With the Pandemic having a significant impact on the national bus market, B&NES has found that operators are less willing to accept the levels of risk on contracts tendered across the country.
At a cabinet meeting on May 5th they’ll consider a report which sets out options for their own Park and Ride services as the current contract, set up ten years ago, is due to expire in August – and may well decide to take on the risk of possible losses themselves.
Over the past ten years demand for the park and ride service has been strong carrying millions of passengers into the city and helping avoid additional traffic and congestion in the city centre and residential streets. However, the impact of Covid and changes to working and leisure patterns has recently seen passenger numbers at 78 per cent of 2019-20 levels.
The report notes that the pandemic has also had a significant impact on the national bus market, reducing patronage and resulting in the need for Central Government grants to ensure service continuity, with around £2 billion made available to more than 160 operators nationally. This has affected the levels of risk that operators are willing to accept on contracts nationally and may have been reflected through the tender responses received.
However, despite the current usage being below the historical trends the overall long-term forecast for the service is considered to be positive and demand is anticipated to grow. This is because of a number of local, regional and national policy interventions encouraging more sustainable transport options.
Against this backdrop cabinet members will consider awarding a contract to a preferred bidder on a ‘gross’ cost basis.
Under a gross cost contract option, all income would be retained by the council which would have the ability to be more flexible about prices and operating hours in the future as patronage recovers. However, the council would also retain all of the risk for the contract if patronage drops.
Under the gross contract option fares, from September, would be set at £3.60 per return adult fare on all days (rather than £3.60 Monday-Friday and £3.00 on weekends); all group ticket options currently available would be maintained and the hours of operation would remain the same but with an option to revisit the service such as times the buses run depending on the income generated by the service as patronage recovers.
The report recommends finance reviews at six-monthly intervals to compare the actual income against the model and, subject to income levels make further investments such as extending the hours of operation and/or reducing the fares and/or site improvements
And it sets out a parking charge on the Park & Ride site for all or some users to offset the increased costs of the operation of the sites and the bus service and ensure that the service remains viable in the long term.
Councillor Manda Rigby, cabinet member for Transport, said: “The park and ride service has played a vital role in reducing traffic coming into the city and is a good and efficient service for residents near the routes, visitors and commuters. It contributes towards our climate emergency ambitions as well as helping improve air quality by reducing congestion and vehicle intrusion into the city centre and residential streets.
“We now have an opportunity to award a new contract because the current one expires later this year. A great deal of careful consideration has gone into a new contract following a thorough assessment of the market set against strong passenger figures over the past decade as well as seasonal impacts and the effect of the pandemic over the past two years. The option before us gives greater flexibility to the council around operating hours and fares as well as future investment in the sites which would enable us to make improvements for passengers while contributing to our ambitious Journey to Net Zero aims for the city.”