Public Transport in the Post-Covid Era

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2022 Water, Environment & Transport Conference
18 February 2022

As we emerge from the pandemic, usage of buses is 70-80% of the 2019 level. The figures for rail travel and tram journeys are slightly below that level. Transport companies are facing greater staff shortages than at any time during the pandemic. This is a result of staff leaving for alternative jobs, such as Heavy Goods Vehicles drivers or working in warehouses, and increased absences due to illness and self-isolation. This has led to temporary reduction in frequency or suspension of services.

The Government have announced their future plans for transport. The rail network is based on 90% of the pre-COVID-19 network. Their vision for buses is laid out in the UK Bus Strategy, Bus Back Better. This promises a London style network for the rest of the country, with daytime buses up to every 10 minutes, more evening and Sunday services and cheaper fares with multi-modal tickets. There was very little guidance on how this was going to be achieved.

Wales and Scotland have a more defined pathway. Wales is looking for a franchised network of bus services throughout the nation. Scotland have extended their Network Support Grant through to 2023 to help bus operators recover from the pandemic. They have also introduced free travel for everyone under 22.

In England, different funds are available for the metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, with all authorities submitting bids. The metropolitan areas also have the added pressures of financing their rail and tram networks. The non-metropolitan areas drawing up Bus Service Improvement Plans and introducing enhanced partnerships with operators to ensure access to funding. These plans amount to 7 times the funding available. The emphasis is on bus priority measures and capital infrastructure projects, the Department for Transport discouraging the use of funds to maintain existing networks.

The reality is highlighted by the changing demographics, with increased working from home and different shopping habits reducing the need to travel. There is little funding available for maintaining the pre-COVID-19 network. There is the prospect of the temporary frequency reductions and suspension of services becoming permanent. Transport for London (TfL) is fighting off bankruptcy, resulting in UNISON helping our members fight proposed changes to their pensions and TfL raising the qualifying age for free concessionary travel. There is no clear expectation of the role public transport will play in the levelling-up agenda. All this means is that our members working in transport face an increasingly uncertain future.

Conference calls on the Water, Environment and Transport Service Group Executive to work with branches and other appropriate bodies, including the National Executive Council and Labour Link to:

(i) Provide support and guidance to help defend the jobs of our members working in transport and protect their terms and conditions, including pensions.

(ii) Campaign for a fully funded, comprehensive and sustainable public transport network throughout the nations of the United Kingdom, which will give our members working in transport increased job security.