With mixed messages and possible ‘deadly’ decisions, our man in Westminster asks if the future of the bus hangs in the balance

Bus patronage is slowly creeping back up, certainly more so than is the case with rail, although it remains well below pre-lockdown levels.

As I write, the word is all about further local lockdowns to come, which will surely only depress demand for travel yet again. These are bleak times for the public transport sector, although the sector can hardly complain that it’s any worse off than so many other industries and businesses.

Questions to be asked

The big policy conundrum is: how long should the taxpayer directly subsidise private bus operators?

There is a strong public policy case for subsidising bus services and in certain respects the taxpayer already does – both through the Bus Service Operators Grant and through local authorities subsiding services not provided by the commercial market.

Here’s my difficulty: is it right for the taxpayer to subsidise private companies simply because patronage has dropped?

In the short term and because of the circumstances that have caused patronage to collapse, I can see that a rescue package to keep routes running was the right thing to do.

But as patronage starts to climb back up, when should the government say that private operators should cut their cloth to supply the new commercial market, with any subsidy paid to combined authorities and local transport authorities to step in – as they do now – to support services that the commercial market doesn’t supply?

No easy answers

Put another way, if the commercial market ends up being much smaller, then the natural response should be for the commercial, private operators to respond commercially – as they always did before the pandemic distorted things.

It’s a difficult call and I am not suggesting that, in the short term at least, there is an easy answer.

But if in the longer term the expectation is that the government should continue to support the private operators in the way it is, I worry that the private operators will become subsidy junkies and the whole point of deregulation will be distorted.

A mixed message?

The one thing I don’t understand is why the government has been sending out a message that implies public transport is not safe. That does not help private operators in their efforts to grow back patronage.

The reality is that buses are now subject to much more intense cleaning regimes. Even scientific and medical professions have questioned why the government urged the public to avoid public transport at the start of lockdown.

The government should now do much more to address this.

‘Deadly’ decisions

With the growing expert opinion saying lockdown has done more long-term harm than good, confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic is waning.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I don’t envy the task of the Prime Minister in responding to the pandemic. But a growing number of experts are saying that, while life would have been grim for some weeks without the lockdown in March, we would by now be through the whole thing with no second wave.

It seems many scientists and doctors are saying that lockdown has prolonged the pandemic.

It’s alarming to hear that the original report from Imperial College, which warned of up to 500,000 deaths in the UK if we did not go into lockdown, also warned that closing schools and asking us all to socially distance would be “deadly”. Apparently, this part of the report, simply got overlooked.

The daily struggle

If I were a private bus operator, I think I would be angry to hear that a lockdown was probably the worst thing the government could do.

As I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing, which none of us possess. Governments around the world have faced impossible decisions, and it’s easy to be critical. But when you hear that there was a warning of the “deadly” consequences of a lockdown and that it was overlooked, you do start to wonder.

Meanwhile, bus operators now must struggle with the daily task of trying to encourage people back to buses. I am told that one or two operators have conducted surveys of their previous passengers and found that something like 20% will never return because they have found alternative ways to do things like shop online.

Future of the bus

It is far from clear to me what the long-term future holds for the commercial bus market.

I can’t see ongoing, direct taxpayer support to operators being viable – either in terms of affordability or public policy, so I suspect we will see a material shrinkage in the size of the commercial market.

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he declared his love for the bus. How he and his ministers respond to the new challenges the industry faces will be fascinating to watch.

Apart from anything else, they have the small matter of 4,000 new green buses to fund, which looks increasingly difficult to do. And what about the ‘Superbus’ networks and the first electric bus town we were promised back in February?

I wonder whether these bold plans will now see the light of day.