Political leaders in North East England have written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps warning the local bus network is in danger of collapse without urgent Government financial assistance.
The letter from Cllr Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council and chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, and Cllr Gladys Hobson, chair of Tyne and Wear Transport Sub-Committee say key workers may be left unable to get to their jobs as a result.
The warning comes as bus companies in the region announced many services will run only hourly – and only every two hours in rural areas – as a result of the current health crisis. Depots have been mothballed and staff sent home as a result.
Thousands of key workers rely on buses to get to their jobs, as well as people making local food shopping trips. But overall passenger numbers have fallen by more than 80% in the last week following Government warnings for people to make essential journeys only.
Now there are fears that one or more bus operators, which are private companies, could soon be in financial difficulty without Government help.
Council leaders in the North East have joined with Mayors and city leaders from Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield among others in calling for urgent Government action to support local transport.
Cllr Gannon said: “The Covid-19 outbreak has given rise to some unique challenges for the transport sector in North East England. Key workers in the NHS and other essential roles must be able to get to their places of work, whilst we must also follow Public Health guidance to limit the spread of the virus.
“In response to the collapse in bus patronage local bus operators are making swingeing cuts to services and furloughing staff. We are deeply concerned about the viability of our local bus system, both now and over the longer term.”
Cllr Gannon said the Department for Transport needed to go further than it has done so far to bridge the gap between the cost of operating key worker services and the limited public funding on offer.
In his letter to Grant Shapps Cllr Gannon said: “We urge you to provide further financial support to the bus system in order to avoid immediate loss of accessibility for key workers, as well as long-term major damage to the bus market.”
Cllr Hobson warned that the Tyne and Wear Metro also faced a major budget shortfall as passenger numbers have collapsed in the past week.
Nexus, the public body which owns Metro, has said it is able to continue operating this year but faces a significant financial challenge after that,
Cllr Hobson said: “This will create a major budget shortfall for Nexus over the coming the months. Nexus is in touch with DfT officials on this matter along with the impact on capital projects and we need assurance from the Government that support and relief will be provided.”