Bus services across England could be axed within days, transport groups have said, as operators decide before a funding deadline whether routes will remain viable.
Services in the north-east and South Yorkshire are known to be at risk, but many more routes could be cut back as Covid grants that propped up routes during the pandemic expire.
Bus operators normally have to give six weeks’ notice before reducing services, and Covid recovery grants run out at the start of October. The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT), which represents operators, said the coming week would be “critical” in reviewing what would keep running.
The grants were introduced to help sustain routes that had lost passengers during the pandemic. They were extended in the spring for a further six months with £150m to stave off feared widespread cuts to services, but the government warned that no further funding would be available.
The Urban Transport Group (UTG), a network of city region transport authorities, has highlighted “particularly drastic” cuts now expected in South Yorkshire, where 120 routes, one in three, are about to be reduced, and 51 could be axed altogether.
The UTG’s director, Jonathan Bray, said: “The buses are relied on by the poorest in society, without access to cars – if you are talking about the cost of living crisis, this is another blow to those people who already have the least.”
Despite the end of emergency funding, the government is in the process of awarding more than £1.1bn to selected authorities under its bus service improvement plan (BSIP). The controversial competition eventually saw fewer than half of applicants receive BSIP funding, which cannot be used to sustain existing route networks. Bray said: “It’s a bit crazy to cut services and improve them, but that’s what we’re looking at.”
Kent county council last month warned it would have to cut dozens of routes, despite receiving £35m in BSIP improvement funding.
Tyne and Wear’s transport authority, Nexus, said about 100 buses a day had come off the roads since March and that it expected further cuts.
In Somerset, FirstGroup has told passengers it will be withdrawing additional unviable routes.
With fuel and staff costs escalating and patronage still down, a longstanding bus operator in Bournemouth, Yellow Buses, collapsed into administration earlier this month. The majority of its routes were rescued after the Go-Ahead subsidiary MoreBus stepped in and recruited many of its former drivers. However, not all passengers will be so fortunate if routes are axed.
Operating costs have escalated by about 20% since the start of the pandemic, according to the CPT, while passenger numbers remain 15% down on average countrywide. CPT’s chief executive, Graham Vidler, said: “Markets vary, but it’s a big gap to deal with – that’s why we’re going through this review. It will be a difficult process. The coming weeks are critical.”
Vidler said the areas most affected would be those with more commuters or concessionary travel: “Lots of people are only commuting a couple of days, and a lot of the older population appears reluctant to travel at all, after being told to avoid public transport during Covid.”
He said there would inevitably be “necessary and proportionate” reductions in bus networks because of new travel patterns, but warned that the changes risked becoming much more damaging and widespread. “The government needs to step in – possibly with an extension of those Covid recovery grants.”
Labour said the government’s £3bn “Bus Back Better” strategy was in tatters, with the majority of the funding announced eventually swallowed by Covid emergency grants.
The shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “In a cost of living and climate crisis, slashing the buses millions rely on is sheer vandalism and will be a straightforward betrayal of the promises the Conservatives made. Communities at risk of being abandoned need action, but this hapless government has gone missing.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We have committed to investing £3bn into bus services by 2025, to improve fares, services and infrastructure, and given nearly £2bn since March 2020 to bus operators and local authorities to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.
“To maximise this investment, local authorities and operators need to work together to ensure that services are commercially sustainable and reflect the needs of passengers post-pandemic.”