PUBLIC transport in the North East faces a ‘perfect storm’ as it attempts to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Services and operators have received government subsidies this year to compensate them for the loss of business caused by the outbreak and restrictions.

But, even with vaccine roll-outs beginning this week, travel bosses are increasingly doubtful passenger numbers will bounce back, especially with the looming prospect of an economic slump next year.

“We don’t think [the Tyne and Wear] Metro’s patronage will recover to pre-pandemic levels for a long time – if ever,” said Tobyn Hughes, managing director of Transport North East.

“We know people’s working patterns have changed, that some of those changes will be permanent and that confidence in public transport has taken a big dent.

“That will recover but it will take time, the economic effects are yet to be fully felt and that itself will affect people’s need to travel on public transport.”

Mr Hughes, also managing director at Metro operator Nexus, was speaking at Wednesday’s virtual meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee’s Audit Committee, which was held by videolink and broadcast via YouTube.

Nexus expects a total financial deficit of about £1.2 million this year (2020/21), covered by the government’s Light Rail Revenue Restart Grant.

But even a best case scenario prepared for next year (2021/22) could see this surge to £3.7 million. And a worst case scenario, in which the operator received no more government cash, could be almost ten times that, at £30.1 million.

This has raised the prospect of money used by Nexus to support bus routes, which are also expected to struggle to return to pre-pandemic traveller numbers, in Tyne and Wear being diverted to prop up the Metro network.

And the issue of depressed passenger levels could also see pressure on routes in County Durham and Northumberland.

Hughes said: “That has a direct impact not just on Nexus, but also Durham and Northumberland, because they use secured bus service budgets to buy back bus services which could not be provided commercially.

“If there’s going to be a pressure on the bus network to shrink because there’s fewer people using it, there is a requirement from local authorities to make sure residents and businesses have the best levels of public transport accessibility they can achieve, which could put addition cost pressure on council and Nexus budgets for secured bus services.”

Mr Hughes added: “It is a potential perfect storm coming.”