Region sets out £804m ambitious bus plan

Go North East bus at Gateshead Interchange
22 October 2021

The region’s first Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) has unveiled a new £804 million bid to Government which transport leaders are confident would dramatically transform bus services across the North East and greatly improve the bus network for millions of passengers as well as helping the environment. 

The BSIP outlines region-wide ambitions to make buses more attractive by making them a more affordable and practical alternative to using private cars for millions of people, and helping existing bus users to travel even more frequently. 

The ambitious plan aims to return bus ridership - currently 25% lower than before the pandemic - to pre-Covid levels by the end of the next financial year, and to grow by 10% each year thereafter. This would provide numerous benefits to the North East including a major boost to the local economy, reduction in road congestion, and a reduction in air pollution by lower carbon emissions from excess car journeys. 

Headline initiatives in the new BSIP include: 
•    Financial support to maintain the bus network in light of shortfalls caused by Covid-19.
•    Region-wide affordable fares for multi-modal travel on all bus, Metro and Ferry services across the North East, as well as on selected rail services.
•    Multi-modal fares available both as a ticket purchased before travel begins (from a bus driver, at a Metro ticket machine, online, or through a new app); and as a price “cap” that is automatically calculated and applied when a customer uses a contactless bank card, mobile phone payment app, or Pay As You Go smartcard to pay for travel.  
•    Great value for money region-wide affordable fares for under 19s.
•    A trial of “kids go free” for under 12s on bus services during summer 2022 - matching the offer already in place on Metro. 
•    Better frequencies and earlier starts/later finishes on many bus routes. 
•    Improved fast daytime links and a night bus network. 
•    Investment in better bus punctuality and reliability, with “Superbus corridors” giving the highest possible level of priority to buses on the busiest routes to and from city centres and to new out-of-town Park & Ride sites. 
•    Increased bus use and modal share with specific targets for young people, rural dwellers, and people travelling to work and education. 
•    Wider use of demand-responsive transport for rural and isolated communities, with integrated fares for onward connections. 
•    Simple and intuitive information to make buses easy to understand and use. 
•    Eye-catching and high-quality bus stops and shelters throughout the region including in rural areas, with access to real-time departure and fare information as standard. 
•    A standardised customer offer regardless of operator, with a common customer-facing brand identity and a bus passenger charter to set standards and expectations, and to transparently report on performance. 
•    A commitment for all buses in the region to be either zero-emission or the highest emission standard for conventional buses, by March 2025.

The numerous measures proposed include improvements to timetables and fares, extensive priority measures on roads and at junctions to speed buses up – including through new Park & Ride sites, new and attractive waiting facilities, a set of affordable multi-modal fares that work across all buses and Metro services, lower fares for many young people, and simplified and improved information.

The new multi-modal fares are in addition to the existing range of bus tickets on offer, so people will be able to choose the best value fare for them when buying a ticket. When new contactless technology is put into place people will benefit from a “capping” system which will place a daily limit on the amount they pay based on the multi-modal fare.

Cllr Martin Gannon, Chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “I’m delighted to unveil the North East Bus Service Improvement Plan. With the right amount of Government funding behind us, our plan would I’m sure be welcome news for passengers -  millions of local people would benefit from significant upgrades to the bus network and services, enhancements to customer experience, simplified fares and improved infrastructure – speeding up bus services, improving reliability and of course affordability. 

“If we are able to deliver our plans, young people will find it much easier to reach education and other opportunities, commuters will benefit from faster, more reliable journeys and families will be able to enjoy more sustainable days out too. 

“Our region’s BSIP is a true collaborative effort and we are united in our goal to dramatically improve the network, so that more people than ever before are able - and willing - to make more sustainable transport choices by using the bus when they can. More people travelling by bus means less congestion on our roads, reduced carbon emissions, and less pollution in the air we breathe.”

The North East BSIP is the region’s response to the Government’s National Bus Strategy for England which was published in March 2021. It is set to be discussed by regional transport leaders at the next meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) on 26 October.  

In order to qualify for future funding, Government has stipulated that all local authorities across the UK are required to submit a BSIP by 31 October. The BSIP creation is a further step towards an Enhanced Partnership – a formal agreement between local authorities and bus operators which must be in place by April 2022. 

Cllr Martin Gannon added: “Buses are essential for many people in our region as well as being a sustainable way to travel, and we rely heavily on them. But just like so many other aspects of our lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the bus network. On the one hand it has proven just how important buses are to key workers and low-income families in our communities; on the other it has deterred people from using public transport so there is now more traffic on our roads than ever before.  

“The corresponding loss of fare income means that a crisis is looming - if we do not take bold and positive action, our bus network will start to fade away rapidly. We are determined not to let this happen, and we need the Government’s help.

“But we want to go much further than just avoiding cuts. We want to reset the bus network so that everyone in our region can access it – from remote rural villages to built-up town and city centres, with high quality buses operating an extensive network with low fares and high levels of speed and reliability.

“We have worked together as a region, in partnership with our local bus operators, to develop a truly transformational Bus Service Improvement Plan that contains transformational proposals to reduce fares, speed journeys up, and make buses simple and easy to use. 

“But this will come with a big price tag that we need the Government to fund in order to level up our region. In return for the £804 million that we are seeking, local authorities are prepared to make bold policy decisions to make bus use an easy and natural choice, and the bus companies are prepared to make commercial compromises on a scale that we have never seen before.

“All local authorities in England outside London are bidding competitively against each other to access a £3 billion pot of national funding. We don’t know whether £3 billion will be enough to cover the scale of change that is needed across the country, but we certainly need a large share of it to make a big difference in the North East.  Feedback from passenger transport advocacy bodies has told us that our region’s BSIP is one of the most ambitious in the country.

“Public transport will help us to reduce congestion on our roads and improve our environment by tackling air pollution and lowering carbon emissions. We want to revive our network so that everyone sees the bus as a great way to travel, encouraging more modal shift and delivering against our North East Transport Plan objectives.”  

Martijn Gilbert, Chair of NEbus, the local operator's association, said: “The Bus Service Improvement Plan is an important part of the Government’s National Bus Strategy and sets out the key ingredients for revolutionising the region’s bus network to play an even greater role in connecting communities, helping re-build our economy and to reduce congestion and improve air quality.  

“Local Authorities and bus operators have worked together on the plan in ways not seen before, reached a huge degree of consensus and ensuring a proportional balance of proposed initiatives across all parts of the North East. The Plan will also align highways matters with bus service delivery, which is key to making buses even better and for more people. 

“Our growing collaborative partnership has already, for example through the Big Bus Conversation, engaged the views of users and non-users to help shape details of the plan. This approach builds upon recent joint progress made to expand multi-modal ticketing into Northumberland and County Durham, as well as introducing the first all modes smartcard for travel in Tyne and Wear.  

“We hope that Government sees this plan as an opportunity to invest in the true potential of the North East’s buses, helping us to shift travel habits to be more focused around sustainable public transport which will be good news for us all.”  

The North East BSIP includes a number of impactful and attractive initiatives based on extensive consultation and research.  

For further information visit transportnortheast.gov.uk 

Read the BSIP document here: www.transportnortheast.gov.uk/enhancedpartnership

© 2021 Nexus Tyne and Wear - Public Transport and Local Information.