A few days after a report was published showing the importance to businesses in the North of more reliable transport systems, council leaders in the North East have unveiled a £800m bid they say would transform bus services in the region.
The region’s first Bus Service Improvement Plan is likely to be approved next week, after which an £804m bid would go to the Government with hopes that it could restore passenger numbers that fell during the pandemic – and then increase them each year.
Crucially, the bid has seen council leaders working with bus companies to put together initiatives on lower fares – something that would have been unthinkable almost a decade ago when the two sides clashed over the ‘quality contract’ proposals that would have seen bus services re-nationalised in Tyne and Wear.
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But the region has been given a taste of what is possible after the Government approved nearly £7bn for areas such as Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire for projects ranging from tram improvements to introducing London-style improvements in infrastructure, fares and services.
The North East’s situation is complicated by the fact that, like those areas to have benefitted this weekend, it has a mayor in the North of Tyne, but not in the ‘combined authority’ area made up by Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham.
But the seven authorities and a collective of North East business operators have come together for a plan that aims to make bus travel more attractive by making it cheaper, easier and more reliable.
If successful, the plan would reduce congestion and air pollution, support the UK’s net zero drive and boost to the local economy.
But it comes against a backdrop of huge falls in passenger numbers during the pandemic, with many people yet to be convinced to ditch their cars and return to buses.
The North East plan aims to increase bus passenger numbers, which are currently sitting at around 25% lower than before the pandemic, to pre-Covid levels by the end of the next financial year, then grow them 10% each year.
Among the measures proposed to achieve that are cheaper fares, including a trial of free journeys for under 12s, more frequent services and tickets that operate across buses, trains and the Metro.
The plan also proposed a night bus network, more bus routes and new out-of-town park and ride sites.
When new contactless technology is put into place, passengers would benefit from a “capping” system which would place a daily limit on the amount they pay, while there would be a commitment for all buses to be either zero or low-emission by 2025.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “I’m delighted to unveil the North East Bus Service Improvement Plan.
“With the right amount of Government funding behind us, our plan would I’m sure be welcome news for passengers – millions of local people would benefit from significant upgrades to the bus network and services, enhancements to customer experience, simplified fares and improved infrastructure – speeding up bus services, improving reliability and of course affordability.
“If we are able to deliver our plans, young people will find it much easier to reach education and other opportunities, commuters will benefit from faster, more reliable journeys and families will be able to enjoy more sustainable days out too.
“Our region’s Bus Service Improvement Plan is a true collaborative effort and we are united in our goal to dramatically improve the network, so that more people than ever before are able – and willing – to make more sustainable transport choices by using the bus when they can. More people travelling by bus means less congestion on our roads, reduced carbon emissions, and less pollution in the air we breathe.”
Coun Gannon said the plan to improve buses had seen commercial operators agree to “commercial compromises” on how much money they could make from services.
He said: “We have worked together as a region, in partnership with our local bus operators, to develop a truly transformational Bus Service Improvement Plan that contains transformational proposals to reduce fares, speed journeys up, and make buses simple and easy to use.
“But this will come with a big price tag that we need the Government to fund in order to level up our region. In return for the £804m that we are seeking, local authorities are prepared to make bold policy decisions to make bus use an easy and natural choice, and the bus companies are prepared to make commercial compromises on a scale that we have never seen before.
“All local authorities in England outside London are bidding competitively against each other to access a £3bn pot of national funding. We don’t know whether £3bn will be enough to cover the scale of change that is needed across the country, but we certainly need a large share of it to make a big difference in the North East.”
Martijn Gilbert, managing director of bus operator Go North East, is also chair of NEbus, the local operators’ association.
He said: “The Bus Service Improvement Plan is an important part of the Government’s National Bus Strategy and sets out the key ingredients for revolutionising the region’s bus network to play an even greater role in connecting communities, helping re-build our economy and to reduce congestion and improve air quality.
“Local authorities and bus operators have worked together on the plan in ways not seen before, reached a huge degree of consensus and ensuring a proportional balance of proposed initiatives across all parts of the North East. The plan will also align highways matters with bus service delivery, which is key to making buses even better and for more people.
“Our growing collaborative partnership has already, for example through the Big Bus Conversation, engaged the views of users and non-users to help shape details of the plan. This approach builds upon recent joint progress made to expand multi-modal ticketing into Northumberland and County Durham, as well as introducing the first all modes smartcard for travel in Tyne and Wear.
“We hope that Government sees this plan as an opportunity to invest in the true potential of the North East’s buses, helping us to shift travel habits to be more focused around sustainable public transport which will be good news for us all.”