Metro Mayor comments on school bussing protest

Just recently l carried a story about a bus stop protest where parents were calling for fair fares for school bus journeys across the region.

Cllr Joanna Wright, B&NES ward member for Lambridge, who was at the demo, called for both the WECA Mayor, Dan Norris and Leader of B&NES, Cllr Kevin Guy to use the powers they already have in the WECA constitution to franchise the bus services across the West of England.

She added:

“The bus system is broken and however well-intentioned the “Get on Board” scheme, that Dan Norris has put in place, is, the reality on the ground is that it is not working and children are having to pay more to get to school on buses. I have been calling for Fair Fares on trains and bus services for young people. I am asking that the Metro Mayor meets me and parents on this issue.”

WECA Metro Mayor, Dan Norris

! approached the Metro Mayor’s office for comments and this is the statement Dan Norris has given me:

“Franchising is absolutely on the table as a possible future option and remains under ongoing review. My fellow Metro Mayor in Manchester, Andy Burnham, after several years of careful consideration, has just decided to push ahead with franchising there.

“He has taken time to come to his decision because he was rightly worried that he did not have all the money franchising needs, despite his advantage of having a very profitable tram system, which I do not, to subsidise those bus services that will never be able to pay for themselves – particularly so in many remote areas like North East Somerset where passenger numbers are relatively low.

“Unlike Manchester, here in the West of England we, unfortunately, do not have the benefit of a tram system that generates vital profits that can then be used to support those bus services that will never make money but are nonetheless socially important. So franchising is a tough option for us here in the West of England right now, and in any event, would not get us over the huge challenges of commercial bus operators withdrawing services on 9 October 22 and the impact this will have over this winter and the spring.

“The key and most pressing problem at the moment is a lack of between 150 and 200 bus drivers across our region and whatever system one uses for running buses this is a major headache. Bluntly – you can’t run a bus without a driver. This huge staffing challenge is not unique to the West of England and is a UK-wide problem which should have been addressed by national government when the bus industry first raised it as a worrying concern many years ago.

“The very significant driver shortages are now coming to a head following the pandemic as people and businesses adjust to a new normal where many more of us now work remotely from home, commute less, and shop and socialise more online.  In consequence, while nearly the same number people use a bus (95%) as compared to before the pandemic, only 75% of pre-pandemic bus journeys are now being made. This has reduced the money commercial bus operators take in fares and has seen them make cuts to services to help balance their books for the bus industry currently faces an eye-watering inflation rate of over 40%. While most bus services remain good across our region, bus companies are nonetheless reducing the number of services they provide to reflect the actual number of drivers they have. This, they hope, will allow them to use the drivers they have more efficiently and so prevent bus cancellations and provide more reliable services in future.

“While it is of no consolation to the individuals and communities impacted by bus services that have been reduced or withdrawn, my transport staff have thrown the kitchen sink at the problem to save over half of the services facing the axe across the West of England. The people and communities losing out are very much in my mind as I look to spend the two-thirds of a billion pounds available to me starting from next spring, but of course, it doesn’t help now.  Even if there were enough bus drivers, the Government rules don’t allow me to use this particular pot of money to prop up existing services. I’ve asked and it must be used for new and innovative services – not existing ones! 

“There are plenty of local routes that could make a profit if there were more drivers. Likewise, there are examples of where a service is currently taxpayer subsidised and that money is still available but unfortunately many will still be cut as there are so few bus companies agreeing to run the service due to the lack of bus drivers. I’m trying to fix this with a big push to identify possible new bus drivers and by investing in driver training but that won’t solve this big problem overnight.

“Buses which school pupils use come in many forms – some are open to the general public but go past a school, some are only for students, some are fully commercial, some are part-funded by the Combined Authority or a local council. There are some children that local councils must provide transport for by law and many others that there is no obligation for. Some schools enter arrangements direct with bus companies. The bus system is too complex and varied and this creates understandable feelings of unfairness.

“I’m focused on what I can actually do in partnership with the bus companies to improve things. That’s why I’ve already announced a significant overall reduction in bus fares – not least because there is an unprecedented cost of living crisis of frightening proportions right now. Passenger numbers will be carefully monitored and without doubt, fare changes will need to be made in future when the numbers are known. For now, almost 90% of all buses will use the new fares rising to around 95% by the end of the month (October 22).

The package is targeted to encourage new people to use the bus – particularly people who currently use cars which is also vital if we are to hit our very ambitious 2030 net zero CO2 target for the West of England. I hope people will look carefully at the new fares package as for most people it will really help. For the future, getting more new passengers onto buses is vital if we’re going to create a virtuous circle of more fares and so more investment and so better buses.”