Bus use under Covid is only 30 per cent of normal, but soon we will return to something like normality. At that point, the subsidy paid by government to the private bus operators will probably dry up and crunch time will come.
As usual, the operators will give priority to profit and dividends for shareholders. As a result, bus passengers in South Yorkshire will probably suffer further cuts in provision and increased prices.
What’s more, pay and conditions for bus workers are already under attack: new drivers are being given temporary six-month contracts and the next move is likely to be the sort of hire and fire arrangements that British Gas employees had imposed on them: sign up for worse pay and conditions or we’ll sack you!
We might expect the transport executive (SYPTE) to do something to defend our buses but they seem to have rolled over and accepted everything the operators have proposed. Things are so bad that there are no more printed timetables – I’ve been told I will have to take a photo of the times at the bus stop?
Until now, passengers with internet access have been able to download a timetable from the SYPTE website but now we can only find timetables provided by the operators. So, where two operators are sharing the same route, we get two separate timetables. Now we can’t even get an overall view of the complete service on a single timetable!
This may be a minor detail, but it feels like just one more nail in the coffin of the wonderful service we used to have in South Yorkshire!
Dan Jarvis mayor of the Sheffield City Region, has the power to take more control over the activities of the bus operators. Our buses certainly need more public control: under the free-for-all we’ve had since 1986, with operators running the system for profit, bus use has halved. Jarvis’ problem is that the more control he takes over the buses, the more cash he’ll need to introduce the new system. The government ‘Bus Back Better’ scheme recognises the mess our buses are in, but does not provide nearly enough money to pay for a real solution.
One thing is certain: the bus operators need shaking out of their complacency. Over 35 years they have failed South Yorkshire bus users. Greater Manchester (GM) will be introducing franchising, whereby the mayor will determine routes, frequency and fares, but at a cost of £135 million. South Yorkshire has traditionally had less funding than GM, and whether Dan Jarvis is able to get that sort of cash or not, he needs to make the operators prioritise service rather than profit.
In the meantime, whoever is in charge of them, empty buses lead to more cuts in service. Now that it is safer, more of us need to get back into the bus habit in places where there is a decent service and Sheffield City Council needs to bring back the FreeBee to make it easier for all of us to get into the city centre!