Former director of the Urban Transport Group will chair panel of experts, and bus operators hope he make case for funding

Jonathan Bray will chair an expert panel on Welsh bus policy

By Rhodri Clark.

Welsh bus operators are pinning their hopes on Jonathan Bray, who will chair an expert panel on Welsh bus policy, to secure funding and stability as the Bus Emergency Scheme ends.

Some operators believe that most of their services would no longer be viable if no additional funding replaces BES. The Welsh Government says it has to taper off the emergency funding which began during the pandemic, and has deferred the end of BES by three weeks to July 24 to avoid disruption to schools transport.

It has also commissioned Bray, former director of the Urban Transport Group, to chair a panel of experts which will advise on the government’s reform plans.

“I think panic is beginning to set in,” said Bev Fowles, vice-chair of the Coach and Bus Association Cymru, which represents independent operators. “Their rail budget is all over the place, so there’s no money left for bus operators from July 24.”

Operators are preparing lists of what they could and could not operate in a worst case scenario after BES. Fowles said there were indications that only 30% to 35% of current networks would be able to continue in that scenario. Nine of the 13 routes operated by his company, South Wales Transport, would not be viable without support. He said some bus managers were now preparing consultations with trade unions over redundancies.

I think panic is beginning to set in. Their rail budget is all over the place, so there’s no money left for bus operators

The expert panel has not been appointed and it is not known yet whether it will include operator representatives, but the government told Passenger Transport this week that “collaboration and detailed engagement with operators will remain a key part of our bus model”.

Fowles said: “I don’t know what they [the panel members] are going to come up with. It sounds to me like another mini quango, but I’ve got a lot of time for Jonathan Bray. It’s being led by somebody who is very much passenger transport orientated. We hope he will say, ‘We can’t do anything without more money’.

“The Welsh Government and the civil servants have got an idea that the services which were commercial before Covid are still commercial, and the opposite is true. I get that if Welsh Government haven’t got the money they can’t manufacture it, but I would query why buses are the poor relation when about 77% of public transport journeys are by bus and only about 21% by train.”

i’ve got a lot of time for Jonathan Bray… We hope he will say,‘We can’t do anything without more money’

The government tasked Transport for Wales with producing regional bus network plans three years ago. TfW commissioned consultants for assistance. Asked why plans had still not been published, a government spokesman said: “TfW continues to work closely with local authorities to support them to make improvements to their bus networks where they can. This work will inform decisions about post-Covid local bus networks and will underpin discussions on publicly contracted bus networks once new legislation is in place.”

Under Bray’s leadership, the new panel could help to address the sense that some in the industry have of the government, officials and consultants operating in an echo chamber. When asked why the panel was needed although TfW had recruited its own bus experts, the spokesman said: “We are bringing the panel together to provide us and TfW with advice and challenge based on experience of bus franchising and other major public projects elsewhere. This will offer us further expert independent scrutiny to ensure our plans are robust and effective.”

Fowles said that a full inflationary uplift to reimbursement for concessionary journeys would soften the blow of BES withdrawal. Passenger Transport asked the government what inflationary increase would be applied and when. The spokesman replied: “We are discussing with local authorities and operators how to ensure that operator reimbursement for Mandatory Concessionary Fares meets the statutory requirements of the scheme.”

This story appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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