It is time to back our buses – now and for the future
Carolyn Thomas MS
In the discussion about public transport, the limelight frequently shines on our train network, with buses often relegated to playing second fiddle in debates about investment and expansion.
And yet, 60% of public transport journeys take place on buses and bus commuters add £64bn to the UK economy each year.
Whilst trains are predominantly used by more affluent commuters, bus transport is principally used by those on the lowest incomes.
They provide vital connectivity for groups of people who are most at risk of social isolation, as well as connecting those who can most benefit from the economic and networking opportunities that accessible transport can provide.
Buses are a flexible mode of transport meaning they can be far more demand responsive than trains, as well as being easier and cheaper to produce, making them a more scalable and rapid solution to the public transport and climate change crises.
In the 2020’s, public transport should be positioned to provide a renaissance of economic development and connectivity in Wales.
It could transform the landscape of our country in a way that acts as a weapon in the dual fight against climate change and inequality.
But right now, we couldn’t be further from providing that renaissance.
The ending of the Bus Emergency Scheme, which was initially funded through COVID sustainability funding, means that many operators are at risk of terminating and cutting services.
This could shatter school transport routes.
I remember from my time as Deputy Leader of Flintshire County Council and Cabinet Member for Transportation, every day was a struggle to source enough operators, drivers and escorts to deliver existing school transport, and things have only got harder since then.
The cost of procuring school transport has risen by up to 40% due to inflationary pressures but public funding has not increased in line with inflation.
A reduction in services leads to a domino effect of disastrous consequences. It isolates communities and reduces connectivity whilst also forcing people to switch to using cars which seriously hampers our attempts to tackle climate change.
In addition, the often hidden effects can be particularly devastating for individuals; the debilitating impact on the mental health of people who have their only method of connection to others completely removed at the hands of a withdrawn route or a cut bus service.
The threat of hundreds of job losses and closed depots are now looming over drivers and engineers, some of whom have over 25 years of service. There is also concern of accessing health appointments, jobs, school and higher education as well as other vital public services.
It is difficult to underestimate the threat we currently face.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Whilst the numbers of people using buses was significantly reduced by the pandemic, fare paying passengers are returning and are at 80 to 90%, those with concessionary passes less so at 50 to 60% in some areas.
It is important to remember that one of the main user groups for buses are the elderly. With an ageing population, our bus networks are going to be needed more than ever in the future.
We must provide those current and future passengers with both an adequate network and, vitally, the confidence to return or to try buses as their preferred mode of transport.
Innovative thinking is required to bring that confidence back to all passengers and grow the use of public bus transport. In Rhondda Cynon Taf, the Council offered free bus travel for the whole of March which saw thousands of people returning to using local bus routes.
As well as an affordable fixed price, we need a campaign of clear timetabling and availability of information involving all operators, levels of Government, organisations and charities.
No service is commercially viable and operators receive public transport funding via a Bus Service Support Grant which equates to £25m in Wales but that has not increased over the last few years during austerity. In many cases, these subsidies provide a last line of defence for services and routes.
The Welsh Government’s plans to legislate next year to give local authorities the ability to launch municipal bus companies are an absolutely vital step forward.
Publicly-owned municipal bus companies provide the opportunity to reverse the destruction wrought to the bus network by decades of privatisation following Margaret Thatcher’s Transport Act 1985.
The Welsh Government should instruct, encourage and fund local authorities to seize this opportunity when it comes, to provide a stable, reliable and green public service that is capable of achieving the shift to public transport which is required to save our planet.
Transport for Wales could help with mass procurement and supply of buses to make running services more affordable for smaller operators and local authorities.
As such, it isn’t all doom and gloom. The future can be bright for bus transport in Wales.
But the immediate task is to make it to next year with a bus network which is still intact.
We need our buses for the working class, we need them to tackle social isolation, for the elderly, for connectivity, for networking and for the fight against climate change.
Welsh buses can and should play a powerful role in rebuilding Wales – we must back them now, and for the future.
If you agree with me, please do sign Unite Wales’ ‘Back Your Bus Route’ petition, here.
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