This week has seen the latest trough in the roller-coaster ride that is public transport in the North East, leaving bus passengers narrowly avoiding cuts in services for the third time in little more than 12 months.
Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, since 2021 councillors who can barely keep existing services running have published three hugely ambitious and expensive plans for rail, metro and buses costing £6.8bn by 2035.
Passengers must be wondering what to expect next as the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) staggers from crisis to crisis, interspersed with temporary relief, while holding out a 12-year multi-billion-pound vision that hardly seems credible.
The immediate problem for bus services stems from two causes. One is that passenger numbers fell significantly during the pandemic, making many services commercially unviable. Now Government bus support is being withdrawn to be replaced with what is expected to be a less generous scheme.
The second cause is that bus services in the region are funded and run by three separate interests each with its own priorities: private bus operations who are commercially motivated; the JTC, representing local authorities, voters and passengers, who are ambitious but strapped for cash; and ministers who step in with financial assistance on an ad hoc basis but are constrained by the Treasury and not to be relied on.
The JTC likes drawing lines on maps. In 2021 it published its umbrella North East Transport Plan (NETP) costing £6.8bn by 2035, adding that this amount would increase as further schemes were developed and was a fair share of Government funding for the region. Among its maps is one showing Metro extensions to as far as Woodhorn, Morpeth, the Metrocentre, Chester-le-Street, Ferryhill, Washington and Doxford.
The main source of funding will be the Government, says the NETP – presumably in hope rather than expectation.
Also in 2021 the JTC asked the Government for £804mn for its Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP), more than a quarter of the £3bn set aside nationally. It eventually got £163.5mn, which Nexus hailed at the time as great news for the region.
In March 2022 the JTC published its £3.4bn North East Metro and Rail Strategy (NEMRS), which would see new routes and stations alongside continual renewal and modernisation. This Plan, like the BSIP, was part of the umbrella NETP, not in addition to it, and again to be mainly funded by the government.
But while unveiling these grand plans, councillors were aware not just of government austerity and parsimony in general but of the effects of Covid-19 in particular. In January 2022 Councillor Martin Gannon, chair of the JTC, said the pandemic had decimated the economics of public transport and warned of devastating cuts without urgent Government help.
He was right about that. That February Nexus, the Tyne & Wear passenger transport executive, had to step in with £4.5mn of taxpayers’ money to rescue some services in Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland threatened with cuts by commercial bus operators Arriva, Go North East and Stagecoach when the government, as expected, withdrew the Bus Recovery Grant, a Covid-19 relief measure.
In May 2022 bus users learned of another impending swathe of cuts to existing services. This time it was services in Tyne & Wear South, County Durham and the Tyne Valley which were to be hit from late July. Then in June 2022, Nexus stepped in again, this time with a £4.3mn rescue package.
Now the cycle seems to be starting to repeat itself. The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) reports in ChronicleLive that the JTC has signed off £12.2mn to stave off cuts again threatened by the commercial bus operators. The money will have to come from the £163.5mn granted by the Government for the BSIP.
Councillor Gannon told the LDRS: “The £163.5mn is what we were meant to use, not to prop up services that are no longer commercially viable, but to enhance and improve the quality and quantity of services.”
The way the present rail, metro and particularly bus networks are operated and funded by a combination of commercially-driven operators, tight-fisted ministers and ambitious but cash-strapped councillors must have left the North East travelling public wondering what to expect next: improvements or cuts.
The bus network staggers from crisis to crisis. One day cuts are threatened, the next there is a reprieve – but it is never, according to councillors, enough. The £163.5mn for the BSIP gets whittled away.
And all the while, councillors cling to their hopes for hugely ambitious and costly improvements over the next decade. Maintaining a long-term vision for the future in the face of present difficulties, many might believe, is what politicians should do. Or as North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll might say: “Shy bairns get nowt”.
Others might think they should be more realistic. Who outside the JTC – or even within it – really believes we will see metro extensions from Woodhorn to Ferryhill in little more than a decade?
Councillors have not done themselves or North East passengers any favours in the past seven years. In 2016 they rejected a devolution deal (unlike their Tees Valley counterparts) and split their combined authority, economy and transport network, including the Metro, into two along the line of the Tyne.
Only by bowing to the inevitable and forming the ad hoc JTC did they retain control over a single-system Metro and anything resembling a coherent, integrated bus network. But it is far from ideal.Among other penalties paid, they have been unable as yet to get their hands on the region’s £563mn share of the Government’s £5.7bn City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement (CRSTS).
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Now that the North East has finally agreed a devolution deal with the government and is expected to re-unite under a mayor next May, its agreement will give it not just its CRSTS grant but capital and revenue support for the metro too, among other benefits.
The new North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA) and its mayor will have power to introduce a bus franchise scheme – something councillors have been trying to do for almost a decade. This will give NEMCA and the mayor power to control bus services, routes and fares, as is the case in London and is coming to Greater Manchester.
Stability and a degree of certainty should come to the bus network instead of the roller coaster of recent years.
Finally, in a rare but extremely significant example of what can be achieved when central and local government work together, a new £362m fleet of 46 Metro trains is due to start entering service this year. While that may not mean much to people in Berwick or Bishop Auckland, it will, it is hoped, demonstrate after years of frustration that positive improvements to public transport are possible.