Council warning that bus routes could be under “serious threat” but operators warn it is too soon to say
A report before the Lincolnshire County Council’s Highways and Scrutiny Committee next week will say that Lincolnshire already had a “relatively small failing passenger transport market” but that there was a slow recovery following the “dramatic drop” in numbers during the COVID-19 lockdown.
This could spell bad news for bus services for rural areas to the north of Peterborough.
“Bus services are returning to near pre-COVID levels but unfortunately passenger numbers are currently circa 20-30 per cent of former levels because of the government’s previous messages about travelling on public transport as a last resort and the ongoing requirement for social distancing,” said the document.
“This means that the income streams are reduced whilst the operating costs are not.”
Coach tourism has seen a “total loss” of business and mass cancellations for the 2020 season with standing costs estimated to be £1,900 a day even with staff furloughed.
There have also been increased costs due to the installation of measures to protect passengers including driver screens, contactless payment, limits on bus capacities and enhanced cleaning.
Bus services have been able to access extra money from pots including £589,000 of job retention funding, a £834,731 for bus service improvements and a £130,000 bus services support grant.
However, council bosses warned: “The perfect storm of additional operating costs, significantly reduced capacity, reduced income and lower numbers of passengers means that the current and future survival of the commercial bus network in Lincolnshire is under serious threat.”
“The threat for commercial bus operations will be most acute when government financial support reduces and passenger numbers remain restricted.”
Lincolnshire County Council currently supports around 142 local bus services and last year spent £5.573m on transport subsidies.
However, bosses said that if operators chose to consolidate their commercial services, the call for more supported services will increase again with greater costs due to the pandemic.
The latest difficulties are on top of other government schemes including accessibility regulations and requirements to make details of services more open and clearer.
“Coupled with the impact of COVID-19 there is a real risk that operators may consider there to be too many challenges and opt to leave the market,” said the report.
“We continue to look for ways to support and encourage the current marketplace whilst remaining within the allocated budget and within the restrictions of state aid.”
Councillors will be asked to comment on the report and make recommendations on Monday.
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has been asked if it shares its neighbour’s concerns, but bus operators around the city are saying it is too soon to say if any changes will need to be made.
Bourne-based Delaine has been running for over a century, serving Peterborough, Spalding, Bourne, Stamford and The Deepings as well as other rural villages.
Managing director Anthony Delaine-Smith said they have returned to a normal service on all routes, but said: “Like many other business sectors our return to normality is primarily being held back by workers not returning to the office and senior citizens continuing to shield.”
He added: “Existing bus services across England are currently being supported by the Department for Transport with a ‘Not for Profit’ Covid Bus Services Support Grant (CBSSG), which tapers down as passenger numbers increase.
“All our bus services are operated on a commercial basis and until the market finds its new level, this would not be an appropriate time to speculate on frequencies or the future of any individual or type of bus service.
Stagecoach run the majority of routes in and out of the city.
A company spokesperson said: “Delivering sustainable bus networks across the country is a shared responsibility between bus operators and national and local government. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, we have worked collaboratively with the Department for Transport and local authorities in our region to maintain key bus services for our communities and to focus resources where they are needed most.
“There is no question that Covid-19 has significantly impacted both the public and private sector. It has required temporary solutions to protect public services and critical areas of our economy, including public transport. The UK Government and other administrations have put in place funding arrangements which are helping to fill the gap between the costs of running local bus networks and the reduced income from passenger fares as a result of ongoing government restrictions, such as around social distancing.
“Bus networks have always evolved to meet changes in people’s lifestyles, working patterns and the overall demand for travel, as well as responding to housing and other developments in local communities. This was the case before the pandemic and we expect that to continue.
“We have already restored our local bus networks in the Peterborough and Lincolnshire regions to well over 90 per cent of pre-Covid service levels and we see no reason why the bus sector cannot thrive following a transitional period to account for the impact of the pandemic.
“Public transport, particularly buses and other mobility solutions demand responsive transport, and will be fundamental to the future of the economy. It is also central to delivering government objectives around cutting road congestion, improving local air quality, addressing climate change and levelling up regions across the country.”