Comment: Could the pandemic spell the end of rural bus services?

A bus in Stafford on a route that no longer exists

Many of us working in the sustainability sector have been thinking about how the Coronavirus pandemic could impact on various sustainability outcomes, including those associated with our West Midlands 2030 Roadmap. We can’t escape the devastation that this virus has brought to thousands of people in this country and, given that a fair, inclusive and healthy society is one of the eight pillars of our Roadmap, the impact of the virus on this will always rightly override the impact on anything else.

But some of the positive chinks of light to come from this situation are related to the environment.  It was announced yesterday that globally, emissions have plunged by a record-breaking 17% so far during the pandemic. It is as yet unknown how significant this will be in both meeting our global carbon reduction targets and the impact it will have on global climate change, but from an environmental point of view this can only be a positive thing.

However, we have to look at the bigger picture and I’d like to draw particular attention to the issue of public transport. We helped to facilitate a breakout session that focused on the potential impact of the pandemic on meeting our net zero targets at a brilliant event run by our partners the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands on 30 April. The issue of the implications for public transport was high on the list of discussion points; will people be reluctant to use buses and trains again and, if not, will this lead to a massive increase in car use and, thus, an increase in emissions? Even with the gradual recent lifting of some lockdown restrictions, it’s still too early to answer this question, but you can understand the point. If social distancing remains for some time, capacity on public transport will be limited anyway. Then, understandably, people will fear for their health even if the risk is low, as psychologically the stigma of the pandemic and of public transport being one of the hotspots for infection will remain for a long time.

But this discussion was largely focused on the urbanised WM Combined Authority area. A combination of a fairly dense population in the Black Country, Greater Birmingham and Coventry along with the investment and innovation in public transport that devolution brings means that, without being an expert, over time I’d be confident that services within the WMCA boundaries will gradually recover. The mayor, Andy Street, has demonstrated his passion for public transport improvements and you get the feeling he will be determined to ensure public transport use will thrive again in the coming years.

But what about public transport in our rural counties and market towns? The BBC reported just before the lockdown began that cuts that had already happened to rural bus services had left a million people in the UK without a regular service. This does not surprise me as I have personal experience of this issue.

In 2015, bus services in my home town of Stafford and surrounding areas were reduced significantly due to a reduction in central government funding. This led to the scrapping of an hourly service from the town to a couple of nearby villages where 90% of passengers are elderly and without a car. The nearest bus stop for most of these residents was only about a 15 minute walk away, but up a significant hill. So their choice when visiting the town centre for appointments or shopping is to pay a £16 return taxi fare or hope in vain for a lift. In the main, these aren’t people who can cycle the eight mile round trip.

Moreover, this local bus service was, for many residents, their only social interaction and lives became emptier on the back of this removal. We campaigned and were successful in starting a new service, but it only provided one bus a day into and back from the town and was eventually scrapped due to ‘lack of use’ – hardly surprising given the inflexibility it offered.

‘Darren Shirley from the Campaign for Better Transport: “We’re seeing people who are trapped in their home, essentially.” ‘

Since the pandemic, bus services have been ‘temporarily’ reduced. Stafford’s bus services are down to about 20% their normal frequency, which at present is understandable. But based on my experience, I would be surprised if they ever rise back to the levels they were at in early March – and as demonstrated above, the only buses running before the pandemic were those that take you from one town to another. If you’re lucky, these services will pass through your village on route, but only if it’s close enough. A combination of cuts to services over the past five or so years and the legacy of the pandemic leads me to fear that this ‘one million people’ quoted by the BBC could be much higher by the end of the year.

And as ever, it is the more vulnerable who will feel the effects of this the most.

The Government’s response to all this was to launch the Rural Mobility Fund

‘The primary objective of the fund is to trial demand-responsive transport solutions in providing transport services which work better for local residents of rural and suburban areas than traditional transport services (i.e. timetabled bus services). The demand responsive transport solutions would either fill a gap in provision, where there is no current local transport offer, or complement existing timetabled bus services, for example by acting as a feed-in service.’

…and the Support Bus Services Fund

‘The funding for supported bus services in 2020-21 is being provided to local authorities as revenue support to help them provide more bus services in their area. The Government expects this funding to be used to improve the provision of local bus services in their area.’

I will refrain from the temptation to say that the latter sounds like a reversal of decisions made a few years ago which resulted in the cuts to services in the first place. Overall, though, these are positive steps to addressing the problem and we strongly encourage our local authorities in Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire to apply.

But, the pandemic is a potential game changer. Using buses is perceived as being one of the most likely ways of catching the virus. Those reliant on dwindling rural services are often likely to be in the more vulnerable cohort if they caught the virus. And they are already fed up with a heavily declining service. You do the maths. Transformation and innovation is likely to be required alongside the basics of a more regular and reliable service.

This is a hugely important issue for the West Midlands. Our region is very rural and, to achieve our Roadmap objectives associated with clean and active travel, air quality and carbon reduction, investment in rural public transport has to happen. But even if it does, encouraging our rural population to travel on perceived unreliable health hazards anytime soon could be one of our biggest net zero challenges yet.

SWM is keen to learn of any examples that you are aware of (from anywhere in the UK) where a rural bus service has thrived, including how and why. Get in touch if you can share any insights. Sharing best practice with our local decision makers could be vital and SWM will continue to work with our local authorities and other bodies to raise awareness of this issue and do whatever we can to ensure it is put to the top of the queue post-pandemic.

Alan Carr, Senior Sustainability Adviser, on behalf of the SWM team