Rebuilding long-term custom with the aid of positive messaging from senior politicians is the absolute priority for the coach and bus industry in Wales, the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee was told by sector representatives on 16 September.
In describing patronage recovery rates as key to the future of the Welsh bus industry, Confederation of Passenger Transport Cymru Director Josh Miles advised members of the Committee that the rate at which ridership has been regained in Wales so far is “relatively weak.”
If a shrinking bus network is to be avoided when Welsh Government support ends in July 2022, it will be necessary for the industry and politicians to work together and ensure a smooth shift away from public support, adds Mr Miles. Such negative change would fly in the face of Welsh Government aspirations for public transport and climate change.
“The top issue is recovery. We are still amid that [process], and we still need to work out how we transition… into the new normal. The real test for us as a sector will be when we approach July 2022.”
‘Harsh winter’ worry for coach operators if case numbers rise
Mr Miles adds that similar concerns exist for coach operators in Wales. While they have seen a strong summer season, he warns that “a harsh winter” could lie ahead should COVID-19 case rates rise. If that happens, it could leave “a major confidence piece to be dealt with.”
Campaign group Transform Cymru wrote to First Minister Mark Drakeford in August calling on him to foster a positive narrative around public transport use, among other asks.
In a message that translates to other home nations, Coach and Bus Association Cymru Chair and Newport Bus Managing Director Scott Pearson told the Committee that passengers’ willingness to use public transport across the board would be greatly influenced by a Welsh Government messaging campaign.
Mr Pearson’s biggest concern around patronage recovery centres on passenger confidence. Strong messaging not to use shared modes in the early stages of the pandemic was issued correctly, he notes. But such has been its success, the industry now needs help to undo it.
‘Reverse communications’ from those politicians who advised against the use of public transport are required “to give some confidence back to passengers,” Mr Pearson continues. “Recovery will be challenging until that happens.”
Bus patronage recovery above current levels ‘a massive challenge’
Rebuilding patronage is proving tricky for Newport Bus. It is currently at around 50% of the operator’s pre-pandemic levels with a service level of 85%. Worryingly, Mr Pearson does not expect a great deal of change to that volume until 2022 without external help.
“We have got a massive challenge [ahead]. A partnership between government and the industry to change the… messaging would be helpful.”
However, there is one positive outcome from Newport. Routes operated by its battery-electric buses are showing better rates of recovery than those in the hands of diesel models. Newport’s fleet of zero-emission Yutong models will grow to 32 later this year.
Mr Pearson used to underline the need for Welsh Government funding to further the shift towards zero-emission in the country. All of the external support towards the purchase of Newport’s Yutongs has come from the Department for Transport, a tap that has now been turned off for operators in Wales. CPT has suggested that a Welsh Green Bus Fund could be examined to deliver that aim.