More than one in four bus services in England have been cut in the last decade, with the pandemic accelerating the decline, a transport charity has found.
Gwyn Topham www.theguardian.com
Almost 5,000 routes have been axed since 2012, with the north-west and east of England the two regions worst affected.
Research by the Campaign for Better Transport showed that 27% of bus services, measured by mileage, have disappeared in a decade, while the number of services on official registers in England dropped from almost 17,000 in March 2012 to just over 12,000 last March.
The sharpest drop in bus miles came during the pandemic, falling 18%, compared with a 10% decline in the years to 2019.
The charity called for a national, government-led campaign to encourage people back on board routes across the country, while urging ministers to prioritise investment in buses and cutting fares instead of cuts to fuel duty for motorists.
Paul Tuohy, the chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Buses are relied upon by millions of people and should play a central role in a green transport future, but they have been struggling for some time, and the pandemic has made things much worse.”
“Last week’s spring statement included a tax break for car drivers with a 5p cut in fuel duty, but nothing for public transport users, despite fares having risen at a far higher rate than fuel.”
The charity highlighted moves in other countries to incentivise public transport use after Covid lockdowns had ended. Germany and New Zealand have both cut fares, while Wales last week launched a campaign including fare deals to get passengers back on board.
Fares in England for buses – like trains – have risen far above the growth in average pay for workers over the last decade, as well as outstripping the price rises in fuel, even after the recent surge at the pumps. According to the RAC Foundation, bus and coach fares rose 58% in the last decade, while petrol went up 19%.
Plans from the government to reverse the decline in buses have faltered during the pandemic. Shortly before the first lockdown, the government announced its intention to publish a national strategy with £3bn of additional funding. The strategy, Bus Back Better, was published in 2021 but much of the money has gone in emergency funding for operators after passengers were told to avoid unnecessary travel.
Fears that the networks could be slashed further when Covid emergency funding ended in April were averted temporarily, with the announcement of a further £150m support from the Department for Transport last month.
However, ministers have made clear the funding will expire in October 2022, encouraging services to then be adapted to meet demand, which is about 80% of pre-pandemic levels.
The Urban Transport Group, which represents regional cities with major bus networks, called on the government to “use the next six months to put in place a long-term, enhanced and devolved approach to funding bus services” of the kind outlined in its strategy. It also urged the government to campaign for people to return to buses, after warning them to stay off public transport due to Covid.