By Scott Wright

FIRSTGROUP has revealed passenger numbers on buses still remain well adrift of pre-Covid levels as it welcomed a fresh injection of UK Government funding to keep vital services going in England, just weeks after warning it may not survive the pandemic.

The Aberdeen transport giant said passenger levels in England have rebounded to around 40 per cent of what they had been before lockdown, having plunged to 10% of pre-crisis levels at its lowest point. Operated mileage by First Bus in England, however, has increased from around 40% to nearly 90% of pre-Covid levels.

The update came as the company welcomed further funding from the Department for Transport (DfT), which has stepped in to provided hundreds of millions of pounds of public cash to ensure essential bus services could continue throughout the pandemic.

FirstGroup warned in July that a “material uncertainty exists” over its ability to continue as a going concern, when it reported a near £300 million loss amid a dramatic fall in passenger numbers because of the crisis.

The DfT has now injected an extra £256m to help bus and tram services ramp up services in England ahead of an expected upsurge in transport use in September, as schools and universities return and the furlough scheme continues to unwind. Up to £218.4m of the funding will go to bus services over the next eight weeks, after which rolling funding of up to £27.3m per week will be provided until it is no longer deemed to be needed.

The latest funding from the DfT, which takes to around £700m the investment it has made in bus and tram services in England, comes shortly after the Scottish Government provided a further £63m to help operators maintain services north of the Border from August 17 until November 8. This is in addition to the support of £46.7m that has been provided since June 22, with Transport Scotland noting that the funding is designed to help operators cover the continuing downturn in fares caused by social distancing measures.

Responding to the latest DfT announcement, FirstGroup said the commitment “demonstrates the value placed on bus services to support the restart of local economies, get people back to work and children back to school from September.”

Chief executive Matthew Gregory said: “The further funding packages confirmed by the UK and Scottish Governments enable us to keep people travelling safely on our essential services, allowing social distancing to be maintained on our vehicles. Bus networks are vitally important to local economies, both now as people return to education and workplaces, and in the future as they offer a sustainable transport alternative to the car.”

Mr Gregory added that the company had recently introduced additional measures to enhance passenger safety on its buses and to “help them make more informed travel decisions”.

He said: “This includes seat signage, enhanced and long-lasting anti-viral cleaning regimes, and upgrades to our mobile app so that customers can check in real time how full each bus is and the availability of wheelchair spaces.

“In the last few weeks we began two more such initiatives, a pilot scheme in Bristol which allows key workers to book reservations on specific buses, and a new tool for passengers initially launched in Glasgow, which predicts how busy a given bus will be depending on the time of day, for up to seven days in advance.

“I want to express my thanks to our people who are working so hard to keep our crucial bus services running for our communities.”

FirstGroup reported a pre-tax loss of £299.6m for the year ended March 31 after booking a raft of charges, including a £21.5m hit for the Covid crisis. The group, which runs the South Western and Avanti West Coast franchises, said passenger numbers plunged by around 90% in March after lockdown measures were ushered in.

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