Paper suggests “rapid and deep cut” in bus services if COVID-19 financial backing were to be withdrawn prematurely

 

The future of local public transport services is at serious risk – including the potential for deep cuts to bus services and the temporary closure of light rail systems – without continued COVID-19 financial support from Government, according to a new report. 

The report – produced by transport consultancy Steer for the Urban Transport Group – has been published as part of the group’s submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review and in the run up to the end of key current funding deals for urban public transport (see notes to editors).

The report highlights how Government support allowed public transport to continue during the national lockdown (enabling key workers to travel to and from work) and to provide a more comprehensive service at lower socially distanced vehicle capacity following the end of the lockdown.

But the report paints a stark picture for both bus and light rail systems should this support be withdrawn prematurely. Likely impacts include:

  • a minimum reduction in bus services of between 30% and 40%
  • pressure to increase public transport fares, which would also have a negative impact on passenger numbers
  • increasing pressure on local transport authorities to step in and procure socially necessary bus services (but with increasingly limited budgets to act)
  • temporary closures of tram and light rail systems

The report finds that public transport demand 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% of pre-COVID levels by mid-2021, and a worst case scenario of patronage returning to 65% of pre-COVID levels by the end of 2021.

It concludes that: ‘Local public transport faces a situation where its core demand has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic-induced recession, while at the same time provision of local public transport is particularly important if people are to be able to return to employment. Maintaining local public transport supply is therefore integral to the post-pandemic recovery.’

Stephen Edwards, Chair of the Urban Transport Group and Executive Director of South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said: “Government support has been absolutely vital in safeguarding necessary public transport services during both the COVID-19 lockdown and the initial recovery period. 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 Steer report forms part of the Urban Transport Group’s submission on the Comprehensive Spending Review to Treasury, in which the group recommends Government should:

  1. Move 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 more in line with the longer term funding support in place for national rail services, as well as allowing transport authorities to adopt the same contractual basis for funding for bus services that national Government now exercises over national rail services; and
  2. Make longer term COVID-19 funding support the basis for wider reform of the funding and powers of city region transport authorities in general. In practice this would mean providing the long term funding packages for local transport similar to those already in place for national rail and roads, and upgrading the powers of city region transport authorities so they are more in line with those in London. This would ensure that they are fully empowered and fully funded to meet the challenge of a green recovery from COVID-19.

Jonathan Bray, Director of the Urban Transport Group, added: “If we are to meet the current and severe challenge of the pandemic, and ultimately build back better from it, then we need to seize the opportunity provided by the Comprehensive Spending Review to  transition to enhanced, stable and long term funding for urban transport. This will enable us to move at scale and pace to target transport investment where it will have the most beneficial impacts on local economies.”