Public transport in Devon faces an uncertain future unless people get back on buses and trains.
By Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk
An organisation called the Peninsula Transport Shadow Sub National Transport Body, on which local councillors sit, has been told the number of people using buses ris less than half what it used to be across Devon and Cornwall. Train use is 35 per cent of pre-lockdown levels, but gradually increasing.
Although transport operators receive government support to ensure they continue to run loss-making services, it is uncertain about how long it will last and concerns about the impact it could have if routes stop running. Significant numbers of people are still under the impression that public transport should only be used if essential. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had previously said people should avoid public transport if possible, although messaging has since changed to allow bus and train use for any purpose.
But Cllr Mark Coker said: “We have a huge rural area and if bus patronage does not return to usual soon, there will be financial implications for the bus companies and the local authorities. Are we going to actively encourage people to get back on buses, and will the DFT change their message?”
Cllr Geoff Brown added: “The original message to only use public transport if essential nosedived the passenger numbers when we didn’t have an issue with capacity in the first place. For those using the buses it was essential. We have done a lot of work to make people safe, but the messaging isn’t helpful, so can we promote public transport in the near future?”
Dave Gilnos from the Department for Transport said a huge package of funding has been established to support the continued operation of bus services and he didn’t expect any services to fall aside while the funding is in place. He said: “There will come a time when government say they cannot keep supporting the industry forever more, and the question is when that funding will cease. Social distancing is limiting capacity to 50 per cent of what it was previously, and some buses are full, but full is 50 per cent so isn’t generating the revenue it was once. Work is on under way on a bus recovery strategy that will come out in the autumn.”
Daniel Round, from GWR, added that the message was changing to ‘travel with confidence’ and to try and entice people can onto the railway. He said: “We are seeing a uplift in numbers in the westward routes. We are now up to 30 to 35 per cent, when at the height of the pandemic, it was down at two to three per cent. We have extended the agreement with the DFT until June until next year so a sign of stability, and we will change out timetable to 95 per cent of pre-pandemic services.”