Radical changes to drive up the quality of Welsh buses could force lifeline bus services off the road because no new funding is available, warn experts.
Some councils plan to rank bus operators as gold, silver or bronze – with different subsidy rates for each category – to stimulate improvements to vehicles, staff and information provision.
Also on the cards is an end to subsidies for buses which councils deem are competing with another operator’s services, instead of providing coordinated timetables.
These and other proposals feature in the draft regional bus strategies of the four transport consortia, representing councils in each region of Wales.
The strategies have been issued for public consultation.
Even the consortia admit there could be “unintended consequences”.
One warns that financial penalties for operators who fall short of new quality standards could drive marginally viable services into the red.
When the UK Government cut English bus funding by 20%, it introduced grants to help operators invest in green buses and new technology.
The Welsh Government has reduced bus funding by 25% with no new grants.
Schemes to incentivise operators to make the improvements the Welsh Government and councils wish to see are therefore limited to redistributing the diminished pot of money – which would inevitably hit some services or operators with funding cuts of even more than 25%.
Swwitch, the consortium for South-west Wales, proposes a “two-tier approach” for future subsidy “with a premium rate payable to those operators which entered and adhered to a Quality Standards Agreement”.
Sewta, covering South-east Wales, plans bronze, silver and gold levels, based on quality criteria including the average age of the operator’s fleet, the proportion of drivers who have completed disability awareness training, and provision of on-board audio and visual information.
“Operators that achieve a higher level would receive a higher reimbursement per kilometre operated, thus providing an incentive for operators to improve services,” says Sewta.
However, it acknowledges that this system “could jeopardise marginal services, with unintended consequences of service withdrawals” and says further modelling work is required to ascertain the full impact”.
Swansea-based transport consultant John Davies said incentives to improve quality were a good idea but added: “It would seem better if the Welsh Government was to follow the example of the British Government of offering some capital incentives to get better vehicles.
“There’s going to be swings and roundabouts, because of the rapidly reducing budget. Any business facing a 25% reduction would find it catastrophic.
“Why should the bus industry be any different?
“They [the consortia] need to think this through very, very carefully.”
Brian Bigwood, a Caernarfon-based transport consultant, said: “They’ve got to be quite careful about what they introduce, and how they introduce it.
“Operators on the least-used routes may not be able to afford to upgrade to a gold standard, and become less viable.
“If they haven’t invested in new vehicles they’ll say it [the service] is no longer going to be viable.
“Who then picks up the tab? The local authorities can’t afford it.”
The Welsh Government expects up to 21 quality standards to be introduced in all areas of Wales, says Swwitch, which views this as “unduly onerous and likely to reduce the supply of actual and potential bus operators to inadequate levels, especially in sparsely populated areas”.
It also warns: “The effort and cost of complying with so many standards, some of which appear to offer little if any benefit to passengers, would deter or defeat many smaller concerns.
“The penalties suggested for non-compliance would ensure their services ceased to be sustainable.”
The draft bus strategy of Taith, North Wales’ transport consortium, criticises buses “being used to compete rather than complement the network, resulting in an inefficient and uncoordinated network”.
Sewta says subsidy won’t be paid for “competing services which duplicate each other” by running the same routes at roughly the same minutes past the hour.
But Mr Bigwood said some managers feared the Competition Commission would regard different companies coordinating their services as anti-competitive.
Between Caernarfon and Bangor three bus operators provide frequent services without coordination, but Mr Bigwood said each operator provided through journeys to facilities such as Ysbyty Gwynedd, Bangor University, Coleg Menai and Ysgol Friars from different outlying communities including Llandudno, Llanberis and Porthmadog.
“If we’re going to do away with competition, the operator then has a free hand to do as he wishes with fares,” he added.
Mr Davies said competition between bus operators had diminished as large companies had acquired big ones. In Swansea, First Cymru was now the only major operator.
Stagecoach competes with Cardiff Bus and Newport Bus on its way into those cities from towns further north, but Mr Davies questioned how Sewta could judge who was at fault on such routes.
“If two operators go head to head, the only fair way would be to penalise both of them until they get their act together,” he said.
“It’s crazy. It’s a highly bureaucratic solution. When you have targets in all sorts of public services, you could cause a reduction in service all round because people concentrate on the targets instead of the job in hand.”