How Wales' bus services could change with plans for one Welsh network

Video report by ITV Cymru Wales journalist Ian Lang

The Welsh Government has set out its plans to overhaul public transport in Wales.

The plans, unveiled on Thursday, March 32, bring forward legislation to change the way bus services are delivered.

The Bus White Paper lays out plans for a move towards a new model for running buses and it emphasises a joined up network that meets public needs and reduces the reliance on private cars.

The white paper sets out to require the franchising of bus services across Wales, allowing local authorities to create new municipal bus companies while relaxing restrictions on existing municipal bus companies.

Around 100 million bus journeys are made in Wales every year, but that number has dropped over recent years.

Deputy minister for climate change, Lee Waters, said designing a system that is ‘easy to use, easy to access and well connected’ would be his top priority to offer people a ‘real sustainable transport alternative’ to the private car.

Mr Waters said: “For too many years we have created a culture of car dependency which has allowed individual freedoms and flexibilities that we all value, but it has also locked in deep inequalities and environmental harms.

“As we look to recover from the pandemic and take action to tackle the climate emergency buses will play a critical role in keeping our communities connected and offering people a sustainable transport alternative to the private car.

“We’ve seen a gradual decline in the bus industry in Wales over the years and, as a result, we’ve been left with an industry that is broken and in need of much investment.

“But, I am confident that the plans we have announced today will help pave the way to a healthy recovery.

“We’re going to be putting people before profit and providing passengers with a well-planned, easy to understand and connected bus network that makes the right thing to do the easy thing to do.”

Deputy climate change minister Lee Waters has fronted many of the Welsh Government's transport policies since the 2021 Senedd election

Bus and coach operators in Wales have welcomed the white paper, while urging caution that the government must publish a timetable for changes and provide the finances needed to make the changes proposed.

CPT Cymru, the trade association for bus and coach operators in Wales, said: “Bus operators have worked closely with Welsh Government during the pandemic, and look forward to continuing this approach to deliver the shared ambition of more frequent and reliable bus services.

“Regardless of the regulatory model, close working between all partners is crucial to improving Wales’ bus services. Ensuring that operators expertise in running services, their strong track record for innovation and existing strong relationships with passengers are fully utilised will be vital.

“The additional costs of a franchise model would be around £61m per year with no guarantees that improvements in bus services will be delivered any more quickly than through local authorities and operators working in partnership to improve services.

“To avoid a period of uncertainty that delays investment in improvements in services for passengers we now need to see a clear timetable and a solid financial commitment to fund the changes Welsh Government propose.”

In 2021, the Welsh Government took the decision to stop all new road building projects in an effort to shift the focus of travel away from cars and toward public transport, a decision welcomed by climate change activists.

Haf Elgar, director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, said: “We must change how we travel - transport is responsible for a fifth of carbon emissions in Wales and we’re facing a climate emergency. 

“These proposals will ensure Wales’s buses are the right path to do that in a fair and just way.

“For too long buses have been the Cinderella service in Wales, despite carrying three times as many passengers as trains, and being the only option across much of Wales, especially in rural areas.”

“The changes proposed in this white paper have the potential to be transformational and can’t happen quickly enough.”

'A move long overdue'

Opposition parties in the Senedd have called the plans “overdue”.

Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for transport, Delyth Jewell, said: “Bus services in Wales have been substandard for too long and a reformation paper – while welcome – is well overdue. 

“For too many people, in too many parts of Wales, buses are not currently a viable method of transport and this needs to change.

“Buses are vital for Wales’ journey to net zero and for this reason the service must be transformed to one that is fit for the future: fully accessible, using a fleet that is fully electric or at least low emission, and for the services to be joined up with other forms of transport such as trains, cycle tracks and footpaths.

“Consideration, too, must be given to building a workforce fit for the future – for there to be more people using buses, we need a big enough fleet, and sufficient workforce being trained up now, not after a raft of changes have been announced.”

The Welsh Government's political opponents have long criticised how transport has been run in Wales Credit: TfW

The Welsh Conservatives have taken a stronger tone, criticising Labour’s record on public transport in Wales.

The party’s shadow minister for transport, Natasha Asghar, said: “It is long past time that Labour ministers took the issue of busses seriously. 

“With almost a quarter of people in Wales not having access to a car or van, it is vital that rural communities are able to use viable public transport. 

“Welsh Conservatives are passionate about tackling climate change here in Wales, but we have been disappointed by Labour’s lacklustre approach. 

“Any action taken by the Labour ministers needs to be cost-efficient and effective. So far, Labour’s strategy has been neither.

“I can only hope that Labour’s approach to handling buses is better than their handling of trains.”

As part of the plans, a 12 week public consultation opened on Thursday, with people across Wales encouraged to have their say on how the new system is designed.