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Q&A with Combined Authority mayor Dr Nik Johnson as he admits he is not sure if all cancelled bus services can be saved

After Stagecoach East announced it would axe 18 bus routes around Cambridgeshire, the region’s mayor has admitted he cannot promise he will save them - but says he will “move heaven and earth” to try.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, which is in charge of commissioning bus services, has begun a “turbo-charged” tendering process to find new operators for the routes, said its leader, Labour mayor Dr Nik Johnson.

He spoke to the Cambridge Independent after Stagecoach East caused shock and anger by announcing that it would cancel a swathe of bus routes from the end of October that it claimed were no longer commercially viable, with passenger numbers down and fuel costs rising.

The mayor said he was “surprised” by the bus operator’s decision and was taken aback by the volume of emails he had received from worried commuters and parents of children who will no longer be able to get to school or college.

He spoke to Alex Spencer.

Dr Nik Johnson the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Dr Nik Johnson the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Picture: Keith Heppell.

Will you be able to save all of these cancelled bus services?

“We’re putting every single service, as they currently stand, out to tender. We’re supporting that with the initial funding that we’ve been able to release. We are certainly going to try and save all of them. The money that we put forward covers the next five months to the end of the financial year. So there’s a whole process of official legal tendering which allows everybody to put forward bids. I’m encouraging all other operators of local, regional or indeed national services to consider coming forward to bid for these routes with a view to establishing an increasing presence in the local area.”

Stagecoach East says these are loss-making routes. Why would anyone tender for them?

“That’s a private company making that statement. We don’t know. There may be other private companies that are willing to take these on. That’s the difficulty with the system. We’re taking this at face value but there may be more cost-effective ways of running these services.”

Will this tendering process be completed by the end of October?

“That’s been the basis of a huge number of the emails I’ve received. It’s people suddenly thinking, what will I do at the end of October? We are doing a turbocharged, superfast tendering process and we are putting so many officers onto the process to make sure that there should be no shortfall. So in other words, when the contracts that currently have been run by Stagecoach finish, they would be then taken over by another organisation. It could be that Stagecoach will take on some of these routes again, but they have to go through the tendering process.”

Combined Authority Mayor Dr Nik Johnston riding the number 68 Bus Route in Wisbech.Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography 2022
Combined Authority Mayor Dr Nik Johnston riding the number 68 Bus Route in Wisbech.Picture: Mark Bullimore Photography 2022

Are you confident that all of these bus services will continue to run after the end of October?

“No. I’m confident that the officers within the Combined Authority are trying to make sure we get as many of these services to run. The problem will come if we don’t have anybody who wants to run a service. I don’t own buses. So we will be hoping that in the majority of cases when these happen, other operators come forward. And if in the tendering process, there is absolutely no one coming forward, then we have to reconsider if more subsidies are required on certain routes. But that’s something that officers within the Combined Authority have to do within our budget.

“I’ve made it very clear that this is the main focus of the transport team at the moment. We always knew it was going to be important and I’ve always said that buses and a sustainable bus network for public transport for the whole of Cambridgeshire is an absolute priority while I’m here at the Combined Authority. So to have a situation where there would be potential loss of service use is probably the most focused I’ve been in the whole of my time as mayor.

“It wasn’t me who cancelled the buses or made the proposal to stop the bus routes. When I did hear about it, I’ve been moving heaven and Earth to keep them.”

Should people be reassured that their bus service is safe?

“I’m reassuring everybody that we will do everything in the power of the Combined Authority and within the financial envelope that we have to continue the services that are currently being provided by Stagecoach, hopefully finding other providers and other people who are willing to work with us to deliver that level of service.

“It’s not fair to say that every single service will be covered. Just to put this into context, the services that are currently being run are being put out in the exact same format to tender. I cannot be answerable for who is going to come forward. I’m making a call to all operators - local, regional and national - to come into Cambridgeshire and change the nature of the way that we run our services locally by introducing more operators with more support.”

It has been argued that you should have seen this coming.

“I think it’s an unfair representation. We have been aware of the challenges that all bus operators have been thinking about. We have always had regular conversations with all the bus operators. We’ve been supportive along the way. I’ve had joint meetings with Stagecoach and public community engagements to work with them over the last year to ensure improved services for places like Bar Hill and St Neots. Ultimately, I was shocked that a private company made a decision of such magnitude. And what I talked about was the willingness [of Stagecoach] to take government subsidy whilst making changes to a bus service as a private company without full consultation with us.”

Dr Nik Johnson the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority seen in Ely where the mayor's office is based. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Dr Nik Johnson the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority seen in Ely where the mayor's office is based. Picture: Keith Heppell.

How is that allowed?

“As I understand it, they can do this because they are proposing to increase the frequency on some routes, which I would say are less challenging. That allows them to say that we’ve increased services in some areas, allowing them to reduce frequency in other areas. My argument is that it doesn’t feel that it is in the spirit of the bus recovery grant. I feel it’s protecting the interests of a company and shareholders rather than the members of the community.”

Did the announcement from Stagecoach East that it was cancelling services come as a surprise to you?

“It came as a shock when they first approached us. We had had some discussion the preceding week before they made their announcement, before we got sight of their proposals. But the shock was from the willingness of the company to take a central government bus recovery grant, and then still propose such significant changes to the actual service.”

But Stagecoach said that they warned you in May that this would happen. Is that true?

“I think all bus operators, not just Stagecoach, have been talking about the challenges that they have faced. Some of it’s not just around the post-Covid situation, but also the increasing costs around fuel, which was a direct result of the war in Ukraine. It has been highlighted by all operators. We were being made aware of this by the operator of the number 68 in Wisbech. This was made clear by Dews coaches for the Ely Zipper. But I think their hope, and indeed our hope, was passenger numbers would continue to increase as people’s working patterns went back to a more than normal pre- Covid state. I think there was a genuine hope that the slight reduction in fuel costs would be greater.”

Managing Director of Stagecoach East, Darren Roe pictured with the new Stagecoach Platinum Jubilee Bus in Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham.
Managing Director of Stagecoach East, Darren Roe pictured with the new Stagecoach Platinum Jubilee Bus in Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham.

In the lead up to the bus crisis, has the Combined Authority been distracted by internal issues, including the investigation into the conduct of the mayor’s office?

“No. I think the Combined Authority is actually going from strength to strength with a new structure of officers. And the board is beginning to get a sense of purpose. And ironically, the challenge that’s been put forward by the Stagecoach announcement has brought a sense of agreement that as a board, it doesn’t matter if you’re representing East Cambridgeshire or Peterborough city or Cambridge city, that we all recognise the importance of rural bus services and making sure that we get a new style of local transport public transport plan, which particularly around the buses delivers for all.”

Do you plan to franchise the buses?

“I have always made it clear that I think a franchising model is something that would bring benefits to all of the bus services across the area. And in all the actions I’ve done since I arrived in the Combined Authority, I’ve been pushing forward with getting the officers to explore all options, which have always included franchising. I want the option of franchising to be on the table at the earliest opportunity, and I would welcome it if it turns out to be the best thing for the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”

What is wrong with the way bus services are currently provided?

“Fundamentally, there has been a problem ever since bus deregulation. You’ve had a situation with private operators, and it’s Stagecoach around here but it can be one of the big four operators in other parts of the country, where they have the benefit of targeting profitable routes, and taking them for the benefit of the company and the company’s profits. I absolutely think it’s time for a change. There is cross party support for this. You’ve got councillors from every single political party saying let’s move towards franchising. And likewise, I would be calling for all the local MPs to support me in trying to get more bus service improvement plan grant. We have an ambitious target. We have ambitious plans to so help me get the funding from central government to speed up the process. Let’s work on this together.”

Stagecoach Bus, St Andrew's St. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Stagecoach Bus, St Andrew's St. Picture: Keith Heppell.

How does this fit in with the road charging plans proposed by the Greater Cambridge Partnership, which would fund better bus services by making people pay to drive their car in Cambridge?

“I think there is a lot to celebrate about the Combined Authority and the GCP having a more aligned vision around bus service improvements. I will be at [today’s] GCP board meeting as an invited guest, not voting. Their ambition over five years to improve the public transport network, and particularly to invest in the buses, aligns completely with what the ambition is for the Combined Authority. And although at the moment I understand when people have been worried about the threat of buses not running, my hope is that having reestablished using different operators or improved routes, despite the current challenges, we will work with the GCP over the next five years. This will be before any kind of other concerns around the sustainable transport zone and introducing the charging around that. I think it aligns well in terms of the narrative of how important bus services are to the local populations, both within Cambridge city and the rural areas, well and beyond this GCP area.”

You cancelled work on the Cambridge Autonomous Metro plan when you came to office. Should we look at it again as an alternative to buses?

“No. At no point has anybody written to me and highlighted that if we were currently planning to have an underground under Cambridge, that we would be moving towards a better position. In the correspondence I had, they’ve all said you were right about not progressing with the CAM Metro. That would have led to over-development of the GCP area with garden villages springing up all over the green belt around Cambridgeshire, massive over-development and a huge financial cost of billions. I always believed that’s one of the best things I ever did in terms of saving money in the long term. But I only wish that the money and the bravery in making that sort of decision had been rewarded more by central government in a willingness to say you are showing real ambition around the bus services and a willingness to embed active travel as part of a developing model for modal shift within your area. I don’t think I’ve been particularly well supported by that through central government, but I will continue working with them as best I can.”

The routes cancelled are:

  • Cambridge-Newmarket-Bury St Edmunds 11 & X11
  • Cambridge-Newmarket-Ely 12
  • Longstowe-Cambridge 18
  • Royston-Cambridge 915
  • Addenbrooke’s-Trumpington 25
  • Ely-March 39
  • Peterborough-Lynch Wood 23 & 24
  • Hampton-Peterborough 29
  • St Ives-Ramsey V1
  • St Ives-Chatteris V2
  • St Ives-Somersham V3
  • St Ives-Boxworth V4
  • Hinchingbrooke-Godmanchester V5
  • St Ives Town 22
  • Huntingdon-Ramsey 30
  • Huntingdon-March 35
  • Huntingdon-St Neots 66

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