With the Department for Transport (DfT) having pledged up to £1.9 billion to Transport for London to support London Underground and bus services during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, other transport authorities are now staking their claims for financial aid.
Six transport authority leaders, working together through the Urban Transport Group, have signed a letter to Transport Minister Baroness Vere asking for funding to meet the challenge of increasing bus, rail and tram services during the new phase of lockdown, despite seeing a dramatic fall in fare income.
In their letter, the six transport bosses point out that, as requested by government, they have kept transport running during the crisis so that key workers can travel to work and return home, at great financial cost to themselves.
They further comment that they are now being asked to increase those services as the lockdown is eased, which will have additional cost implications. “The costs of doing this will be significantly higher than was the case during lockdown,” they say, “as we need to provide the biggest service we can in order to maintain social distancing, whilst, at the same time, low passenger numbers will generate low levels of revenue.”
It’s not just about rail either. An additional complaint refers to subsidies that government wishes the local authorities to pay to local bus companies. “In order to keep bus companies operating,” they state, “we are being asked to continue to pay them to carry concessionary passengers (who because of COVID-19 are not travelling) and for socially necessary bus services (that because of COVID-19 are not being provided).
“This means that local government (which itself is underfunded on its COVID-19 spending gap) is now being expected by national government to pay many millions of pounds a month to commercial bus companies on an ongoing and open ended basis and in the absence of a robust legal basis for doing so.”
The signatories are obviously really worried about the financial outcome, making the point: “Without a sustainable funding package from government, something will need to give – sooner rather than later.”
“We therefore need to move to single packages of funding support for transport authorities to cover the general and mode-specific costs of bus, mass transit and light rail, and devolved rail (backdated where necessary) which will fully close the funding gap created by COVID19 for the lockdown, restart and recovery phases.
“All of this also needs to happen immediately as we cannot continue to ramp up and maintain service levels whilst our income from patronage is decimated and with no sustainable funding solution from government to fill the gap.”
The letter, which can be read here in full, is signed by the heads of South Yorkshire PTE, Transport for Greater Manchester, Transport North East, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, Transport for West Midlands and West Yorkshire Combined Authority.
With the government having already agreed to fund Transport for London, one might imagine that a precedent has been set and aid should also be made available to the regional transport authorities.
But nothing involving central government is ever that straightforward. It will be interesting to see what response the six leaders receive.