This week, independent Hereford operator Yeomans have announced their intention to withdraw from a large part of the Hereford city service network they took over after First similarly retrenched around six years ago. Amidst all the chatter about Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs), Bus Back Better (BBB) and Enhanced Partnerships (EPs), perhaps this is the fire we ought to be fighting before turning our attention to the grandiose ideas that most Local Transport Authorities have proposed in their BSIPs.
How do you solve a problem like ambition?
The problem with the whole process of BBB and the BSIPs is that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem. This is not the time to be talking about how we expand networks and cover new territories unless passenger demand (and operator income) has shown signs of recovering back to pre-Covid levels. Because BSIPs are primarily aimed at new innovations, very few of them make mention of existing services and the fact that they are a very fragile house of cards. DfT guidance on submitting BSIPs made it clear that they need to be ambitious at a time when stability is a far more important goal. It doesn’t matter how many new electric buses are provided if they’re being used on bus networks which have ceased to function as a viable business.
The DfT have meanwhile announced that concessionary fare payments to operators which have (in most cases) been maintained at pre-Covid levels are now to transition back to being based on actual patronage from next April. This will happen by payments being reduced by 5% each month until the LTAs are down to actual patronage levels. For services like ours which are entirely reliant upon the pittance we receive from local councils for carrying people for free, this represents a huge problem. The services already run on a level of revenue which generates enough income to pay for fuel and Ticketer machines. Even taking the CBSSG support payments in to account, I’ve been effectively providing free labour and at best breaking even on operational costs since May 2020.
Bus Service Irrelevance Plans
These problems are compounded when LTAs are including conditions in the EPs which will form the basis of their BSIPs which will make buses more expensive to operate. WECA and North Somerset Council are proposing in their Enhanced Partnership draft that all buses will be minimum Euro 6 by 2025. There will be no support for operators to upgrade vehicles to meet this requirement, despite the fact that all operators in Bath have already recevied free upgrades to vehicles to ensure they meet this standard and Bristol will follow suit as part of their Clean Air Zone (CAZ) scheme. Operators who are not serving city centres are to be unfairly penalised for complying with a condition which is pretty much irrelevant out in the countryside.
The only goals of the BSIP which look tangible are those concerning ticketing and the move to a seamless all operator offering, but it feels like we’ve got several different people trying to solve that problem who aren’t talking to each other. WECA’s leadership is so weak that they seem incapable to even get their own groups of staff working together, let alone anyone outside the organisation.
BSIPs and EPs are not the right solution. I’m sure that the Yeomans withdrawal from Hereford will be the tip of the iceberg and plenty of others will follow over the coming months before any decisions are made by the DfT to bring extra funding online, which probably won’t be able to fund the right things anyway. We need to be addressing the key issues of stabilising the problems we have now, rather than a dreamland based on 2015-2019 data. The question needs to be asked to local and national government – do you actually want relevant bus services with actual passengers or just another slew of vacuous vanity projects which disappear as soon as funding runs out?
Funding the day to day stuff properly isn’t sexy and doesn’t attract newspaper headlines, but it does stand a much better chance of generating sustainable passenger usage, which is something that WECA claim to want, but show little evidence of strategically heading towards.