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Buses and tram services threatened by deep cuts without Covid-19 support

Bus Station

Bus services could be slashed by up to 40 per cent if the government withdraws financial support from local public transport services, a leading consultancy is warning.

Tram services are also at serious risk, with the temporary closure of light rail systems, according to a study by transport specialists Steer. It points out that government support allowed public transport to continue during the national lockdown, enabling key workers to travel to and from work, as well as providing a more comprehensive service at lower socially distanced capacity following the easing of restrictions.

However, it warns that there could be a “rapid and deep cut” in bus services should Covid-19 financial support be withdrawn prematurely. The likely impacts could be a minimum cut in bus services of between 30 per cent and 40 per cent. There could also be pressure to raise public transport fares, which would suppress passenger numbers, potentially forcing tram and light rail systems to close temporarily.

Cash-strapped local transport authorities might also be forced to step in and procure “socially necessary” bus services, Steer warns. The consultancy’s study for the Urban Transport Group (UTG) predicts that demand for public transport is likely to be well below pre-Covid levels for some time. It suggests future funding should be developed to cope with a best case scenario of patronage returning to 85 per cent of pre-Covid levels by mid-2021, and a worst case scenario of patronage returning to 65 per cent of pre-Covid levels by the end of 2021.

“Government support has been absolutely vital in safeguarding necessary public transport services during both the Covid-19 lockdown and the initial recovery period,” said Stephen Edwards, chair of the UTG and executive director of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. “As this report graphically illustrates, without this continuing support we face drastic cuts in bus and light rail services.

“Reductions in services on this scale would have devastating consequences, with many essential workers unable to get to where they need to be, as well as delivering a further blow to the ability of our local economies to weather the pandemic and recover in the aftermath.” The study calls on the government to shift from its current short term “patch and mend” approach to closing the immediate Covid-19 funding gap for public transport. Instead, it should bring tram and bus funding more in line with the longer term financial support in place for national rail services, as well as allowing transport authorities to adopt the same contractual basis for funding services that national government now exercises over rail.

The government should also make longer term Covid-19 financial support the basis for wider reform of the funding and powers of city region transport authorities. This would mean providing long-term funding packages for local transport similar to those for national rail and roads, and upgrading the powers of city region transport authorities so that they are more in line with those in London.

The report is available here.