Plea for funds to save Suffolk buses from ‘jeopardy’

Ipswich Buses' general manager Stephen Bryce. Picture: IPSWICH BUSES

Ipswich Buses' general manager Stephen Bryce. Picture: IPSWICH BUSES - Credit: Archant

Pleas have been made for more funding to save Suffolk buses from potential “jeopardy” - amid fears government money to help them cope with the pandemic “isn’t enough”.

Ipswich Buses has brought more safety measures onto its services. Picture: IPSWICH BUSES

Ipswich Buses has brought more safety measures onto its services. Picture: IPSWICH BUSES - Credit: Archant

Councillor Andrew Reid, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for highways, transport and rural affairs, said bus companies “need more support” to deal with falling passenger numbers and revenues.

After years of decline, bus use in Suffolk had been rising for the first time in several years before the coronavirus crisis struck.

However, that positive progress was abruptly interrupted, with lockdown meaning many services were reduced to a minimum.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said it understood bus companies’ difficulties and had announced £400million of extra support for the industry nationally.

Ipswich Buses hope to attract passengers back to their vehicles. Picture: IPSWICH BUSES

Ipswich Buses hope to attract passengers back to their vehicles. Picture: IPSWICH BUSES - Credit: Archant

MORE: Ipswich Buses and First Eastern Counties get boost from government

Yet Ipswich Buses says it has only seen “slow growth” in passenger numbers since the end of lockdown, adding that the future could be “quite worrying” if there isn’t further support.

‘Without continuing government support, their future is in jeopardy’

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Asked what the future could be like if there isn’t extra government support, Ipswich Buses’ managing director Steve Bryce said: “There’ll be no buses – it’s as blunt as that.

“Most buses are commercially operated. We have to make a profit. We have to have turnover for it to be sustainable.”

Mr Reid said: “Bus companies nationwide have been hit hard financially by Covid-19.

“Suffolk’s bus companies are no exception and without continuing government support, their future is in jeopardy.”

A DfT spokesman said: “We understand how difficult this period is for bus operators.

“We have already announced over £400m to support the bus sector, and we will continue to work with them to help them remain resilient during this time.

“We have published guidance for passengers that provides advice on how to make journeys on public transport safely.

“People must wear a face covering on public transport, and should wash or sanitise their hands before and after their journey, stay 2m apart from others where possible and 1m if it is not, and travel at less busy times.”

MORE: Anyone can use trains and buses as Boris Johnson eases restrictions on travel

‘Bus travel is safe to use’

Mr Bryce added that, in his view, previous government messages to avoid public transport “did a lot of damage”.

He added: “It’s taken a lot of measures to make passengers feel safe. There needs to be less emphasis on car usage.

“Politicians and councils need to get behind public transport and promote it as safe and reliable.

“I think you’ve got as much chance of catching Covid on a bus as you have walking down the street, if you follow the advice and guidance.

“We also have extra cleaning measures in place. I really do feel people should be using public transport and feeling that it is safe to do so.”

Even though firms have brought services closer to previous levels, services have needed to be reorganised to ensure compliance with social distancing rules – meaning some routes being temporarily cut.

The county council has continued to pay full rate to operators of its Connecting Communities, local bus and home to school services.

It has also received a grant from the government to make additional payments to Connecting Communities and local bus contractors between March and June, with a second payment due shortly.

“Central government is also currently paying bus operators directly under an emergency Covid-19 fund, but this isn’t enough and they need more support,” Mr Reid said.

“I have reached out to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee on the support for bus companies and I have written to the Department for Transport to ask whether they intend to establish a recovery strategy for transport related sectors, including bus operators to help kick start the sector again.

“The leader of the council, Matthew Hicks, has also written to our Suffolk MPs asking for their support, including support to extend the grant from central government for a further two years as we move from restart to recovery.

“I want to ensure that where deemed necessary, we can provide a sufficient level of bus services across the county for those who need it.”

Chris Speed, head of operations at First Eastern Counties, said: “In March we were all challenged with a pandemic that is unprecedented and we are still working through the effects it has had on our business.

“At its peak, with the government advising that people avoid public transport, we were carrying around 10% patronage - which was obviously not sustainable without financial support from the government which was very much welcomed, allowing us to keep services running for key workers and people needing to make essential journeys.

“As we move out of lockdown and with the prime minister’s recent announcement stating: ‘We are making it clear that anybody may use public transport, but everyone should stay alert and act responsibly,’ this is a positive move forward as retail and workplaces start to open up.

“Throughout the pandemic we have introduced several measures on bus to help keep people stay safe, such as social distancing, reducing capacities, additional cleaning processes and with the governments ruling, stating that everyone should wear a face covering when using public transport unless they have an exemption, bus travel is safe to use.

“We still have a long way to go before we get back to some sort of normality but it is encouraging to see people having the confidence to get back to using our services.”