Transport Secretary Mark Harper made encouraging noises at the recent Transport for the North Annual Conference
It was great to see in recent weeks transport get the attention it deserved at the Transport for the North Annual Conference in Newcastle, which was attended by Secretary of State Mark Harper MP.
Much of the focus by the media and politicians in the lead-up was on rail, given some of the services to the region had been cancelled by TransPennine Express, which meant it didn’t get off to a good start. At least there were rail replacement coaches and buses to pick up the slack.
Nonetheless, the Secretary of State, during his opening speech, spoke about the success of the UK being increasingly tied to the success of the North of England. He said that, despite the economic challenges we all face, the government is redoubling its efforts to boost connectivity, accelerate devolution and revive former industrial heartlands into new engines of economic growth.
He touched on the autumn statement last November and spoke about the Chancellor having to make difficult spending decisions while ensuring that transport infrastructure investment across the North was protected.
Transport Secretary notes importance of bus services
While mentioning investment in the road network for motorists in the North of England, I am pleased he placed a strong emphasis on the importance of buses, citing that around twice as many journeys are made by bus than rail. This gives people viable alternatives to the car.
He covered the National Bus Strategy and how it transfers greater control over fares and timetables to local authorities, while giving operators the freedom to invest and innovate.
While encouraging to hear, what we need to see now is the National Bus Strategy being completed, so that all passengers, no matter where they live, get to benefit from improved bus services. Over 60% of local transport authorities who applied for Bus Service Improvement Plan funding missed out, for example, and none of those who were successful were awarded the full amount they applied for. If it isn’t completed, then there is a risk that some rural communities could be left behind.
The extension of the Bus Recovery Grant in England and the £2 capped fare scheme, which continues the government’s support for a sector that is still recovering from the pandemic, was also welcomed. Again, though, this is only one part of the jigsaw. We also need a focus on a package of bus priority measures which reduce congestion, speed up journey times, keep fares low and ensure buses are reliable. We know these issues are crucially important for passengers.
In Scotland, meanwhile, from 1 April, operators will no longer receive the COVID-19 Recovery financial support from the Scottish Government, which has aided delivery of local bus services since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Operators will therefore revert to having to cover all of our operating costs independently. This is no criticism of Scottish Government – the funding to date has allowed more bus services to run than would otherwise be affordable.
Time for joined-up thinking
The pandemic has resulted in changes to how, when and why people travel. More recently, the industry, like the wider economy and the population at-large, has been hit by inflationary pressures — such as fuel, energy, materials and wage costs. It now costs approximately 25% more to keep buses on the road than it did before the pandemic.
As the UK struggles to fix a damaged economy, it is vitally important that the working population has the means to travel. Add the challenges of the young getting to school and university and older people getting to medical appointments, it is clear that governments from all administrations need to apply some serious joined-up thinking to the problem.
Lastly, I look forward to seeing many of routeone’s readers at the UK Bus and Coach Conference in Birmingham at the end of March. It promises to be a packed two-day programme of thought-provoking panel discussions, keynote speeches and debate. I also look forward to the return of the CPT Annual Dinner. See you all there.
Ralph Roberts is President of the Confederation of Passenger Transport