Passenger groups have urged the region’s leaders to come up with a “fair deal” for bus travellers hit by the cost of living crisis.
Council leaders in the North East do not currently have the powers to replicate the scheme, although it remains a long-term as part of a potential new devolution deal.
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Instead, they are preparing an ‘enhanced partnership’ with the region’s bus operators – a system they hope will give local authorities more influence, but in which operators remain free to set prices.
A cash crisis caused by low passenger numbers following the coronavirus pandemic has already seen cuts to routes in Newcastle and North Tyneside, with the region braced for more later this year.
“Rather than cutting routes, we want to see services saved by attracting higher numbers of people back onto buses with competitive and affordable fares for all,” said Vicki Gilbert, chair of the Tyne and Wear Public Transport Users Group (PTUG).
“We urged our local politicians to follow London and Manchester’s example by going for franchised bus services in the North East, which would have given democratic oversight of bus routes and fares.
"Since they instead opted for an enhanced partnership, we’d like to challenge them to tell us how they’re going to provide similar protection to bus passengers in our region.
“When will they be introducing a similar fare cap for our bus passengers? And if not, why not?”
Martijn Gilbert, managing director of Go North East and chairman of NEBus, an operators’ group, claimed a franchise system would be a “huge waste of public money”, insisting the region’s current model “offers the best value for taxpayers and passengers”.
The North East submitted an £804m Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) bid to the government last October, including proposals for price cap on public transport.
However, it has since emerged only £1.2bn will be available for improvement projects across England, rather than an expected £3bn, meaning the North East seems certain to be granted far less money than it bid for.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, complained delayed bus upgrades were “forcing people into their cars at a time when petrol prices have never been so costly”.
He added: “The North East pulled out all the stops to respond to the National Bus Strategy.
"This investment 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 of 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.”