Departure: The Future for Herefordshire Bus Services. June 2020
Updated: Aug 30, 2021
In 2015 Herefordshire Council presented its Local Transport Plan 4 (2016-2031). The plan identified a core network of services provided commercially by operators and at the same time stated ‘To ensure the minimal standards of the core network are met we rely on a combination of commercial and supported (subsidised) services’. The minimal standards were not clearly identified.
In effect these are fine words without substance. Between 2010/11 and 2017/18 Herefordshire Council’s support for local bus services declined by a staggering 70.33%. The West Midlands regional average was 41.96%.
The result of this dramatic cut in support was predictable. By 2017/18 Herefordshire had fallen to fourth from the bottom in the table of local bus passenger journeys per head as published in the government’s annual report of bus statistics. The bus operators, faced with the disappearance of an important element of their income, reacted as expected with wholesale withdrawal of evening and Sunday services, reductions in day time frequencies and pruning of traditional market day services.
2. The Core Network
The core network was identified on a published plan as shown below. Thus the onus to provide the majority of the county’s bus services between the market towns and Hereford, together with Hereford City services was firmly placed on the operators.
But what would happen if those services ceased to be commercial? Would the council step in and support them? The history of bus services in Herefordshire for the last decade has been one of continual decline with minimal council intervention. Over this time a slow erosion of commercial services has occurred, e.g. First Bus pulling out of Hereford City and the withdrawal of key Hereford- Bromyard-Worcester journeys on the secondary bus network. The council policy LTP PT1 states: In addition to the financial support provided to deliver the minimum standards of our core bus network, we will support additional services in order to enhance accessibility, support the economy and encourage modal shift where it is affordable to do so. This will be achieved by:
Supporting bus services above the core network where it is affordable, provides good value for money and delivers clear accessibility or modal shift benefits including providing a reasonable alternative to car travel.
Supporting bus services in rural areas which would enable residents to access essential services and reduce social isolation.
3. Covid 19 and the Fall Out
The current national crisis is putting all the above severely to the test. The future situation for bus services is shaky. With the large bus companies baying at the government that the current £167 million is not enough to keep even reduced service levels going during the crisis it is quite likely that a full return to service levels pre emergency will not occur. In rural and inter-urban areas it is possible that a significant number of services and journeys will fall out of the commercial category.
This leaves the decision to the local transport authority as to whether or not to continue them through the award of contracts by competitive tendering. Local authorities have been at the butt end of government budget cut-backs for over a decade. They are unlikely to be able to increase their support for bus services post emergency unless the government provides special measures to help them, especially for the rural ones. In Herefordshire most of the bus services between the market towns and the city are run commercially.
This must also be viewed against recent reports that local authorities themselves are on a path to a huge financial crisis with the threat that some may even have to be taken back by central government in order for vital services to function. Bus services have little chance of attracting additional financial support from councils in such a mess.
4. The Bus Operators
Bus operators will already be looking towards the time when the government bail out finishes. The economics of operation tell them that revenue has to exceed cost if a service is to run commercially. Nationally, revenue comes from three sources; the fare box (£3.26 billion), concessionary fare remuneration (£0.98billion) and contracts (£1.09billion).(source: government annual bus statistics 2018/19).
When the government bail out finishes, fare box revenue will be but a fraction of what it was pre-lockdown. To recover that revenue position together with re-building confidence in bus travel is going to take some time. During that time the operators are in a very difficult financial situation and without some measure of continued relief are likely to make some drastic economies.
Large consolidated companies such as Stagecoach, FirstBus and Arriva may well be able to weather the storm but even they are likely to take some quite drastic action. The small operator has a far more difficult decisions to make which bluntly mean 1. restructuring the company and making substantial cost savings or 2. calling it a day and giving up. Herefordshire is renowned for its successful small operators, but these have dwindled in numbers over the years. The idea of the 1980’s bus deregulation that new operators would enter into the bus business has been the most dismal failure in the history of British bus services. A small number of big corporations now dominate.
5. The Outlook
The outlook does not look good, especially for the small to medium operator. Economies on the main core network could see the lockdown restricted timetables become permanent, at best every two hours. Early morning and evening services could disappear whilst Sunday will be a no
bus day. This is the practical way of saving buses and drivers without any financial help from government, central or local.
On a more positive note, it is to be hoped that operators will embrace active marketing and publicity plans plus possible restructuring of the current network of services to encourage the return of passengers to the services. In this respect local authorities can offer valuable support through the establishment of network partnerships. Central government can also help by extending the franchise provisions of the 2017 Buses Bill to include shire counties and at the same time permit local authorities to operate their own bus services.
6. The Knock On effect
The main knock-on effect, which hopefully is temporary, will be to set back the drive towards sustainable transport and efforts to encourage modal change from car to bus as part of the move to zero carbon. In the immediate future it is likely that people will return to their cars rather than use the bus - the negative effect. On the other hand Covid 19 has taught us that we can survive without the need for extensive and wasteful travel. The two main forces here being the ethos of working from home and supporting your locality and community - the positive effect.
Encouragingly there does appear to be a change in thinking about the level of mobility and how we go about it. This change needs to be quickly built upon and with the development of local transport networks, it is hoped the bus will still have an important and integral part to play .