£1million a week to keep North East buses running through pandemic - but leaders say crisis could be chance for transport overhaul
Transport chiefs were paying more than £1million per week to prop up bus services in the North East at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.
Council bosses across the region were asked by the government to step in to support operators after social distancing restrictions saw passenger numbers collapse.
But as social distancing restrictions are eased, some now think the crisis could be an ‘opportunity’ to push for investment and an overhaul of the sector.
“The financial model for bus operation as we know it is not working,” said Carl Marshall, cabinet member for economic regeneration at Durham County Council.
“I think the position we should be working towards is working with the bus operators to lobby government for a sustainable model and financial envelope to create the connectivity we need across the North East.
“There is an opportunity in the current climate to look at the proposals we’ve been calling for for a number of years, such as smart ticketing, where I think there is an opportunity to ensure connectivity is improved by fast tracking that project.
“We should be working for the government to commit to a long term funding envelope for transport.”
Coin Marshall was speaking at a meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee on June 9, which was held remotely due to social distancing guidelines and broadcast via Youtube.
According to a report for the panel, COVID-19 has caused a ‘financial crisis’ for the UK’s bus industry due to government instructions to stay home and avoid non-essential journeys.
This prompted a government request for councils to keep up with the same payments for services and concessionary fares from before the outbreak, despite a fall in passengers of up to 90 per cent in some cases.
Across Tyne and Wear, County Durham and Northumberland this amounted to about £1.35million per week.
Coun Marshall echoed points raised by committee chairman and Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, who said it was ‘no secret’ transport bosses in the North East had long pushed for better links between different bus and rail links in the region.
Tobyn Hughes, managing director of Transport North East, as well as managing director of Metro operator Nexus, warned it could take a long time for public transport passenger numbers to recover – if they ever do.
“We’re heading into the beginning of the recovery period and financial support will be needed to continue,” he added.
“We will need to plan with bus operators to make the case for more funding and for a more stable model for public transport.”