Thursday, 3 March 2022

Chair of North East Bus Operators’ Association Makes The Case for Continued Support

There have been a lot of stories in the media recently about bus funding and changes to services. Passenger numbers, and therefore revenue, are still much reduced and many travel patterns will have changed permanently as many people have adopted new ways of working, shopping and even interacting socially.

Over the past few years bus operators have continued to innovate to improve the experience for customers and make services more attractive. The market has yet to stabilise though, and it is hoped that an extension to current Government support will be announced shortly to allow more time for many services to recover, but some will still need to change. 

In this comment piece from Go North East Managing Director, Martijn Gilbert (who is also Chair of NEbus, the North East Bus Operators’ Association), reflects on the progress made thus far, and the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Bus boss reflects on progress made to make the region’s buses better, but makes the case for continued support

The North East’s bus network is on the cusp of a transport revolution and plays a critical role

in the climate change agenda. Buses reduce congestion on our roads, they connect our

communities and boost our economy. The industry is a major employer too, providing jobs

for 6,000 people in the North East alone.

Over the past few years, passengers have benefited from huge investment – in low emission

vehicles, luxury buses for express routes and smartphone apps with live tracking that tell you

when your bus is due.

Buying a ticket has become easier thanks to smart card and contactless payments, and

improvements to multi-operator tickets, including the Network One ticket across bus, metro

and ferry – which only last year was extended to cover journeys to/from County Durham and

Northumberland. And season tickets are now available on the Pop smartcard.

The pandemic has brought bus operators and local authorities closer together, jointly

navigating their way through the challenges posed by COVID-19. Under the Government’s

National Bus Strategy, that spirit of co-operation is being formalised with an ‘Enhanced

Partnership’ agreement. These agreements allow regions to bid for a pot of Government

money available for so-called Bus Service Improvement Plans.

The North East has asked for £804m to introduce more bus priority, which would speed up

journeys, generating more passengers and funding further improvements to bus fares and


We’re not standing still while we wait to hear the success of the bid. During the pandemic,

we quickly introduced enhanced cleaning and flexible tickets were introduced for those

blending home and or part time work. We brought in special offers such as the Go North

East cheaper flat evening fare and we struck a partnership with the Co-Wheels car club to

promote flexible car free living. The region also got its very first zero emission electric buses,

with more following later this year.

Above & below, Arriva and Stagecoach are members of
the North East Bus Operators Association

Passenger numbers fell dramatically during the pandemic, so the Government initially

provided funds to maintain essential services on a no profit ‘breakeven’ basis. A second

support arrangement from September provided tapering funding with the expectation of

passenger numbers growing back and the bus industry gradually returning to a commercial


Unfortunately, the Omicron variant and Plan B restrictions set that recovery back. With

around 75% of pre-COVID passenger numbers, parts of today’s bus network are loss

making, even with this support.

It’s vital that we keep in mind the huge role that public transport plays in our local

communities. If we have to cut services at this point, then much of the funding provided by

Government to maintain networks over the last few years would have been wasted. To keep

our buses running at present levels, and to build up services as latent demand is unleashed

by priority schemes, we need ongoing COVID support funding to ‘bridge the gap’ as

customers numbers rebuild.

We do, however, need to be pragmatic about the need for change. The way people work,

shop and travel has changed and the bus network needs to adapt to new demand patterns

reflecting this. Buses are a mass mover of people, and not always the best solution for every

single travel need, but they are appropriate for a very large number of journeys.

Although we’re hopeful that some form of support will stay in place, worst case scenario

plans have been discussed with Local Authorities in case a funding cliff edge comes at the

end of the current Government financial year (end of March). 

Let me be clear though – bus operators will still be continuing many services in the short term that don’t cover their costs as they grow back. We’re very deliberately taking a long-term view and don’t want to be dependent on COVID support for any longer than is necessary, but the challenge without support in some areas will be too great. Making bus services financially sustainable is important to keep them running, to protect jobs and unlock future investment in more new and better buses.

The commercial model of bus operation keeps bus operators very close to their customers
as, ultimately, they earn their keep from responding to what passenger want. The model is
hugely efficient, giving very good value for taxpayers, and can deliver a lot for every £1
invested in it. The region already has many high frequency bus corridors with some services

running every 5-15 minutes. Huge progress has been made on greening the bus fleet, even
ahead of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Clean Air Zone, all without the huge levels of public
subsidy received in London, which gets nearly three times that received elsewhere – £73 per
head per year vs. £27 elsewhere. 

We have a lot of what London has already, in some areas we have even better services, and with the right backing we can have even more.

We’re in this for the long haul as the recovery of public transport continues, but success
depends on a joint effort from everyone. We are committed to working together to support a
continued rebuild, including boosting user confidence and, in turn, supporting a greener
recovery of our towns, cities, wider communities and economy.