, and of course, an 80% recovery in volumes doesn’t help with delivering central and local government’s objectives. It’s not a one-way street: support for bricks and mortar retailing such as business rates reform will help the bus. But the bus industry is likely to have to become less dependent on high streets and more accepting of peakiness as a fact of life as it seeks out other markets.' Read the full article online here
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