Welsh bus reform plans underlined as support ‘comes at a price’

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Bus operators in Wales have come under fire from Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters, who has underlined the Welsh Government’s desire to see wholesale reform in how services are provided in the country.

His remarks were made in the Senedd on 20 October. Ongoing emergency funding for buses “will come at a price” of increased partnership working in the long term. Mr Waters criticised operators for “being commercial when it suits them, and [wanting] more [public] money when it suits them, too.”

Mr Waters also used his address it to confirm that funding through the Bus Emergency Scheme – recently extended to the end of the financial year – will be upheld during the ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in Wales, despite a lower service level outside peak hours being called for by the Welsh Government.

Demand responsive services key to Welsh bus reform, says Waters

During the first peak of coronavirus COVID-19, every bus passenger in Wales was subsidised by £30, Mr Waters claims. He adds that the sight of empty buses “rattling around the streets” during that time “sent a contradictory signal, and we do not want to see that repeated.”

Turning his attention to longer-term bus reform in Wales, Mr Waters says that as travel patterns change, services must adapt with them. Fflecsi demand-responsive routes are showing promise, but Mr Waters has questioned exactly how the industry will be supported through a transitionary period as demand patterns change permanently.

The Welsh Government recognises that buses will require ongoing subsidy, he says. “But in return for that, we need to have a greater strategic partnership with [operators] to make sure that our key priorities are delivered. And that is the conversation that we are having with them now. Yes, there will be ongoing support. But it comes at a price.”

Bus franchising in Wales ‘no longer possible’; partnership way ahead

During the same address, Mr Waters gave the strongest hint yet that aspirations for franchising in Wales are now dead. The Bus Services (Wales) Bill, published on 16 March, included proposals for such powers. Bringing forward the Bill is now “no longer possible” because it is a route that “has been denied.”

However, should a partnership approach not work, the Welsh Government is looking at the role that Transport for Wales could have potentially as a direct provider of bus services by working with local authorities.

During his address, Mr Waters expressed frustration that details of the ‘circuit breaker’ that were shared with the bus industry before being made public were leaked. “We did so in good faith, and I am disappointed that was breached,” he says. A briefing document of the proposed measures circulated on social media ahead of a formal announcement.