New subsidies, reduced timetables: are key workers being served?

In February Boris Johnson announced in Parliament that his government was launching a new package of actions for public transport including £5bn over the next five years to improve bus and cycling services in England. The extra money for buses “will provide more frequent services and simpler, more affordable fares”, he declared. Investments in local infrastructure would “improve quality of life and productivity”.

Included in this figure was a first tranche of £30 million offered to local authorities across the country to improve the provision of local bus services in their area in one or more of the following ways:

• To improve current local bus services – for instance increasing evening or weekend frequencies, or supporting additional seasonal services in tourist areas

• To restore lost bus routes where most needed to ensure people have access to public transport services

• To support new bus services, or extensions to current services, to access eg. new housing, employment opportunities, healthcare facilities etc.

East Sussex County Council were offered an allocation of £265, 381 in 2020-21 out of this sum, and submitted a Statement of Intent to the DfT last month that included specific details of intended service improvements.

Covid-19: maintaining subsidies

But last Friday Transport secretary Grant Shapps pulled the plug, explaining that the £30m earmarked for improvements will now be paid to local authorities to maintain subsidies, including concessionary fares for old and disabled passengers on existing services during the current lockdown. In addition, he announced a government subsidy of £167m to be released direct to bus operators over the next 12 weeks (on top of £200m already invested). The new subsidy, called the COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant, will pay them “to maintain necessary services at a level which is sufficient to meet much reduced demand, but also to allow adequate space between passengers on board.” This is expected to allow retention of up to 50 per cent of normal service levels despite drastically reduced passenger numbers and fares.

Whether this overall level of support is a rational economic response to the crisis – especially given the number of volunteer drivers apparently offering assistance – depends on one’s viewpoint. But in Hastings bus campaigners have pointed out that Stagecoach’s revised timetabling of the town’s services does not seem designed to maximise assistance to key workers. In particular, the 28 bus, which is the only route connecting West Hill, Ore and the Conquest Hospital, has an hour and a half gap between services in the morning (next after the 08.11 from Hastings Station is the 09.40), while the last bus back from the Conquest leaves at 17.19, long before the end of the last shift of hospital staff.

Meetings with Stagecoach

Kieron Pelling, whose role as Active Travel Officer at East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust includes encouraging staff to make increased use of public transport, commented last Friday: “Prior to Covid-19 making an appearance, we have had regular meetings with Stagecoach to discuss the services to our hospitals. We have also worked with them to introduce a discount ticket offer for our staff.

“We continue to be in close contact with Stagecoach and they have communicated with us the changes to the service they made in response to the current crisis. Part of that communication included a phone number for staff to use to provide feedback on the service changes, so that Stagecoach can try and make the revised service meet the requirements of as many staff as possible. Further changes are expected as the Covid-19 situation develops.”

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