“Never thought I’d see that campaign slogan used in London.” Such was the reaction of seasoned transport planner Steve Chambers last week as London TravelWatch, the official watchdog organisation representing the interests of transport users in and around the capital, took to the streets outside City Hall and Parliament under the banner “Save Our Buses”, appropriately emblazoned on a red double-decker.
Can the capital’s bus services, widely seen as a success story under the stewardship of successive Mayors during a period when ridership has been in decline across the rest of the country, really be seriously at risk?
The answer is a firm yes, according to TravelWatch, Director Emma Gibson. “At a time when people are just starting to come back to work and school, and with numbers of people using the bus only back up to around 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, there is a real danger that the frequency of buses could be cut, before everyone is properly on board,” she told On London.
The trigger for the TravelWatch campaign, backed by London Assembly Members and MPs as well as business group London First, the union Unite union and the Women’s Institute, is the impending negotiation over further support for Transport for London when its current bailout deal ends on 11 December.
Part of that £1.08 billion deal was a requirement for TfL and the government to carry out a joint review of public transport demand, “to ensure service levels are appropriate”. TfL submitted its contribution to the review last week, as TravelWatch launched its campaign, with more ridership figures to be submitted in November.
Coupled with the government’s continuing insistence that TfL should break even by April 2023 without revenue support from Whitehall, the ridership review requirement was an indicator that the “new normal” post-pandemic could mean not only capital programme cutbacks, back office “efficiencies” and higher fares to come, but reduced services too.
And buses are an “easy target”, Gibson warned in a joint letter to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps this month, “because it is easier to quickly cut bus services than Tube or train services”.
Despite being the most commonly-used form of public transport in the capital, London’s buses are “in a precarious position”, according to Chambers, consistently running at a loss and requiring cross-subsidy from Underground revenues, amounting to some £720 million in 2019-20. “Until the Tube returns to profitability there will be calls to make savings on the buses.”
The independent expert review of TfL funding commissioned by Sadiq Khan last year itself noted that “the bus network would probably have to contribute to the majority of any major service reductions package”, due both to current subsidy levels and higher variable as opposed to fixed costs – effectively, as Gibson says, making the service something of a low-hanging fruit.
In fact, a four per cent reduction in bus services is already scheduled over the coming two years in the face of a slow but inexorable decline in bus ridership since 2015 – demand in 2020 pre-pandemic was between three and five per cent lower than in 2019 – as well as in response to TfL’s current cash crisis,
That’s far enough, says Gibson. Any more cuts would be a “huge mistake for our city and its people. They would make buses even less attractive to use, leading to even fewer people using them, and less income for TfL.
“London TravelWatch and others will be making the case in the coming weeks about why the bus needs to be protected – to improve air quality and congestion and help to decarbonise transport. Buses are also the most affordable, accessible and capital-wide form of public transport, and have transported many lower paid key workers around London during the pandemic.”
According to the campaign, backing the bus is also critical for government objectives to encourage an “inclusive” return to economic activity and to “accelerate the recovery, level up across the whole country, and build back better”.
A TfL spokesperson told On London that the network was now seeing its highest ridership since the pandemic began and further growth expected as commuting and tourism continue to recover.
“We have made clear that it would be counter-productive to make any significant cuts to services at this juncture, as it could undermine our efforts to attract passengers back to the network and seriously risk undoing 20 years of investment and progress in public transport across London,” they said. “We remain in discussions with government so we can continue to run a system which supports the economic recovery and sustainability of the city and the UK.”
To date, with some £4 billion government bailout cash having supported current TfL service levels since May last year, albeit with strings attached, the debate over future funding for the capital’s transport system has been somewhat removed from the daily experiences of users. That could all be about to change.
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