Written evidence submitted by the North East Joint
Transport Committee (BUS0037)


With the lowest car ownership in England outside of London, 28% of households with no access to a car or van, and pre-pandemic ridership of circa 162m journeys each year, buses arguably play a greater role in this region’s transport network and local economy than they do in many others nationwide. My hope is that they have an even greater role to play in the future as a cost effective and sustainable transport mode, reducing carbon emissions from road congestion, empowering clean economic growth and linking our communities to opportunities.


The region I refer to is the North East of England, specifically the area covered by the seven local authorities who convene as the North East Joint Transport Committee Northumberland, County Durham and the five authorities which make up Tyne and Wear.


The Joint Transport Committee and bus operators were already forging closer links, collaborating effectively, and on a path towards partnership prior to the publication of the National Bus Strategy.


That is why politicians across the North East welcomed the ambition of the Government’s National Bus Strategy. I take the view that the document ‘hit the nail on the head’ with its ambition to greatly improve bus services outside of London.


Sadly, a year on, the North East has yet to see the promised funding materialise and we believe the amount of funding allegedly ring fenced by government has diminished from £3bn to a disappointing £1.2bn.


The fact that government have yet to distribute funding means the delivery of the National Bus Strategy is effectively at a standstill and, at the time of writing, we still have no indication of when indicative funding levels will be shared with us, let alone monies transferred. This means that our region, and I can only imagine others, is hindered in the transformation of our bus network – and our plans certainly are transformative.


The North East’s Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) was submitted to the Department for Transport in October 2021 and remains our regional ambition to transform bus services. The bid stood at £804m which we are confident would dramatically transform bus services across the North East, greatly improving the bus network for millions of passengers and encouraging more people to make the switch from use of a private car to public transport.


Our BSIP was wholly evidence led, after we invested resources in extensive market research and engagement across our region, including the Big Bus Conversation where nearly 2,500 members of communities across the North East voluntarily spoke to us around their thoughts on buses. Along the way, we learned bus speeds, reliability and cost are barriers to people choosing the bus, with confusion around fares and information also emerging as concerns. This was evidence of the hurdles we need to overcome to make our bus network a greater success, for example, 49% of people who participated in our research would be open to using buses more demonstrating the potential for growth.


Our planned investment, inspired by this research, would bring about a wealth of major improvements to our bus network including fares initiatives – such multi-modal fares and a price cap, affordable fares for under 19s, kids go free in the summer – as well as better frequencies, improved services, new stops and bus stations, the creation of a night bus network and more.


We want to deliver all these improvements for local people to drive green, sustainable change which opens up enhanced opportunities for education and jobs for local people, while at the same time driving down congestion and tackling air pollution. Buses are at the beating heart of the North East, and I cannot stress enough how vital it is that our region secures significant investment through this process. The North East must be given the investment we need to tackle the long- standing health and social inequalities we face and increasing opportunities to access apprenticeships, good quality jobs and education is absolutely critical to the prosperity of the North East – both now and in the future.


We provided a comprehensive response to the National Bus Strategy it is now the Government’s turn to confirm funding so we can get to work to deliver on our ambitions, to make it easier for people to switch to bus – especially at a time where petrol prices have never been higher.


Finally, I would be happy to travel to Westminster in order to appear before the Committee to share in greater detail the full evidence we have collated in the North East, the stories which the bus users of the region have shared with me personally and the estimated impact that Government inaction in the roll out of the National Bus Strategy will have on the North East.


Briefing Note to:

The Transport Select Committee


National Bus Strategy: One Year on: Written Evidence






The North East Joint Transport Committee brings together the North of Tyne Combined Authority (covering Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland) and the North East Combined Authority (covering Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland) for regional transport matters.


Our vision is moving to a green, healthy, dynamic and thriving North East. www.transportnortheast.gov.uk


In 2021 we published the North East Transport Plan (2021-35), setting out a live programme of around 243 schemes which, if funded, will help to make a big difference to the lives of people in the North East – our health, our environment and our economy.


The following note aims to respond to the request for evidence from the Transport Select Committee. I will first address the challenges, short and long term, that face the sector and then move onto progress addressing these challenges set out in the national bus strategy and shared in the region. Within this, bus funding has been a central obstacle to us addressing challenges facing the sector which in turn has delayed our progress towards innovation and working towards decarbonisation and modal shift.



Challenges facing the sector

North East bus patronage is relatively high compared to many English regions. Although ridership has been in decline for many decades, before the pandemic the declines had started to show some signs of levelling off, and in some areas ridership was even starting to grow. During our BSIP development we investigated key challenges that hold back bus ridership. In our public engagement and research, bus reliability, speeds and cost all emerged as barriers for people choosing to use the bus, as well as poor information and perceptions featuring heavily. We would welcome the opportunity to share complete evidence from our research and public engagement with the committee to demonstrate the challenges and opportunities we discovered in developing our BSIP.


Although punctuality is better in the region than the English average, it was an issue that came up time and again in our independent research and our public engagement, The Big Bus Conversation. Road congestion continues to be a key challenge to the sector as road traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels, creating slow and unpredictable journey times and bus bunching. During lockdown, when road congestion was minimal, performance on the least reliable routes reached 96%, showing what can be achieved if buses have a clear run.


With 49% of people in our market research indicating that they would be open to using buses more often, there is a strong potential to shift journeys from private vehicles. If we speed up buses, moving some of the 64.1% of the journeys in the North East currently taken in private vehicles to buses would tackle congestion prompting a virtuous cycle that would in turn improve bus performance.


While there is a long way to go to improve bus performance to compete against cars, user satisfaction in the bus networks is high in the North East at 91%, substantially higher than the national figure of 89%. Responses to The Big Bus Conversation and our stakeholder viewpoints highlighted to us however that high satisfaction is not universal. For example, satisfaction rates dropped to 22% for North East residents in rural areas. In the last few decades bus fares have also risen at a higher rate than inflation while expenses associated with car use have stayed relatively stable.


Another barrier identified was a lack of knowledge about service provision and fares: in our research 34% of people who responded agreed with this, rising to 52% of those who class themselves as infrequent users. When identifying why people do not choose the bus this confusion over the current offer is added to with negative perceptions with just over a quarter of residents we surveyed reporting that ‘they are not the kind of person who gets the bus.’


Apart from these strategic challenges, a current challenge facing the sector remains covid related falls in patronage. Income from fares is considerably down, with bus patronage in the North East sitting at 69% compared to pre-pandemic levels as of February 2022, it is conceivable that patronage levels will not return to pre-pandemic levels in the near future.


The welcome announcement this month of an extension to Bus Recovery Grant funding alleviate fears of a ‘cliff edge’ and the prospect of overnight reductions in services. A significant number of bus service changes that had already been formally registered by the bus operators will still be going ahead however. Going forward it is hoped that the partnership will be able to forward plan for sustainability that has previously been impossible given uncertainty around funding.


The long term future of the network is in doubt with many operators expecting network changes to be necessary once the last round of BRG funding expires and concessionary fares funding is reviewed, unless patronage substantially recovers.


Over the winter the industry has faced acute challenges of driver shortages, this was alleviated by changes to DVLA licensing and operators’ ability to scale up training and run recruitment drives, although recruitment and retention remains an issue for small and large operators alike. The challenge of inflation and the cost of fuel also threatens the sector with small operators likely to be hit particularly hard.


Only investment in the bus network, in terms of revenue and capital funding can, pave the way to overcoming these challenges.


Progression towards National Bus Strategy objectives


The North East BSIP demonstrates a reaching ambition of how to address the challenges facing the sector. Innovation is now needed to reverse falls in patronage and lead to a transformation in public transport in the region, in turn delivering the government's objectives. Our research and public consultation tells us that our objectives are right for the region to achieve a bus service that can compete with private cars.


We know that, for example, we can speed up bus buses making them more reliable, offer simple and affordable fares, provide an enhanced network that works for more people and provide better information. We cannot delay on progressing these and other improvements to the service.


We will focus on the following KPIs achieving them through:


Covid-19 recovery: We will repair the damage caused by Covid-19 to bus ridership in our region by returning to the pre-pandemic level of 162.4 million trips


Grow bus patronage and modal share



Grow bus passenger satisfaction


Make buses faster, punctual and reliable



Make buses greener



Unfortunately, without funding these objectives cannot be achieved, at the time of writing we are still waiting for a funding announcement from the Department for Transport. We also understand that the amount ringfenced for bus improvement been reduced to £1.2bn. This has led to delay and inaction in working towards our KPIs which otherwise could have progressed at pace. This once in a generation opportunity to innovate and progress towards our objectives is at a standstill, regardless of our motivation in the region to improve the service.


Despite this hold up local authorities and bus operators continue to work together to move towards a formal bus partnership which aims to breathe new life into the network. We are now preparing a first draft of our Enhanced Partnership plan and scheme for the end of April 2022. We are also working towards the limited objectives that can be progressed without funding:



Operators in the region also continue to encourage bus ridership: offering new ticketing trends that reflect new travel patterns, addressing safety concerns and investing in a decarbonising fleet.



April 2022