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Buses have long been at the centre of public transport, and the government is keen to keep it this way, putting increasing pressure on local authorities and bus operators to offer a renewed range of options for passengers. However, when you consider that there is a need to offer shorter journeys, better predictability, increased comfort and more convenience, the question remains – where should they start?

The COVID Effect

It is no surprise that the bus industry has been significantly affected because of COVID-19 and the drastic reduction in passengers due to ongoing lockdowns and fears about passenger safety. To help relieve some of the pressure and burden that bus operators were feeling, the Bus Service Support Grant scheme was announced with funding available to help buses continue to operate even with their reduction in capacity.

To start, £166 million was released in March 2020, which was in addition to the discretionary Bus Service Operators Grant that was issued to support fuel costs. Then in May 2020, the fund was rebranded as the COVID-19 Bus Service Support Grant with a fund of £254 million pounds available in order to help the increasing number of buses that were required to run to support social distancing whilst still offering adequate levels of transport for passengers. This new scheme was announced for England’s bus operators (excluding London), and both the Scottish and Welsh government’s announced their own similar funds for buses.

The Road to Recovery

As bus services started to consider how to reopen in November 2020, the Confederation of Passenger Transport shared that their vision for the industry required bus operators to work collaboratively to create ‘recovery partnerships’.

These partnerships would focus on how to transition from the current service structure to normal operation after the additional funds have ceased. These partnerships would work within a timescale that is flexible, with financial support being offered to help them work. The requirement of the partnerships would be to come up with a local transport offer that clearly shows what the bus system should offer in the area, how it can be achieved and what supported would be needed to ensure it was successful.

Interestingly, the CPT also stated that these partnerships should not begin until the need for social distancing ends so that the groups can plan for fully operational services. The overall aim of these partnerships is to change the way that bus services operate within areas and to help them adapt to the new demands on services so that they can become the centre of public transport once again. In addition, they also state that positive messaging about the use of public transport and a rise in passengers returning to public transport needs to happen before the recovery partnerships can begin their important work.

The CPT has also recognised that while COVID-19 has had a significant impact on bus revenue, the system requires a complete change of direction if it is to ever offer a service that passengers see as being positive and important to their transport needs. This means taking control of an area and working as a group to plan what passengers need and then designing services that fit these needs properly.

Working Together in Partnership

The term ‘partnership working’ is not a new idea, and many public services have benefitted from this model when planning new services. One famous example is in Bristol, where, after partnership working was introduced, the was a growth of over 50% in bus use before the pandemic began. Plus, as the pandemic has rolled on, these partnerships have continued to work together to provide transport to vaccine centres, transport for NHS workers and on-demand services as specific needs have presented themselves. This partnership has not just benefitted the bus operators but the entire Bristol community and shows how successful they can be when planned effectively.

The CPT recognises the power of partnership working but has been very careful to warn against stopping the funding that is currently available too soon. Successful partnerships will need the support of additional funding until passenger numbers have increased significantly, and failing to provide this level of support could mark the end of public transport rather than the growth of the industry.

Importantly, CPT members support the idea of recovery partnerships and partnership working and see it as a way to revolutionise a service that desperately wants to succeed for passengers. It is widely agreed that offering faster services that are more convenient and stop in more areas means growth in passengers, and bus operators are excited about the prospects of improvement if they have the chance to work with all stakeholders to redesign what is needed from the ground up.

The only concern levelled by members is whether they will be given the time, resources, and support to make the changes that are needed in order to keep up with the societal changes that have happened since the pandemic began. By reconsidering what the majority of passengers now need, buses have the potential to offer a service that is needed by all and, in doing so, will create a profitable local partnership that is built to last.

Finding the New Normal for Bus Operators

In reality, no matter how these services go about delivering results, it is imperative that journey times and predictably trump all other needs if bus transport is to offer the dependability that people need for commuting.

Reconfiguring vehicles, reconsidering fares and training more drivers are just part of this process but so is improving the road space allocated to buses and the priority lanes that they need in order to offer a competitive journey when compared with car usage. By bringing people from all these areas into one place is sure to result in a collaborative and successful project that will deliver what the public need for many years to come.