The decision by Stagecoach East to withdraw a group of underperforming routes that have been losing an average of £12 per passenger journey, and up to £80 per individual user in the worst cases, has led to a renewed call for reregulation of buses in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough by elected Mayor Dr Nik Johnson.
18 services will be removed from 30 October as the operator repositions its network to “reflect post-pandemic travel patterns.” However, the changes that follow a network review process mandated by a previous round of Bus Recovery Grant (BRG) funding will also see improvements to some provision.
Stagecoach East says that the routes for withdrawal represent “less than 6% of the entire Cambridgeshire network” and have shown no evidence of growth. Although the Department for Transport has extended BRG into 2023, the operator adds that it has decided to focus resources on routes that have a sustainable future.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA) has reacted angrily to news of the withdrawals. In a statement, it says that Stagecoach East is acting against the spirit of BRG and that the operator’s actions have placed it in an “unacceptable position.”
CPCA is yet another Combined Authority to claim that such bodies secured the extension into 2023 of BRG. Dr Johnson adds that CPCA is “appalled” at the decision to terminate the 18 routes “despite [Stagecoach East] getting a six-month bus grant.”
Dr Johnson says that CPCA officers have been instructed to take the routes in question “back out to the market” and that the business case for reregulation of bus services in the region will be subject to “review and refresh.”
In addition to the 18 withdrawals, 23 other Stagecoach East services that have challenging economics despite BRG support will continue to run “because there is some evidence of increased use.” The operator will not be drawn on what the overall changes mean for its PVR, but it says that staffing levels are not being reduced and there will be no job losses.
Managing Director Darren Roe explains that the changes are intended to deliver a sustainable network “with the aim of growing services in the long term.” He adds that while the business is grateful for government revenue support, Stagecoach East is overall currently carrying around 75% of pre-pandemic patronage and thus some “tough decisions” have become necessary.
Reflecting a wider concern around the bus industry, Mr Roe says that concessionary numbers are as low as 55% of the pre-March 2020 figure. That has combined with inflation and increasing costs to force action.
“The 18 affected routes have been losing £12 per passenger, per journey on average. Some of them, where numbers have dropped as low as around 50 customers per week, are costing up to £80 per passenger. We cannot continue to operate services that we know are no longer financially viable. That would not be right for taxpayers or our passengers,” continues Mr Roe.
Network review work has seen Stagecoach East consult councillors in areas affected by the withdrawal of routes along with local authority officers.