Bus companies and light rail systems in England will receive a further £256m bailout to keep them running during the coronavirus pandemic, with the government promising to maintain assistance as long as it takes for buses.
The rescue deal does not cover the capital, where Transport for London is negotiating its own bailout with ministers.
Bus services will receive up to £218.4m of public money over the next eight weeks, with a further sum of up to £27.3m weekly “until a time when the funding is no longer needed” the Department for Transport said. Trams can access up to £37.4m investment over 12 weeks, with funding to be reviewed at the end of the period.
The funding comes on top of £477m in initial subsidies to bus and tram operations in England outside London.
The move reflects the views of transport executives and officials that it will be many months before passenger numbers recover to pre-pandemic levels.
Passengers are staying at home for fear or infection, hitting fare income, but the government is pushing operators to increase service levels to be able to accommodate more people with social-distancing rules in place.
The buses and five light rail systems — in Manchester, Tyne & Wear, Sheffield, Nottingham and the West Midlands — are running at more than 80 per cent of normal service levels.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said: “Buses are a vital lifeline — from getting to work, seeing the doctor or doing the shopping. Today’s extra funding will keep services running as we continue to recover from the impact of Covid-19.”
The money for buses will go directly to operators such as First Group and Arriva, whose share prices have fallen heavily during the pandemic.
“Government funding for bus operators has been a significant support for Arriva in recent months, enabling us to maintain our services in extremely challenging times, ensuring our customers (particularly key workers) have been able to get from A to B. So we welcome this announcement of additional funding from the DfT,” the company said.
But Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council, said local transport authorities also needed more money to maintain school buses and lesser-used services. “This announcement is only a stopgap solution and will not ensure the long-term viability of the bus network.”
The Tyne and Wear Metro light-rail system has been losing about £500,000 a week because of a slump in passenger numbers. Since lockdown eased, usage has gradually grown to about 40 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Nexus, the public body that owns and runs Metro on behalf of the area’s local authorities, said it would be “some time in 2021 at the earliest” before passenger numbers return close to normal. Martin Kearney, chief operating officer, said it was in dialogue with the government “about longer term funding support for the services we deliver”.
Meanwhile, Transport for London has asked for a further £1.9bn this financial year, on top of the earlier £1.6bn bailout.
Additional reporting by George Parker and Bethan Staton in London