Reduced timetables on dozens of Go North East services across County Durham, Gateshead, Sunderland, South Tyneside, and parts of the Tyne Valley in Northumberland came into force last month (July 24).
The latest blow for passengers followed the axe falling on routes in Newcastle and North Tyneside earlier this year, while other bus operators are expected to follow suit.
But Martijn Gilbert, managing director of Go North East, has insisted cuts were needed to reflect a shift in working habits and other post-pandemic changes to living patterns, with bus passengers levels having stabilised at roughly 75% of pre-Covid rates.
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While some routes deemed not profitable enough for private bus companies to run have been saved by local authorities, many have been slashed.
Mr Gilbert told a North East Joint Transport Committee scrutiny panel last month (July 28): “In our own changes we have tried to take a long-term view, so we are still today running a number of services that don’t cover their costs. But we can see they are on a trajectory of growth because of Amazon distribution centres, changes in housing or employment.
“We have certainly not, despite claims in some areas, done a brutal slice and dice of the network – far from it, we have tried to take a long-term view.
“But it is tough. Just to put it in perspective, customer numbers and therefore revenue is down 20 to 25% and pre-pandemic profits in the region averaged around 4 to 5%.”
South Tyneside councillor Paul Dean raised concerns that consultation on the Go North East cuts had been inadequate, but Mr Gilbert claimed the more than 9,000 responses received was proof of its scope.
The bus chief, who also chairs local bus operators’ association NEBus, said companies were facing “huge challenges” from the cost of living crisis, road congestion caused by rising traffic levels slowing down buses, and staffing shortages.
Mr Gilbert, who is due to take charge of new rail operator Lumo, said a “second wave of churn” in driver shortages had seen services cancelled, but insisted the problem was not unique to the North East or the bus industry.
Regional transport officials are drawing up spending plans for government funding worth £163 million awarded for a Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP).
While the package is the largest awarded to any English region, it is dramatically lower than the £804 million the North East initially bid for.
That original plan featured a massive collection of measures, including new stations and park and ride sites; more services running to rural areas and outside peak times; and the creation of a multi-modal ticket enabling seamless travel across bus, Metro, rail and ferry services
Mr Gilbert warned on Thursday that BSIP money should not be used to restore axed routes or reverse fare hikes because the money only covers a three-year period and any changes would have to “stand on their own two feet commercially” at the end.
He said: “Bringing back things that have not worked previously is not going to be very helpful because we will be building expectations just to let them down again.”