RURAL bus routes could fall like skittles this year due to a double whammy of government cuts, a local authority leader has warned.
Eddie Martin, leader of Cumbria County Council, wants rural MPs to help press the case for fair funding for bus services.
Failure to do so could see commercial operators start to walk away from providing much-needed services, he said.
"The level of government cuts has been so deep that we risk seeing services falling like skittles this year," warned Councillor Martin.
"It is rural areas where there are fewer passengers that are most at risk.
From April 2012, the government will impose a 20% reduction in the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG).
The BSOG is a grant paid by the Department for Transport to reimburse local bus operators for some of the excise duty paid on fuel consumed.
It represents about 9% of all income for the English bus industry outside London and the reduction could remove £60m per year from the industry nationally.
The grant is also a vital source of income for minibus operators providing transport services for vulnerable groups such as older and disabled people.
Councillor Martin said cutting the BSOG risked being the 'tipping point' that meant a bus service was no longer commercially sustainable.
This could see operators deregistering rural routes, he warned.
MPs should call for any savings from the BSOG reduction to be reinvested and ringfenced into providing bus and public transport services.
"The county council already subsidises bus services and has maintained its level of funding support this year, despite having to make millions of pounds of cuts across the board.
"We're doing what we can, but it's a simple fact that more money needs to be channelled nationally into supporting bus services in rural areas if Britain wants to be a place where you can catch a bus in the countryside or at non-peak times."
The BSOG cut follows a shortfall in funding for the concessionary fares scheme.
In Cumbria, for example, responsibility for this scheme transferred from the district councils to the county council last year.
But the amount of funding received from the government was almost £1million less than the cost of delivering the service.
Cumbria County Council has been lobbying alongside other councils for local authorities to be properly reimbursed for providing concessionary travel.
Despite facing reductions in government grants, it has managed to maintain funding for public transport and bus services this year.
In fact, the council has gone beyond its statutory duty by offering free round the clock concessionary travel to disabled bus passengers accessing work, training or day-care services.
Nevertheless, government cuts have created a gap that Councillor Martin fears will cause severe reductions in bus services.
This could reduce the number of buses operating on any given route or see a reduction in the overall number of routes operating.
A House of Commons Transport Committee report published last year concluded that the bus industry was facing its greatest financial challenge for a generation.
This was due to the combination of the reduction in local authorities' revenue expenditure and changes to reimbursement for concessionary fares
Rural, evening and Sunday bus services would be most affected, the report said.
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