The bus operator says changes to some services in next month are being made to contracted journeys operated on behalf of Travel South Yorkshire – and are not ‘commercial operator service’ reductions.
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First says it is now in discussion on what changes will be introduced in October, adding the vast majority of its networks will be retained.
But it warns it will look to match its resources with the post Covid ‘new normal’ in terms of demand for its services so it can provide the most reliable network possible for customers.
The operator says new travel habits and hybrid working patterns have meant changes to post-pandemic demand but says it will work with partner organisations to minimise the impact for customers and keep communities connected wherever possible.
It says with Covid-era funding due to end, it is preparing changes to the bus networks to reflect the post-pandemic demand for services, and expects to make an announcement on any changes at the end of July.
First boss Nigel Eggleton issues statement
Nigel Eggleton, managing director at First South Yorkshire, has issued a statement.
He said: “Over the Spring period we have engaged closely with colleagues at SY Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) to help ensure short-term service stability at a time when large sections of the bus network remain commercially unsustainable.
"We have worked together on a solution that was agreed by the Mayoral Combined Authority in June 2022. During this period, we have continued to focus on delivering the best service levels possible despite the ongoing staffing challenges impacting many business sectors across the UK.
"As part of our discussions with SYPTE, we agreed to extend the operation of contracts expiring in April (operated by First) until July as part of our shared objective to provide the short-term service stability needed. First, like other operators, have chosen not to bid for these contracts beyond July. This is due to our staffing position and what would be the resulting impact on service performance for customers on the remainder of the network we operate.
"In some cases, we have been able to agree to continue the operation of some contracts until October within our existing staffing resources. Whilst I do sympathise with those customers impacted, the July changes are made to contracted journeys operated on behalf of SYPTE, not commercial operator service reductions.
“Like many other companies throughout the world, we have been impacted by the pandemic and we now face into one of our most challenging and unprecedented periods ever. As we head into the end of the Covid-era funding provided by the UK Government and back towards a sustainable commercial model, First South Yorkshire, like all other bus operators across the UK, will be adapting our network in October in line with post-pandemic demand for services.
"Whilst this funding was welcomed and helped us to sustain services for key workers and essential journeys throughout the pandemic, unfortunately we simply have not seen a sufficient level of passengers returning to our services post-pandemic.
"With the reality of new travel habits and the resulting post-covid demand for local bus services, coupled with rising costs to the business (including supporting our people through the cost-of-living crisis), we must adapt our network accordingly.
Losses of over £26 million
The situation is intensified by the underlying unsustainable bus service network. This is highlighted by the fact First South Yorkshire has made losses of over £26m since 2012/13 including a loss of £2.3m for the last set of accounts pre-pandemic (year ending March 2020).
“In the spirit of transparency and partnership working, we have given SYPTE as much advanced notice as possible of any changes and have engaged them early on in this process to allow time to adjust and seek alternative arrangements where necessary. We have identified a number of services across South Yorkshire that are no longer commercially viable given the post covid demand for local bus services.
"We have worked hard to retain as many connections as possible, but the reductions still represent 25 per cent of our current operation. We are now in discussions with SYPTE, and final plans will be announced at the end of July.
"The vast majority of our networks will be retained, but we will look to match our resources with the new normal in terms of demand for our services so we can provide the most reliable network possible for our customers. As a responsible transport operator, we do also need to consider the best way to serve some areas given the environmental impact on operating very poorly used bus services. I can assure you; my team and I will continue to work hard with you and SYPTE colleagues to minimise the impact for customers and keep communities connected wherever possible.
Review of bus networks
“We will continue to review our networks on an on-going basis using the latest real-time data technology to track demand with a view to being agile and ready to increase frequencies and add connections in line with customer demand.”
He said there was need for fundamental change to deliver long-term improvements needed, adding: “Clearly, we need to establish the steps we need to take to deliver those improvements - through a properly funded system that will tackle bus journey delays and support a revised fares structure to deliver simpler, multi-operator ticketing. We’re confident that by working together we can put in place a stable and sustainable network that can drive the reliable, ‘green’ and affordable bus service our customers want.
“We remain committed to working together to deliver the long-term improvements needed.”