‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging over bus operators, meeting hears

What do you think of bus services in Leeds?
What do you think of bus services in Leeds?

Private bus operators in Leeds are “drinking in the last chance saloon”, the head of an influential council committee has warned at a heated meeting in Civic Hall.

Leeds City Council’s transport scrutiny committee was hearing about plans to improve bus services and boost the number of bus passengers in the region.

The Leeds Transport Strategy, which was released by the council back in June, included a target of doubling bus passengers in the city over the next 10 years.

But the meeting heard latest figures had in fact shown a decrease in passengers, prompting some members of the panel to speculate as to how realistic this target was.

Coun Paul Truswell (Lab), who was chairing the meeting, argued it was impossible to increase bus passengers while operators were cutting the number of services.

He said: “The last figures we got showed patronage had actually reduced.”

He later added: “The only way we can increase patronage is to increase connectivity between communities and until we grow that, we are not going to increase patronage. This needs a hell of a lot of investment, and this needs to come from the bus operators.

“Services have been chopped and changed. In many respects, I welcome the attempt to work in partnership.

“But the message that needs to go out to our private operator colleagues, is that they are drinking in the last chance saloon as far as we are concerned.

“We need to reiterate that there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over your head.”

The meeting was to discuss Bus 18, an informal partnership between West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), which oversees transport and infrastructure projects; and bus operators, to decide on what future bus services will look like.

But committee members were keen to focus on why Leeds wasn’t seeing the dramatic rise in passengers that would be needed to meet the city’s transport strategy plans, with taxi app and the reliability of services both blamed.

Coun Neil Buckley (Con) told the meeting: “Uber is so second nature and so attractive to young people – it is not going to go away.

“We have been told about the targets of passenger growth – I ask not to make anyone feel embarrassed, but are those targets still realistic?

“Is it coming to a point where they need to be slightly adjusted?

Coun Paul Wadsworth (Con) said: “The combined authority has done some great work.

“But that cuts no ice with constituents. They don’t care about Bus 18 or new fleets – they care about their services being late.

“It falls to Leeds City Council. We were told it would improve by various measures.

“We are going in a circle and the same questions come up again and again – it’s a vicious circle, and we can’t seem to get out of it.”

Representative of First Bus Paul Matthews said: “We will be publishing data on journeys not run by district, so that the public can be made more aware of what the punctuality is.

“We are aware of the problem – we are trying to get around it. We don’t set out to be unreliable. We want to make ourselves more transparent in our performance.

“But ultimately it is down to the network and the roads on which we operate which are getting increasingly bad and increasingly unpredictable in terms of how we run buses.”

Dave Pearson, director of transport services at WYCA, claimed they were still confident in the plans, and that changes in bus passenger numbers were nuanced.

He said: “If you look at how rail patronage into Leeds has grown in the past five years, we do feel it is reasonable.

“But this is against a backdrop of a change in the way people are using buses.

“We have seen a slight decline in the number of people using free bus passes, for example. The people who would normally get them are higher car users than there were 10 years ago.

“There have been some signs of growth this year, but we need to analyse where passengers are coming from. We need to be more sophisticated finding out how it is going to grow.”

The head of WYCA’s transport committee Coun Kim Groves (Lab) said authorities were working hard to improve services, but money was tight.

She said: “It doesn’t always work to send a double decker bus into a small rural area.

“There is growth in West Yorkshire and people need to get to work – so we are looking at different models.

“We need to work out how to service people with the limited amount of money that we have got. We don’t have money in the system to drive more capacity.”