Severe bus driver shortages, coupled by the withdrawal of COVID funding by the Government, means passengers in Bath & North East Somerset are facing more cuts, says Metro Mayor Dan Norris.
Bus companies are planning to cut local services including the 178 (Midsomer Norton to Bristol), 42 (Odd Down Park and Ride to RUH), 171 (Bath City Centre to Paulton) and 173 (Bath City Centre to Wells) in October.
There is also a proposed route change to the 172 (Paulton to Bath). First has also reportedly declined to run Bath supported services the 11 and 12.
The majority of bus services in B&NES are run commercially, with the remainder fully or partly subsidised by the West of England Combined Authority, led by Mayor Norris. Of the 87 ‘supported’ bus services in the region, only 36% will run past October without any conditions and 11 routes will be cancelled. Mr Norris says this is despite him offering to continue to subside these services.
The region faces several challenges on buses. On top of the shortage of drivers, and what Mr Norris calls the Government’s” financial cliff edge funding decision”, there are also fewer passengers – around 75 per cent of pre covid numbers – and costs to run the buses are up.
Mr Norris said: “I am sorry that people in Bath and North East Somerset will feel these cuts in October, when private bus companies withdraw their services on the less profitable routes. My heart goes out to people who will lose buses which I know are so important for getting to work, seeing family and caring for others.
“I have warned repeatedly there will be bus cuts in the autumn, and now sadly we are seeing these fears realised. We all know the issues: Government support ends in October, but passenger numbers are still not back to where they were pre-pandemic, and the inflationary costs of running services is rocketing. And the huge, huge problem is there are not enough bus drivers.
“When it comes to funding, I will always step in to save vital buses where I can, but there isn’t an unlimited pot of cash and even if there was, I can’t magic up drivers.
“Over the next weeks and throughout August I will work with local communities and bus companies large and small to see where we might be able to step in, if other providers might take on different routes, or if we can come up with different innovative solutions.
“There are trade-offs and compromises to make but I know local people will have some great ideas about how to use drivers most effectively, which is why I will be engaging with as many people as possible to make this the least painful it can be.
“While this is a difficult time, I urge everyone to use the buses that are running because every journey you make creates a virtuous circle of more fare income and so better buses. Plus, it’s so very vital for our net zero targets.
“There is also hope on the horizon. The Combined Authority I lead is supporting bus driver recruitment and training and the new money I’ve won for buses will kick in next year. So hang in there.”
The Bus Service Improvement plan cash award for the West of England was £105m – the second highest in the country. Anyone considering a career as a bus driver should visit https://www.firstgroupcareers.com/skillsets/busdriver/
Today a spokesperson for First West of England said: “As a condition of transitional funding arrangements, bus operators must undertake full network reviews to assess the viability of all routes once funding ends in the autumn.
“This is currently taking place in West of England but we must stress no decisions have been made and it would be inappropriate to comment on speculation at this stage.
“Like all other bus operators in the UK, we must adapt our networks to match the post-pandemic demand for services.
“The majority of our networks will be retained, and we will work to match our resources with demand for services in order to provide our customers with the most reliable network.
“We are committed to constructive partnerships and have been working with local authorities to provide as much notice as possible of any changes to allow them to support alternative arrangements.
“As we head into the end of the COVID-era funding provided by the Government and back towards a sustainable commercial model, First West of England, like all other bus operators across the UK, will be adapting our networks in line with post-pandemic demand for services.
“This reset comes at the same time as ongoing labour market challenges and a cost-of-living squeeze at play. We need to ensure there’s balance across networks, demand, costs and pricing.”