Why public transport cuts risk the ‘economic collapse’ of the North East, according to a regional leader
Plans to slash millions of pounds from vital routes across Tyne and Wear have emerged this week, as Tyne and Wear Metro operator Nexus faces up to a £20.8million black hole.
Government bailout payments that have covered the Metro’s massive losses while passenger numbers have dropped during the Covid pandemic will end from next April, leaving a major cash shortfall as ridership is not expected to jump back to normal levels by then.
In response, Nexus is proposing to cull £7million from funding to the region’s bus operators and could be forced to make a further £4million of cuts unless five local councils can find money in their own coffers to cover that sum.
The Metro itself appears unlikely to be targeted for service reductions to save money, on the basis that the resulting drop in ticket income would spark an even worse cycle of decline which would ultimately force a complete shutdown of the network.
But the Shields Ferry and vital bus services, including routes to rural communities, could come under threat.
Martin Gannon, North East Joint Transport Committee chairman and Gateshead Council , said that the “straightforward” solution was for the government to perform a U-turn and commit to propping up Nexus until passenger numbers return to normal.
He told the committee this week: “The Government needs to come up with this. I understand the huge pressure they are under and the unprecedented support that has had to be given out during Covid.
“But it is not over and it is having a catastrophic impact on our income on both Metro and bus services.
“The alternative here would be economically catastrophic and it would run completely counter to what is required from government policy and ours in dealing with climate change and air quality – it would be damaging that irrevocably.”
The Labour leader, who chairs the JTC, added: “It is better for them and better for us that we do not have economic collapse in the North East of England.”
The severe threat to bus routes comes just weeks after the launch of an £800million vision was launched to improve North East services with faster journey times and cheaper tickets.
Nexus’ current budget proposals, which will be subject to a final decision in January, include options to ask councils to increase their transport levy payments by £4.125million – or cut Metro, Shields Ferry, or Nexus’ bus services to save the same amount.
A £7.5million cut from a budget used to reimburse bus companies for carrying passengers with free bus passes is also on the table, as is spending £5.6million of Nexus’ reserves – a solution that has been called “not sustainable” beyond next year
Nexus pays for bus operators to run ‘secured’ services that would not otherwise be commercially viable but are essential to the region’s transport network, including early morning or late night services and routes to outlying areas.
The Department for Transport, which has already given £47million to the Metro since the onset of the pandemic, said this week that it would “continue to work with Nexus to understand the needs of the local community”.