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Backlash over free OAP bus passes

PUBLISHED: 10:12 10 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:59 22 October 2010

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Bus companies across East Anglia have warned that Gordon Brown's much-vaunted free-bus-pass-for-pensioners scheme was turning into a fiasco. Firms said they were losing thousands of pounds a month because of the policy.

Bus companies across East Anglia warned last night that Gordon Brown's much-vaunted free-bus-pass-for-pensioners scheme was turning into a fiasco.

Firms said they were losing thousands of pounds a month because of the policy.

Some were even having to turn away fare-paying passengers because their vehicles were already full of pensioners riding for free.

And one firm has even had to adjust its timetable on one route because it is taking longer for elderly passengers to board.

Mr Brown introduced free travel for all over-60s in last spring's budget but operators in East Anglia now say it is backfiring and hitting them on the balance sheet because under a complex formula, they are not getting paid the full amount for carrying the additional passengers.

And they say some services could be withdrawn to make up the loss.

The EDP has learned several firms have lodged appeals with transport secretary Alistair Darling because they are unhappy about how the scheme is running.

Officials from Norfolk's seven district councils, which are charged with overseeing the scheme, are due to discuss some of their concerns at a meeting on Thursday.

Ben Colson, managing director of Norfolk Green bus company, who also helped draw up the government guidelines on how the concessionary scheme should operate, said councils had not put the full amount of government funding they had received into the scheme.

"The arrangement for the first year between the operators and the councils is that we are no better or worse off than we were last year," he said. "But a lot of operators have considered that the councils haven't put enough money in to the scheme.

"We reckon we are between £6,000 and £10,000 a month worse off. If that situation persists there will have to be widespread withdrawal of services to compensate."

Andrew Pursey, a director of Anglian Bus and Coach, said firms were pressing for a rethink over the way the scheme was being funded. The company was losing between £3,000 and £4,000 a month, because it was not being reimbursed for every passenger travelling.

"We are not actually reaping the reward or benefits of carrying these extra passengers," he said. "In certain extreme cases it's had a detrimental effect.

"We've had a situation where we have had a bus load of OAPs, you get further down the road and you can't physically take anymore passengers because we've run out of seats.

"The perception of the travelling public is that all the bus operators are doing really well because the buses are full. Yes they are full but we are certainly getting paid the full amount for all the extra people who are travelling."

Steve Challis, director of Konect Bus, said the firm was losing up to £1500 a month, because the formula used by Norfolk's district councils is not based on actual passenger numbers.

"They are basing it on the same numbers they were using last year and averaging it out," he said. "But we are carrying between 30 and 50pc more passengers on some routes.

He said that firms were stalling on providing relief buses until the funding issue had clarified.

"Where there's extra people travelling and you can't get them on you can do that, but in practice by the time you get a relief bus most of them have gone. You can't differentiate between fare payers and concessions. It's certainly true that at this early stage the bus operators are losing out."

Keith Andrews, First Eastern Counties managing director that there were bound to be teething problems with such an ambitious scheme.

"These are early days in the scheme," he said. "We've seen some significant growth and this has created some operational issues particularly related to the capacity on our buses.

But the firm declined to comment on suggestions that they were losing out by tens of thousands of pounds.

Industry insiders said First was "in a real quandry" about whether it could afford to continue taking part.

"It's true it's not economic," said one senior transport source. "We think we are not getting the return."

A spokeswoman for Norwich City Council, which is leading on the issue on behalf of Norfolk's seven district councils, said the reimbursements were based on Government advice.

"We're aware that some operators have appealed to the secretary of state about the reimbursements," she said. "The decisions by the secretary of state will determine what action, if any, is required."


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