BUS company bosses whose under-fire services operate across Barnsley have been urged to sit down with local leaders to put customers before profits ahead of next month’s planned fare hikes.

Unreliable vehicles, prices and axed routes have angered customers, while a pay dispute saw Stagecoach’s drivers parked up their buses in order to protest earlier this year.

Fare increases are expected to come into force on March 1, despite calls for a U-turn on the proposals, which will see single fares rise by ‘10p to 20p’.

Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley Central and South Yorkshire Mayor, has now written to the chief executive of Stagecoach, Martin Griffiths, and managing director of First Bus, Janette Bell, to urge them to act like ‘genuine partners’.

He references firms making profits during lockdown after receiving millions in subsidy, and asks that fare rises and cuts be kept to minimum possible ‘even if that means reduced profits or even a short-term loss’.

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The letters adds: “Rather than maximising the chances of a full recovery in passenger numbers, by hiking fares and slashing services at the earliest possible moment you are guaranteeing that recovery will not happen - locking in damage from Covid that might otherwise have been temporary.

“Our buses are under exceptional pressure - it is critical that we act for the long-term, following a deliberate plan to minimise the damage caused by Covid and protect the network so we can not only build back but deliver the transformation of our services that our region so badly needs.

“Instead, operators appear to be acting according to one concern only: their short-term bottom line.

“I understand the genuine pressures operators are under - as indeed are our communities and the travelling public.

“The government’s failure so far to extend Covid support for bus services is utterly reckless, as is their reneging on wider promises of transformative investment.

“I am not asking companies to bankrupt themselves operating at a loss indefinitely, but the least customers have a right to expect is that you reduce cuts and fare rises to the minimum as we get back to normal, even if that means reduced profits or even a short term loss.

“It is time to give something back - and that means cancelling the changes that are currently being planned.”

South Yorkshire’s four council leaders - including Sir Steve Houghton - will hold crunch talks with Mr Jarvis next month to discuss the feasibility of starting a county-wide franchise and the costs involved in doing so.

Phil Medlicott, Stagecoach Yorkshire’s managing director, said: “We work extremely hard to deliver reliable, high quality and good value bus services and encourage customers to tell us what they think about services to help us improve further by giving their feedback.

“This is an important part of any service and is something we actively encourage.

“The public transport industry has faced many challenges throughout the pandemic, including recent staff shortages, and our teams have worked tirelessly throughout to provide the best services possible to support our local communities with their travel needs.

“However, supporting customers and communities to travel by bus is a shared responsibility between bus operators, local authorities and the government.”