Can rural bus services survive Covid with only a quarter of seats filled?

Buses are still having to operate with very few passengers. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Buses are still having to operate with very few passengers. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

Bus services nationwide were losing passengers even before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report – with rural services being particularly hit.

The National Audit Office found that between 2010-11 and 2018-19, the number of bus journeys fell in 65 of 88 English local transport authorities outside London - and by 10% overall.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a drastic reduction in bus travel across the country and created uncertainties about future travel habits. However, bus travel will likely remain the primary and essential mode of transport for many, especially the most disadvantaged.

MORE: Pandemic adds to problems for bus operators

Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for transport, Andrew Reid, said: “Bus companies nationwide have been hit hard financially by Covid-19. Suffolk’s bus companies are no exception.

“During the coronavirus lockdown, the county’s bus companies had to rapidly respond to a significant drop in passenger numbers by reducing their services to a minimum level.

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“Now, as we enter the cautious recovery phase, they have been gradually bringing their services back to their previous levels, following changes in customer demand.

“Most routes are now operating their pre-Covid timetables, but the operators are having to continually monitor all their routes to ensure there is capacity for social distancing. In order to adhere to Government guidelines, they have had to make sure their buses are being used to the best effect.

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“This means that some buses have to be redeployed to the busiest routes to create enough capacity for social distancing, leaving those routes with lower passenger numbers being cut temporarily. We don’t know how long this situation will continue for.

“Social distancing continues to mean that any given bus can only hold around a quarter of its capacity, so even where journeys are ‘full’ they are not generating anything near their normal level of fares income.

“All operators in Suffolk have introduced enhanced cleaning regimes on their vehicles, and with passengers required to wear face coverings on board.

“We believe that bus services remain the best way to transport people over distances not suitable for walking or cycling.”

“We have continued to pay full rate to the operators of our contracted Connecting Communities, local bus and home to school services whether they have been operating full or reduced services.”

Labour opposition transport spokesman Jack Owen said that over the last 10 years, the Conservative administration at Endeavour House had cut the bus budget by 59% – from £4.3m to £1.75m.

He said: “Bus usage across Suffolk was already in crisis prior to the Covid outbreak, as a direct consequence of brutal Tory reductions to bus subsidies.

“Our school transport system has also been left in chaos by their cuts.

“Paying lip service now is too little, too late.”

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