In the ongoing tale of Wales’ transportation challenges, the focus has recently shifted to a mode of travel quietly facing a crisis: buses. As Wales strives for a future less reliant on cars, the struggle to boost and sustain public transport, particularly buses, has emerged as the most pressing issue in Welsh transportation.
In a significant move last February, Wales decided to halt major roadbuilding schemes, signalling a clear intent to shift from personal vehicles towards public transport. However, this vision faces a critical hurdle – the existing public transport infrastructure, particularly buses, is not robust enough to support such a transition.
While the narrative often centres around the challenges faced by trains, buses have quietly slipped into a state of decline, marked by fewer services, rising ticket prices, and a staggering drop in ridership. The Centre for Cities’ report in November shed light on these issues, emphasizing the importance of addressing the bus problem as a crucial component of Wales’ broader transportation strategy.
The Centre for Cities report highlighted some significant issues, with its Chief Executive stating, “For those not driving to work, 70% in Wales are opting for buses, making it the predominant mode of travel for non-car commuters.” The report argues that Wales has been silently battling buses for the past 25 years, intensifying the war in recent times.
The decline in bus journeys is a nationwide concern, mirroring trends across the UK. In Wales, however, the situation appears especially grim. Statistics reveal that between 2004-05 and 2019-20, the number of kilometres covered by local buses dropped from 129 million to 84 million. This decline outpaces any other region in the UK, painting a troubling picture of the Welsh bus network’s fragility.
The decline is attributed to a combination of economic challenges, funding issues, and a persistent preference for cars in public policy. The introduction of a default 20mph speed limit for buses has also been a contributing factor, increasing running costs and dissuading potential passengers.
The onset of the pandemic in 2020 dealt a severe blow to an already struggling bus network, with ridership plummeting by 70% in 2021-22. To address this crisis, the Welsh Government implemented the Bus Emergency Scheme, providing a financial lifeline to operators facing a passenger exodus. This was later succeeded by the Bus Transition Fund, aimed at averting mass service cancellations. However, the fund had its limitations, leading to adjustments and service cuts in many areas.
The Managing Director of Stagecoach Wales acknowledged the importance of the emergency funding but highlighted the challenges posed by increased operational costs. “We are still playing catch-up on the significant fuel and labour cost increases,” said the Director, noting that fare increases were necessary but also contributing to the overall decline in ridership.
The recent announcement of the Welsh Government’s 2024-25 budget includes a commitment to maintaining the current £120 million funding for buses, providing some stability. However, it falls short of being an increase, and with local authorities facing budget constraints, tough decisions lie ahead for operators and councils regarding the viability of bus routes.
The challenges faced by Wales vary across its cities. Wrexham, for instance, boasts a relatively efficient public transport system, with a higher percentage of workers able to reach the city centre within 30 minutes compared to Cardiff, Newport, or Swansea. However, the city grapples with the dispersion of its jobs, posing difficulties for commuters.
Acknowledging the need for investment in evening bus services to support the city’s nightlife, a local representative emphasized the expensive nature of such initiatives. Rural routes present a different set of challenges, requiring innovative solutions like demand-responsive buses. The importance of balancing the need for buses with the financial realities councils face was underscored.
As Wales navigates the funding crossroads and grapples with the decline of its bus services, the road to recovery appears fraught with challenges. The urgent need for a comprehensive and sustainable solution to revive bus services is now more apparent than ever. The success of Wales’ transition towards a public transport-focused future hinges on addressing this critical issue and ensuring that buses play a central role in the country’s transportation landscape.