Guest comment: ‘Eyes on the prize’

Go North East Managing Director, Martijn Gilbert (who is also Chair of NEbus, the North East Bus Operators’ Association), reflects on the progress made thus far, and the opportunities and challenges ahead

The North East’s bus network is on the cusp of a transport revolution and plays a critical role in the climate change agenda. Buses reduce congestion on our roads, they connect our communities and boost our economy. The industry is a major employer too, providing jobs for 6,000 people in the North East alone.

Over the past few years, passengers have benefited from huge investment – in low emission vehicles, luxury buses for express routes and smartphone apps with live tracking that tell you when your bus is due.

Buying a ticket has become easier thanks to smart card and contactless payments, and improvements to multi-operator tickets, including the Network One ticket across bus, metro and ferry – which only last year was extended to cover journeys to/from County Durham and Northumberland. And season tickets are now available on the Pop smartcard.

The pandemic has brought bus operators and local authorities closer together, jointly navigating their way through the challenges posed by COVID-19. Under the Government’s National Bus Strategy, that spirit of co-operation is being formalised with an ‘Enhanced Partnership’ agreement. These agreements allow regions to bid for a pot of Government money available for so-called Bus Service Improvement Plans.

The North East has asked for £804m to introduce more bus priority, which would speed up journeys, generating more passengers and funding further improvements to bus fares and ticketing.

We’re not standing still while we wait to hear the success of the bid. During the pandemic, we quickly introduced enhanced cleaning and flexible tickets were introduced for those blending home and or part time work. We brought in special offers such as the Go North East cheaper flat evening fare and we struck a partnership with the Co-Wheels car club to promote flexible car free living. The region also got its very first zero emission electric buses, with more following later this year.

Passenger numbers fell dramatically during the pandemic, so the Government initially provided funds to maintain essential services on a no profit ‘breakeven’ basis. A second support arrangement from September provided tapering funding with the expectation of passenger numbers growing back and the bus industry gradually returning to a commercial footing.

Unfortunately, the Omicron variant and Plan B restrictions set that recovery back. With around 75% of pre-COVID passenger numbers, parts of today’s bus network are loss making, even with this support.

It’s vital that we keep in mind the huge role that public transport plays in our local communities. If we have to cut services at this point, then much of the funding provided by Government to maintain networks over the last few years would have been wasted. To keep our buses running at present levels, and to build up services as latent demand is unleashed by priority schemes, we need ongoing COVID support funding to ‘bridge the gap’ as customers numbers rebuild.

We do, however, need to be pragmatic about the need for change. The way people work, shop and travel has changed and the bus network needs to adapt to new demand patterns reflecting this. Buses are a mass mover of people, and not always the best solution for every single travel need, but they are appropriate for a very large number of journeys.

Although we’re hopeful that some form of support will stay in place, worst case scenario plans have been discussed with Local Authorities in case a funding cliff edge comes at the end of the current Government financial year (end of March). Let me be clear though – bus operators will still be continuing many services in the short term that don’t cover their costs as they grow back. We’re very deliberately taking a long-term view and don’t want to be dependent on COVID support for any longer than is necessary, but the challenge without support in some areas will be too great. Making bus services financially sustainable is important to keep them running, to protect jobs and unlock future investment in more new and better buses.

The commercial model of bus operation keeps bus operators very close to their customers as, ultimately, they earn their keep from responding to what passenger want. The model is hugely efficient, giving very good value for taxpayers, and can deliver a lot for every £1 invested in it. The region already has many high frequency bus corridors with some services running every 5-15 minutes. Huge progress has been made on greening the bus fleet, even ahead of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Clean Air Zone, all without the huge levels of public subsidy received in London, which gets nearly three times that received elsewhere – £73 per head per year vs. £27 elsewhere. We have a lot of what London has already, in some areas we have even better services, and with the right backing we can have even more.

We’re in this for the long haul as the recovery of public transport continues, but success depends on a joint effort from everyone. We are committed to working together to support a continued rebuild, including boosting user confidence and, in turn, supporting a greener recovery of our towns, cities, wider communities and economy.

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