Dozens of key bus services in County Durham and Darlington are threatened with being scrapped or significantly reduced.

Arriva North East has proposed widespread changes to timetables from July 9, which would see 25 services in the County Durham and Darlington area affected, as well as changes in the wider Tees Valley area. 

The full finalised list is due to be revealed next week, but documents seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service show the extent of the proposed changes, which include: Darlington to Crook & Tow Law; Darlington to Bishop Auckland; Darlington to Spennymoor & Ferryhill; Durham to Sunderland; and Hartlepool to Sunderland. 

The bus operator says withdrawing or making significant changes to bus services is “always a very last resort” and the difficult decision has been taken following “exhaustive efforts”, after failing to reach a funding agreement with Durham County Council and Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA). 

It blamed both local authorities for a 28 per cent cut in funding for the English National Concessionary Fares Scheme (ENCTS) - a programme which provides revenue reimbursement for carriage of free bus travel for eligible people to ensure operators aren’t financially worse off.

In its report, Arriva said: “Unfortunately, the rates at which both Durham County Council and Tees Valley Combined Authority have felt able to reimburse Arriva for their respective ENCTS schemes for this new financial year has been cut by up to 28 per cent in comparison to levels of reimbursement provided before Covid. At the same time Arriva are operating around 94 per cent of service miles in comparison across both areas in total. These reimbursement rates fall well below the levels paid by other authorities within the region and, in our view, are not in line with the latest concessionary guidance issued by the Department for Transport.”

Read more: Arriva to receive funding boost to improve Darlington bus services

‘We would like to apologise for any disruption’


The operator says the changes have been made with the aim of minimising the impact of reductions on passengers while ensuring the long-term sustainability of the network. 

“We appreciate the financial constraints that both authorities are working under, however the reimbursement rates proposed will not continue to cover the costs of running a significant number of our services and has regrettably led to this decision,” the report added. 

“We know how important our bus network is to our customers and we would like to apologise for any disruption these alterations will cause. We remain committed to working in partnership with Tees Valley Combined Authority and Durham County Council to deliver the high‐quality service that local communities deserve.”

Despite the proposed cuts, Arriva says it has taken steps to enhance its timetable to better meet local demand, such as proposed improvements to Service 7 (Durham to Darlington) and X46 (Durham to Crook and Stanhope).

‘TVCA went above and beyond to support Arriva’


However, TVCA insists the changes are a commercial decision made by Arriva, not the authority and is determined to ensure passengers get value for money.  

A spokesman said: “We put forward a fair settlement fully in line with our previous methodology and entirely within the scope of Government guidance, which Arriva refused to accept. Arriva is the outlier, as deals based on the same approach have been accepted by both Go North East and Stagecoach.

“TVCA went above and beyond to support Arriva – and all the other Tees Valley operators – throughout Covid. There are fewer concessionary bus pass holders travelling on buses and therefore it is only logical that the amount operators are reimbursed for these trips is less.

“The funding that operators receive for carrying concessionary bus passengers is only one income stream and therefore for Arriva to suggest that these service changes are solely the result of a fair concessionary fares reimbursement offer is disingenuous.”

Read more: Cuts to County Durham Arriva bus services will impact livelihoods

‘Services labelled abysmal’


It comes after the government confirmed Arriva would receive a funding boost to improve services in the local area. Arriva's performance in County Durham and Darlington has previously been labelled “abysmal” by furious residents who demand a better service, after telling of missing work and hospital appointments.

But responding to the latest news, Darlington MP Peter Gibson said: “I am deeply disappointed that Arriva have chosen to reduce much needed and relied upon bus services in Darlington, particularly in light of the extensive government support they have had to help with the return of passengers after Covid. 

“I’m seeking an urgent meeting with Arriva and Richard Holden MP, Transport Secretary.”

Cathy Knight, Durham County Council’s integrated passenger transport manager, said: “It is important to be clear that the discussions we continue to have with Arriva are specifically about reimbursing them for concessionary journeys, with the payments in question not general financial subsidies to support bus services. The decision to withdraw or change services is a private one for Arriva although we will work with them and other operators to support alternative provision where we can.

“We have followed government guidance on reimbursing for concessionary journeys at every step and the payments we have offered have been accepted by all other providers we work with. We also note Arriva is in a similar position with other authorities elsewhere in the region and further afield.

“The reality is that concessionary passenger numbers are as much as 30-35 per cent below pre-covid levels and it is only right that our level of payments reflects that. We are happy to continue dialogue with Arriva and other operators to work in partnership and influence the provision of bus services.”

Arriva did not comment further on the proposed changes.