Regional transport bosses have agreed to continue funding bus services regarded as socially necessary as part of a review of the region’s network.
Against a backdrop of unprecedented cost pressures on bus operators across the UK as a result of rising fuel costs and reduced passenger numbers following the Covid 19 pandemic, Transport for West Midland’s (TfWM) Transport Delivery Committee has agreed to continue to fund at least 78 of 114 bus service contracts that are regarded as socially necessary.
This has been made possible after the committee agreed to relax value for money criteria and provide an £800,000 increase in the 2023/24 annual subsidy – taking the total to £16.3 million.
Various mitigation options will now be explored in an attempt to significantly reduce the services at risk. These mitigations include national funding from the Government’s Local Transport fund, and local funding from the region’s Bus Service Implementation Plan. TfWM is also looking at options to expand its Uber-style on-demand bus services.
The decision follows a review of both commercial and subsidised bus services across the region. The subsidies, funded by TfWM, are targeted at gaps in the bus network which commercial operators are no longer able to fill on a commercial basis. A public engagement exercise has now been launched to inform passengers of changes to subsidised bus services.
Pete Bond, TfWM’s director of integrated transport services, said: “Bus services are by far the most used form of public transport in the region, offer an affordable alternative to the private car and play a vital role in reducing traffic congestion, cut pollution, and assist our moves towards a net-zero carbon region.
“But there is no doubt the industry is struggling - we have sadly lost five of our smaller operators since the start of the Covid pandemic – and as a transport authority we need to target our limited resources where they can make the most difference and, using our value for money criteria, protect the taxpayer. It is an incredibly difficult situation, but we are pleased that by adjusting our rules we have been able to reduce the impact of the review and will be looking for ways to extend existing services or introduce alternatives to cover some areas.
“While there are these cost pressures and difficult decisions have been made, a key way to ease them in future is to grow passenger numbers so that bus services are financially viable – which is why TfWM has worked with operators to freeze fares for the next three years and has outlined plans to further improve the bus network. We will continue to engage with Government over ongoing reform of bus subsidy to secure longer term support for services.”
The fare freeze is just one part of a wide-ranging Bus Service Improvement Plan being developed by TfWM, backed by £88 million, ring-fenced Department for Transport funding,
to make buses more attractive, convenient and affordable for passengers. Further proposals include streamlined fares and ticketing, more transport safety officers on patrol, and incentives for car users to switch to bus.
This is on top of the funding secured through the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement, which will develop 50 kilometres of bus lanes and bus priority measures, new cross-city bus routes and further improvements in live travel information to help improve reliability of services over the next five years.