There are fears that bus operators across the region could slash their mileage by up to 17% due to the withdrawal of a Government grant that has helped them survive the devastating impact of Covid-19.
The Bus Recovery Grant is due to cease in April and, with passenger numbers roughly 25% down on pre-Covid levels, privately-owned bus companies say the absence of that emergency funding to cover their loss in revenue will make some services unsustainable.
In a letter to transport minister Baroness Vere on behalf of councils in Tyne and Wear, North Tyneside deputy mayor Carl Johnson warns that the effect of bus frequencies being reduced, some evening services ending, and some routes being axed entirely will be “stark”.
He cited plans from Go North East to finish the Q3’s route through Newcastle city centre at St Peter’s Basin, rather than going on to Walker and Wallsend, and the axing of the 19 service that connects towns in North Tyneside and south east Northumberland.
Coun Johnson, who chairs the Tyne and Wear Sub-Committee of the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “To mention just two examples: Walker in Newcastle will lose its direct bus to the city centre and quaysides development area; in North Tyneside the route 19 is to be withdrawn, cutting the giant Cobalt and Silverlink employment sites off from surrounding wards and the neighbouring constituency of Blyth Valley.
“We fear other communities within a few miles of Newcastle and Sunderland city centres will also lose their buses as companies make further cuts later this spring.”
Local councils recently agreed to up their funding to cash-strapped Tyne and Wear Metro operator Nexus, which itself will see separate Covid bailout funding end in the coming weeks, in order to maintain its £10m budget to ‘secure’ bus routes at risk of being cut.
But Coun Johnson warned that cash will “not come close to maintaining all those routes now under threat”.
In his letter to Baroness Vere, he added: “The bus industry, whether public or private, needs longer to recover from the pandemic, and the recent impact of the Omicron variant and Government advice associated with it, as it seeks to grow passenger numbers again.
“Buses are not just vital to local people and our economy today, they are a key means to combat the climate emergency and improve air quality, as we introduce a Clean Air Zone centred on Newcastle later this year and enter an Enhance Partnership with operators.
“I urge you to extend Bus Recovery Grant beyond the end of March 2022, so local people do not have to suffer the impact of commercial cuts and withdrawals, and so we can work in partnership to grow sustainable transport, rather than seeing it shrink away.”
Go North East is expected to slash more routes elsewhere in the region from May, while Stagecoach and Arriva are also expected to announce significant service reductions.
The Department for Transport said: “We have provided over £1.7billion to keep bus services running across the country throughout the pandemic, and are now working closely with operators and local transport authorities to protect services after April.”