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Bus operators appeal for funding extension to avoid further withdrawals

Oxfordshire’s leading bus operators have issued an urgent appeal for further government recovery funding – to avoid significant cuts to services.

Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel warned if government funding support is not extended in April it will have to reduce its network by between 20% and 30%. It would include the withdrawal of Oxford’s entire network of Park&Ride services, some Oxford City Services and certain rural services. 

The bus operators have received government support throughout the pandemic, initially via the Coronavirus Bus Service Support Grant and then via the Bus Recovery Grant. The funding has enabled operators to provide service levels at least 90% of pre-pandemic service levels. However, the current patronage across the bus network is 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

Government funding runs out on April 5th and the government has not yet confirmed if further support will be provided. Currently operators must provide 35 days’ notice to alter or withdraw services, meaning they must serve notice on plans to make any changes on February 25th.

Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel have made contingency plans to ‘right size’ its extensive network to match the 70% of pre-pandemic demand for its services that currently exist.

Phil Southall, Managing Director of Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel said: “There is a real threat we will have to reduce services by around 20% to 30% in three weeks’ time. We are on a cliff edge and at a time when people need services to return to work, education and leisure activities it is absolutely critical government extends its support.”

In addition to the withdrawal of Bus Recovery Grant funding, the Department of Transport has issued guidance to local authorities indicating emergency funding for concessionary travel to operators can be reduced from April 1st. The funding is used for operators to carry eligible passengers for free such as senior citizens. Oxfordshire County Council Has paid 100% of the funding to bus operators to date. However, this could now be reduced to 65% of pre-pandemic levels over the next 12 months or so, even though it will continue to receive 100% from government. 

Mr Southall added: “This is a call to action to help us avoid having to reduce our network and the devastating impact it will have on the community, which obviously we want to try and avoid. We’ve written to our local MPs and asked them to help to avert this crisis. Like all bus operators in the UK, we need the government to extended Bus Recovery Grant funding by another six to nine months while we seek to continue to rebuild patronage.

“Furthermore, we need Oxfordshire County Council to continue to pay us 100% of pre-pandemic levels for carrying concessionary passengers. This would enable some services under threat to continue, even if Bus Recovery Grant funding is withdrawn.

“We have shown great agility to respond to changing demands during the pandemic. But a significant reduction in routes and timetables risks harm to our local economic recovery, environment, public health and social inclusion. Without funding we must create ways to be sustainable and survive. There is a lot of talk about levelling up and we need real action on it and fast from government.”

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