Change to allow greater bus capacity in England from 17 May

Bus capacities in England

The Department for Transport has accepted a risk-based case produced by the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) for the use of every forward-facing seat on bus services in England. As a result, that will be permitted outside London from Monday 17 May where capacity is currently constrained on busy journeys.

While the change will be welcomed by operators that have seen difficulties on certain trips, CPT has been careful to stress that the development does not represent a ‘big bang’ approach of a return to full capacity across the board.

The Confederation adds that the relaxation – agreed by Under-Secretary of State for Transport Baroness Vere – is in response to issues experienced on some journeys under the current limitation that allows around 40-45% of a bus’s total seating to be used. Demand is expected to further increase shortly as further restrictions in England are lifted. Rear- and side-facing seats still should not be used after 17 May, however.

“This is about trying to solve problems at peak times,” says a CPT spokesperson. They add that at less busy times, it should still be the case that passengers are expected to socially distance when on board. However, the Confederation believes that if the step was not taken now there is a risk of long-term damage to patronage and a diversion of some customers to “unsustainable modes.”

CPT’s risk-based case represents an update of a previous document from 2020. It enabled the use of one of every pair of forward-facing seats, except by those travelling in family groups where both positions can be occupied. CPT says that the 17 May change takes into account the low prevalence of COVID-19, the rapid rollout of the vaccination programme and a greater knowledge of on-bus ventilation.

In acknowledging the risk-based case document, Baroness Vere notes that the safer transport guidance for operators already states that when a 2m distance cannot be kept, a 1m distance should be maintained – but “where possible.” Therefore, the 1m distance is not an “absolute requirement,” says CPT.

In a letter to CPT Chief Executive Graham Vidler dated 10 May, Baroness Vere says that each operator should be encouraged to implement safety measures – including social distancing – based on the circumstances of their operation, as well as learnings gained throughout the pandemic. Lady Vere adds that each operator should adopt a consistent approach going forwards “to avoid confusion among passengers.”

The change does not apply to coaches, CPT adds. However, it is working to build a separate, evidence-based case for the coach sector that it expects to deliver “very soon.”