Bus passenger numbers in North Yorkshire remain below covid levels, a council report has revealed.
The report says the current £2 fare cap scheme has led to a recovery but numbers remain about 90% of pre-covid levels. The figure falls to 70% for concessionary pass users, which is putting extra pressure on rural routes where older passengers represent a greater proportion of users.
The report by Andy Clarke, the North Yorkshire Council’s public and community transport manager, raises questions about the long-term viability of some bus routes.
Some rely heavily on the £2 fare cap to boost numbers as well as subsidies from local and national government. The report warns “providers are reviewing their services more than ever before”.
“Bus services continue to be under significant pressure both locally and nationally following the covid pandemic.
“There has also been a significant increase in operating costs (vehicle procurement, maintenance, insurance, staffing, property rental and fuel) along with national difficulties with recruiting bus drivers, engineering staff and sourcing spare parts.
“As a result of these added pressures, providers are reviewing their services more than ever before, resulting in commercial service level reductions and higher prices for routes operating under contract to the council.”
Mr Clarke provided the update ahead of next week’s meeting of the council’s transport, economy, environment and enterprise overview and scrutiny committee.
The council is developing a new local transport plan. A parallel project will see a new strategic transport prospectus drafted for the incoming Combined Authority mayor in May.
These policy documents, produced jointly with City of York Council, will set out a transport vision and strategy plus a delivery plan.
Viability of rural routes questioned
The council spends £1.6 million a year propping up bus routes. It also receives UK government grants “which is helping to keep the current bus network running”, the report says. It adds:
“The council is now financially supporting a number of previously commercial bus routes that would otherwise have been withdrawn entirely in the last two years.”
The report says there are “good service levels in the Harrogate and Scarborough areas” but adds:
“In rural areas there is no significant commercial network with services generally operating no more than two-hourly and with very limited, or no, evening and weekend services.
“Here bus services are largely financially supported by the council, along with local community transport services and only very limited cross-boundary commercial routes. Free pass holders form a much higher proportion of passengers on these services and their slower return to bus travel post pandemic is also reducing viability.”
A combination of council funding and Department for Transport grants means “we can keep the current network in place until at least 2025/26”, the report says, but it does not say what will happen beyond then.
The reduced fare scheme was originally due to run for three months but was then extended until 30th June 30, 2023 and then until December 2024.