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  • Gareth Davies

The Bus Muddle. August 2020

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Bus Crisis in 2020?

We read that the Covid 19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown has thrown the bus industry into confusion and panic, but the crisis was there already. The Buses in Crisis report of 2018 by the Campaign for Better Transport revealed that local authority bus budgets in England and Wales were cut by £20.5 million last year - the eighth year in a row budgets have been cut. Since 2010/11, supported bus budgets in England and Wales have been cut by £182 million - a 45 per cent reduction. Covid 19 has just exacerbated an inherent dilemma in the bus industry and that is how to support a decent level of bus service provision without recourse to considerable sums of public money. The government itself partly answered that dilemma when in April it announced it would bail out bus companies outside of London. With a sudden 90% drop in daily passenger numbers it became clear to government that bus companies and its services would soon collapse.

Excited and alarmed by this prospect of collapse in the industry, the government went into knee jerk mode and threw money at it in rather an unconstructed way. As one bus manager said to me ‘I have never know government throw money around so easily without conditions. We specified the level of service we would operate. We continued to receive Bus Service Operators Grant (the old Fuel Duty Rebate) for our full service. We continued to receive the same level of reimbursement for concessionary fares as pre Covid 19, although no senior citizens were travelling. We received a bail out sum. The word free money is already beginning to be used in the industry and I am sure some companies will make a profit out of Covid and lockdown’.

The first sector wide bailout package was worth £400 million with further extensions scheduled to end in mid October. But what happens after October? Stagecoach, one of the largest bus companies, recently commented that travelling numbers had recently recovered to about 40% of 2019 levels and that they were running 80% of the daily miles operated before the pandemic. But is that true of all operators?

What’s Happening in Herefordshire?

In Herefordshire, the return to previous service levels with an easing of the lockdown restrictions is very mixed. Services under contract to Herefordshire Council (HC) have mostly returned to pre-Covid timetables. Where not under HC contract, some commercial services are continuing to operate at low levels of frequency. These services form part of the Herefordshire Council core network as identified in the Herefordshire Council Local Transport Plan. What is alarming is the drastic reduction of service frequencies on the Hereford City services, with some services disappearing totally. (A summary of services and their status is given as an Appendix).

The big danger is that public confidence in bus service, already seriously eroding by the Covid 19 situation, will never be rebuilt until service levels are returned to a pre Covid level and a wide publicity campaign is begun to persuade passenger back and hopefully at some point attract new passengers. Evidence throughout past decades shows that reduced frequencies means reduced loadings, less incentive to use the bus and the start of the downward spiral to extinction.

So what can Herefordshire Council do?

1. Firstly, the need for a County Bus Strategy is stronger than ever. That strategy should mean the Council having more of a say in bus services and how they are planned but not necessarily how they are physically operated. That is firmly a job for bus company management and staff. These basic principles are the first steps to building a cooperative approach to providing bus services in Herefordshire.

2. It is noticeable that during Covid the first bus services to be restored to a ‘normality’ are those under contract to the Council. The Council and operators are to be congratulated for undertaking this. It is also a pointer to the fact that the Council needs more of a say in the planning of commercial services.

3. Herefordshire Council needs to know categorically when operators are going to restore services to full frequencies. This is essential information that is needed now and is particularly appropriate to the core network of inter urban routes where the present situation is:

  • Hereford-Ross-on-Wye: restored

  • Hereford-Kington: restored contract with HC

  • Hereford-South West Herefordshire: reduced frequencies remain in place

  • Hereford-Leominster: reduced frequencies remain in place

  • Hereford-Bromyard: reduced frequencies remain in place

  • Hereford-Ledbury: reduced frequencies remain in place

It makes a mockery of the Herefordshire Council Local Transport Plan if a minimum frequency of every hour cannot be maintained on all these routes.

4. Where an operator is not prepared or incapable for financial reasons to restore these services to a reasonable frequency, then this presents the Council with the opportunity of intervention. Given this situation the Council has the ability to go out to contract under the provisions of the 1986 Deregulation Act.

5. Given the above, then there arises the opportunity for the Council to totally revise its approach to bus service support. The mixed bag of existing contracts with various timescales needs to be consolidated. Such consolidation of contracts existing and new would lead to integration within local networks. Such networks could be area based: e.g. Ross, Ledbury and Bromyard, Leominster, Kington, South West Herefordshire. To some degree Herefordshire Council has already gone down this route. The last round of contracts in Ledbury combined services 405/417/482/600/671/672/673/674/675/676 into one contract. The successful operator was able to give a competitive price based on the fact that operationally the composite contract could be operated with a set number of buses whose working diagrams were economically interlinked. The widening of this strategy to bring in school contracts in the same area can make such contracts an attractive proposition to a bidder.

6. This same approach can be applied to Hereford City services in order to restore them to service levels befitting an important city of the Marches and West Midlands Region.

Of course there are financial implications in all this. No-one can deny otherwise. The government dilemma will reach a climax in October when bailouts are planned to stop. Stagecoach have already indicated they are in talks with the government over whether or not support will be available after that date. Undoubtedly national organisations such as the Confederation of Passenger Transport are in the same process. But whatever happens nationally, bus service frequencies need to be restored in total to pre-Covid levels if both the industry and local authorities are going to restore public confidence and patronage. It is only in this way can a place be secured for the humble omnibus in the transport framework of England. Thus Herefordshire Council has the difficult decision, does it intervene now to reform its support process and go forward, or does it leave well alone and let the whole thing collapse.

Interestingly the Welsh Government recently issued the following statement. Ministers said: ‘The new Bus Emergency Scheme (BES) will provide financial support for revenue lost during the Coronavirus pandemic in return for greater public control and a reversal of the deregulation of the industry seen in the 1980s.

In Herefordshire there can be no pause and review on this one. Hard decisions need to be made now if we are to retain a county bus service network that is considered socially necessary, is part of the county economy and essential in respect of the climate emergency task and the move to zero carbon.

Appendix: Summary of Current Status of Bus Services in Herefordshire

Service 33 Hereford-Ross-on-Wye: restored to hourly service

Service 36 Hereford-Monmouth: restored under contract to HC

Service T14 Hereford-Brecon: three journeys restored; previously 5 + college days

Service X3 Hereford-Abergavenny: reduced from seven to four journeys

Service 417: Ledbury-Worcester : restored under contract to HC

Service 469/420: Hereford-Bromyard-Worcester: reduced to six journeys terminating Bromyard: Bromyard-Worcester reduced to two journeys Wednesday and Friday only

426 Hereford- Marden: restored under contract to HC 437: Hereford-Tillington: restored under contract to HC 440 Hereford-Abbeydore: restored under contract to HC 446 Hereford-Almeley: restored under contract to HC 447 Hereford-Bredwardine: still suspended

449 Hereford-Madley: reduced from hourly to five journeys

453 Hereford-Fownhope: restored under contract to HC

461/462 Hereford-Kington: restored under contract to HC

476 Hereford-Ledbury: reduced from hourly to two hourly. Sunday service cancelled. 492 Hereford-Leominster: reduced from hourly to five journeys

495/6: Leominster-Pembridge: restored under contract to HC

501 Hereford-Canon Pyon-Leominster: reduced from five to two journeys 672/4 Ledbury-Bromyard: restored under contract to HC

675/676 Ledbury Gt.Malvern: restored under contract to HC

More dramatic has been the reduction in service levels within the city. All city services have been restored but at dramatically reduced frequencies e.g. from every 12 minutes to every hour for the large Newton Farm housing estate and from twenty three to four journeys a day on the Credenhill service.

(Compiled with valued assistance from Andrew Pearson and information from Traveline Midlands website HSTG is not responsible for any inaccuracies in this list. Travellers are strongly advised to check service times before travelling.)

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