FREE bus travel in March for journeys that start and end in Rhondda Cynon Taf has been approved by councillors.
A report was approved by cabinet on Tuesday, February 28 for free bus travel from March 1-31 this year for all journeys that start and finish within the county boundary, regardless of the operator.
Services that begin or end outside the county boundary will be excluded and subject to the full regular fare.
There will be no time limit so free travel will be available from the first to last service each day, with wider benefits for social interaction and supporting economic activity across the county borough, the report said.
The council has successfully bid for money through the UK’s Shared Prosperity Fund to introduce initiatives that will help reduce the cost of living for residents, through measures that improve energy efficiency and combat fuel poverty and climate change.
For 2022/2023, £500,000 has been awarded to RCT Council with further funding of £1.1m for 2023/24 and £1.2m for 2024/25.
Officers will review the outcomes of the free bus scheme and look at developing more free bus travel initiatives during 2023/24 and 2024/25.
The estimated cost of this one-month initiative is up to £500,000, which will be fully underwritten by Shared Prosperity Fund grant funding.
The council will agree the costs of the initiative with operators in advance by using a historical level of “on bus” revenue which the council said simplifies administration and removes any financial incentive for operators to inflate claims as well providing parity between bus operators.
The initiative will operate alongside the Welsh Government concessionary bus pass scheme, and concessionary pass holders will need to present their pass to ensure the correct level of funding comes from the Welsh Government.
The report said: “With transport being responsible for 17% of Welsh Greenhouse gas emissions, the need to encourage transport modal shift has never been greater, with private car use emitting 62% (2018).”
It said the proposal would support longer term objectives to encourage the use of more sustainable modes of travel as supported by the Wales Transport Strategy.
The cabinet report also said: “This initiative will make transport services accessible, fair and inclusive through the removal of economic barriers that potentially prevent people from using sustainable public transport and encourage increased usage of public transport for retail and leisure activities” adding that more than 30% of households in RCT do not have access to a private car.
Council leader Councillor Andrew Morgan said the average bus fare across RCT is £2.30 and if they were to do a £2 flat rate for a whole year that would cost more than £2m which is unaffordable and if they tried to do it for a month they would’ve only incurred part spend and they would’ve potentially had to hand hundreds of thousands of pounds back to the government.
They’ve looked at a flat rate of £1 or £1.50 and the potential of doing something in the run up to Christmas and he said that bus travel increased in one council area over the free period by about 30% although there’s no evidence of a substantial longer term uplift.
He said the key is to try and get more people travelling by bus over a longer term when fares are reintroduced meaning the routes are more favourable in terms of paying passengers – so, hopefully, bus companies will not withdraw services.
Cllr Morgan also said it would help in terms of the climate because it would mean a lot less cars on the road and that during a cost of living crisis this saves the residents of RCT £500,000 in travel over the next month so he thinks it’s a real boost saving some people as much as £5 or £6 a day so those people will be between £25 and £30 a week better off in March.
He said they’ll need to get feedback on it and see what the options are going forward and added: “I do think it’s a really positive step.”
Councillor Karl Johnson, who represents Llantwit Fardre, spoke at the meeting saying he’s very passionate about public transport and while he welcomes the scheme as a really big positive he said it’s not going to solve the long term problems they have with sustainable local public bus services.
He welcomed the information about where journeys start and end but said “it is only a sticking plaster for now. The industry is once again going to fall off a cliff edge when this funding is removed.
“Without further information from the Welsh Government regarding the Bus Emergency Support Scheme beyond June 2023, operators are going to have to make some very difficult decisions.”
He said: “It is disappointing that maybe a fare cap, in my opinion, isn’t being considered for now” but he said the leader has explained why and that hopefully it will be part of decision making for future schemes going forward.”
He said that using the fare cap could reach a far wider audience and said going forward it is the cost that needs to be addressed.
Cllr Johnson said: “Without lower fares we will not attract people on to our buses.”
Cllr Morgan said there is potential for the Bus Emergency Scheme to be extended for longer than the three months to six months or longer.
Councillor Maureen Webber, deputy leader of the council, said disagrees that it’s a sticking plaster saying “it’s financial help in a cost of living crisis where a lot of our residents are struggling.”