The Big Conversation: £2.5 million spent on bus subsidies while most people in Wakefield 'not comfortable' using public transport
Regional Transport chiefs are paying bus operators £2.5m every month for concessionary journeys that are not being made in order to support West Yorkshire services and keep journeys safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been revealed.
West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) pays bus companies a fee as a subsidy for every concessionary journey that is made.
A concessionary journey is free bus travel granted to some passengers, including pensioners and disabled people. WYCA, which is responsible for economic development, transport and planning for devolution, has continued to pay the subsidies for concessionary fare bus journeys that are not being made during the pandemic to ensure that regular bus services can continue safely, with social distancing.
The authority said bus and rail passenger numbers have grown significantly since the full lockdown was lifted.
It said passenger numbers are around half of what they were before lockdown on buses and a third of previous levels on rail.
Public transport was one of the topics covered in the Express Big Conversation survey of readers.
In the survey we asked readers how their lives had changed since the pandemic begun and what changes they would like to see in the future.
One question asked: How comfortable do you personally feel about taking public transport in the current circumstances?
Of the respondents, 57 per cent said not at all comfortable, 23 per cent said not comfortable, 8 per cent said comfortable, 4 per cent answered very comfortable and 8 per cent answered don’t know/not sure.
Another question asked how people rated the quality of provision of public transport and adaption to transport infrastructure since the pandemic started?
Four per cent of respondents replied very good, 24 per cent said good, 14 per cent said not good, 15 per cent said not at all good, and 43 per cent said don’t know/not sure.
Coun Kim Groves, chairwoman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority Transport Committee, said: “We have helped people to use public transport safely through additional cleaning,modifications at our bus stations to help social distancing, maintaining up to date travel information as well as encouraging passengers to wear face coverings, pay by contactless and travel at different times of day.
“We are spending £2.5m a month to pay operators for concessionary fare journeys that are not being made, in addition to our wider financial support for bus services, so that there is the maximum space on services to support social distancing. Operators have also taken extensive measures to ensure public transport is safe and to give passengers confidence to return.
As we continue to support public transport through the pandemic and look to the future, we need long-term funding from Government to help continue to build confidence and, along with investment in cycling and walking, avoid a move to greater car use with negative impacts for our environment, public health, congestion in our towns and cities and the economy.
“Buses are an essential part of the West Yorkshire transport system – over 70 per cent of public transport journeys are made by bus and in normal times almost three million bus journeys are made each week, connecting communities to work, education and services.
“We are clear that bus funding and governance models need a radical overhaul that delivers value for money, reliability and affordability and gives us much greater influence if we are to create a bus service that is a first-choice travel option for all our communities, encouraging people out of their cars, cutting congestion and improving air quality as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Paul Matthews, managing director of First West Yorkshire, said: “I would like to reassure anyone from any age group that using the bus is safe.
“We have seen a gradual increase in passengers as lockdown has been lifted, even allowing for recent changes in local measures, with levels now above 50 per cent of pre-Covid numbers. We have effective social distancing on board so people can sit safely and conduct enhanced daily cleaning of all touch surfaces including use of a long-lasting sanitiser.”
He added: “We are discussing with the Government nationally and locally how we can ensure bus services prosper after Covid.”
Dozens of Express readers took part in the Big Conversation survey, which was launched in September.
The snapshot survey of readers looked at big issues in Wakefield relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.