Buses have been around for around 200 years – first horse drawn and later petrol, diesel, and most recently, electric. They have always been the people’s transport, initially known as omnibuses. Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy hated that Latin word and even coined the term ‘folk wain’ to describe them. Sadly it didn’t catch on, but ‘omnibus’ was soon shortened and anglicised to ‘bus’.
Buses in Britain
By the mid-20th century buses in Britain not only replaced trams, but most rural railways also. In many cases they took over from rural branch, suburban and even mainline railways closed by the disastrous Beeching Plan during the mid-1960s. Buses were cheaper to operate, needed little infrastructure, served village centres and could get to places no railway could ever reach.
But whilst closures of some little-used branch lines were inevitable, many crucial rail routes which would have now been vital commuter links such as the Leeds–Otley and Wetherby lines, or wonderful scenic routes such as Malton–Pickering/Whitby or Scarborough–Whitby lines, were lost forever at huge long-term economic and environmental cost.
In the short term, though some bus routes benefited from Beeching cuts, the real beneficiary was the private car. In fact, bus travel had itself already peaked in the immediate post-war years, before suffering a long slow war of attrition from that convenient, flexible and increasingly affordable alternative, which is now the default form of travel for most Britons in the 21st century.
In the last two decades, competition between the car and the bus has become increasingly one sided. Bus fares have risen whilst services have been cut. In contrast, car purchase costs, and until very recently running costs, have fallen in real terms. Buses suffer from delays in traffic jams as much as the cars that cause them. There are only a handful of bus priority schemes in a few cities such as York, Leeds and Bradford; powerful motoring lobbies sometimes forcing the withdrawal of bus-only lanes.
Massive cuts to bus funding and services
Most rural and now many suburban bus routes only survive thanks to generous public subsidy, massively reduced during the last decade of austerity. Conservative North Yorkshire for example, reduced support for rural buses from around £6mn per annum in 2012 to £1.7mn in 2017 (as evidenced from their annual reports), leaving many areas outside the main travel-to-work zones into West Yorkshire, York or Teesside with only skeletal public transport.
There are now little more than token services between busy market towns such as Northallerton, Thirsk and Richmond. Support for Sunday services has been totally withdrawn even in popular tourist areas. Sunday and bank holiday bus services only survive in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks thanks to the dedication of volunteers who manage the wonderful, if underfunded, Dalesbus and Moorsbus networks, requiring frantic annual fundraising efforts which become ever more challenging.
Transport poverty in the North
Yet car ownership is far from universal even in prosperous North Yorkshire. Many older and younger people do not drive, and less-affluent families increasingly can no longer afford to run a car nor pay the bus fares that have risen far faster than inflation. Transport poverty is now common in situations where people can no longer access essential services. Publicly subsidised buses which are unaffordable to those who most need them, is economic illiteracy.
Even Gordon Brown’s hugely successful free Senior Citizen Pass travel scheme has been, outside London, shamefully watered down so it is now only available after you reach the age of 66. Worse, financial reimbursement by local authorities to rural bus operators is now less than the true cost of provision, undermining their viability. But with its elected assembly, London offers its citizens an Older persons Freedom Pass from age 66 (or for over 60s the annual 60+ Oystercard for a £20 fee) with free travel on the underground, buses, trams and trains. Not remotely a level playing field with the North.
The Covid crisis has hit bus travel in regions like Yorkshire hard. Though some services have recovered, it is generally accepted that after months of warnings and negative publicity about the alleged risks of using public transport, bus usage is still only 80% of what it was pre-Covid.
Huge risk to health, economy and environment as more bus services withdrawn
Billions spent on roads and their management are in effect a massive subsidy to car users. Car usage is now a major contributor to the estimated £15bn annual cost of traffic congestion in the UK. But there are even higher health costs from pollution, as air quality declines in town and cities.
There could not be clearer, more urgent reasons to invest in cheap, affordable bus networks to get people out of polluting cars onto cleaner, electric-powered buses as energy costs rise. Yet the absolute opposite is happening.
Over the next few weeks, unless drastic action is taken, huge numbers of bus services in Yorkshire will be withdrawn. South Yorkshire alone, good urban bus country, could lose 40% of services. This is largely owing to the withdrawal of the government’s commendable emergency support during Covid, which was extended until October and will soon run out. Brexit has also led to a shortage of bus drivers – many companies relied on Polish or Romanian drivers, whilst the existing pool of drivers is being tempted by higher wages being offered to HGV drivers to meet a national shortfall.
Boris Johnson made yet another meaningless headline-capturing gesture offering £5bn to support buses, which rapidly evaporated or became merely part of the Covid emergency package. Some £2bn was immediately diverted to cycling and green travel schemes, £2bn was spent on Covid recovery, and the remainder has been allocated to local authorities via around 90 small schemes. None of this supports existing or new bus routes.
West Yorkshire Mayor Tracy Brabin, unlike most politicians a bus user herself, has revealed inspiring plans to put bus usage at the centre of her regional transport policies for West Yorkshire, with maximum fares for individual journeys and low-fare multi-operator day and season tickets – all long overdue. But what happens if you live close to the county boundary and have to travel into cash-starved North Yorkshire for work or leisure, to find that services terminate or cost a small fortune to use at the invisible wall of an arbitrary county boundary?
Public transport deserts need urgent action
Grand plans do not deal with the immediate dire problems faced by bus operators, of cash flow, escalating diesel costs and labour shortages. Several smaller bus companies have in the last decade gone bankrupt, two within the last two weeks, and larger operators are being forced to make further cutbacks.
Unless there is decisive and immediate action by government, locally and nationally, Yorkshire faces a Beeching of the buses. Draconian cuts to services could leave whole areas of Britain, including much of Yorkshire, as public transport deserts, with many services so sparse and unreliable they are of little use. This is forcing people to use their cars at a time of sky-high petrol prices and ever-more-dangerous global warming and local pollution.
For a significant minority of people without access to their own car, this will increase rural and urban isolation, deprivation and poverty to a degree not experienced perhaps since the depressed 1820s, when the first-horse drawn buses began to serve our towns and villages.