AN £804m bid to radically upgrade the North East’s bus services has been unveiled.

The revolutionary project promises cheaper fares, more regular and reliable services across the region, more environmentally-friendly fleets, and long-awaited London-style payments that will allow millions of passengers seamless travel across bus, Metro, rail, and ferry.

This new Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) is the latest step towards a new ‘enhanced partnership’ between local councils and bus operators – a formal agreement demanded by the government in order to give the North East access to a £3bn levelling up fund for bus services.

The bid to the Government includes a £124m ask to prop up existing bus services amid shortfalls caused by the Covid crisis, with bosses saying they hope the “significant upgrades” will see passenger numbers return to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023 and then grow by 10 per cent each year after.

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon warned that “if we do not take bold and positive action, our bus network will start to fade away rapidly”.

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The ambitious proposals include:

  • A single ticket that would allow unlimited travel across all bus, Metro, and ferry services in Tyne and Wear, County Durham, and Northumberland, plus rail services between Sunderland, Newcastle, the Metrocentre and Blaydon. The multi-modal ticket could be capped at between £4 and £6.80 daily depending how far across the region you travel. It would be available to either pre-purchase as a physical ticket or could be automatically calculated as passengers travel using a contactless bank card, pay as you go smartcard, or mobile app;
  • Cheaper tickets for under-19s, with a £1.20 fare for single tickets and a £2.50 region-wide multi-modal fare cap; 
  • A trial of free bus travel for under-12s during summer 2022;
  • A pledge for all buses in the region to be either zero-emission or the highest emission standard for conventional buses by March 2025, plus a trial of hydrogen-powered buses;
  • All buses to be fitted with charging points and wifi as standard; 
  • Upgraded stations and shelters, with more real-time service updates and improved CCTV and lighting;
  • More early morning, evening, and overnight services, and improved access to the most rural areas of County Durham and Northumberland;
  • New “Superbus” corridors giving maximum priority to buses on the busiest routes in and out of city centres and to five new “major” out-of-town Park and Ride sites;
  • New bus stations will be delivered in Durham, Alnwick, Bishop Auckland and an additional Newcastle city centre bus station.

The Northern Echo: An artist's impression of how the new bus station in Durham may lookAn artist's impression of how the new bus station in Durham may look

Cllr Gannon, who chairs the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC), said: “With the right amount of Government funding behind us, our plan would I’m sure be welcome news for passengers. 

“Millions of local people would benefit from significant upgrades to the bus network and services, enhancements to customer experience, simplified fares and improved infrastructure – speeding up bus services, improving reliability and of course affordability. 

“If we are able to deliver our plans, young people will find it much easier to reach education and other opportunities, commuters will benefit from faster, more reliable journeys and families will be able to enjoy more sustainable days out too.”

He admitted that the vast upgrades come with a “big price tag” but that if government was willing to stump up the cash then local councils would take “bold policy decisions to make bus use an easy and natural choice”, with bus operators willing to “make commercial compromises on a scale that we have never seen before”.

Read more: Concern over cuts to rural bus services in County Durham

Martijn Gilbert, Chair of NEbus, the local operator’s association, said that the scheme “ sets out the key ingredients for revolutionising the region’s bus network”.

He added: “We hope that Government sees this plan as an opportunity to invest in the true potential of the North East’s buses, helping us to shift travel habits to be more focused around sustainable public transport which will be good news for us all.”

The BSIP is set to be approved at a meeting of the JTC next Tuesday.
Under the new ‘enhanced partnership’, which will formally start next April, local councils are getting greater influence over things like bus routes and ticket prices.

It is not the same as a London-style franchised bus network, a system also being pursued by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, in which services are entirely under public control and contracted out to providers.

Campaigners have previously urged the North East to push again for such a deal, a version of which was rejected in 2015, and claimed that the new arrangement could leave private companies “firmly in control” and “gives very little say to local people”.

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