BUS companies in Wales are facing the "toughest times" after the coronavirus pandemic all but wiped out passenger numbers and the income they generate.

Customers fell by around 90 per cent during the pandemic, according to analysis by the Welsh Government.

In that time, transport firms had to abide by strict regulations on the number of people in each vehicle and on mask-wearing.

And even though the nation's Covid rules were lifted in the spring, the number of bus passengers is yet to recover.

Currently, the nation's bus network is only welcoming between 50 and 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, "leaving operators struggling with reduced revenue and contending with the latest challenges of rising fuel and operating costs", said Lee Waters, Wales' deputy minister for climate change.

The Welsh Government has announced it will give £48 million to bus providers as a "short-term solution to help the industry to begin to recover from the challenges it has".

Mr Waters said ministers would also "develop a longer-term solution to tackle the gradual decline in passengers over the years".

The devolved government has responsibility for transport in Wales, and has made a "modal shift" away from cars and towards public transport one of its key long-term aims.

These plans have included a freeze on new road projects and the backing of huge investment in rail and bus services around Newport in place of the scrapped M4 relief road.

But the pandemic brought huge disruption to people's travelling habits, with the use of public transport widely discouraged during periods of heightened restrictions in 2020 and 2021.

And problems with staffing continue to plague the sector - earlier this week, the Argus reported how the firm Stagecoach has been forced to cancel hundreds of services in Gwent in recent weeks because of "driver availability".

Mr Waters said the government was now hoping to get back on track its pre-Covid plans to re-regulate bus travel in Wales.

He said ministers would work with bus firms to design a system that is "easy to use, easy to access and well-connected".

More details are expected later this year, but Alun Davies, the Senedd member for Blaenau Gwent, said he was hopeful the move could reverse longer-term issues with public transport.

"Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation is still causing us real pain in Blaenau Gwent," he told the Argus. "We know that it’s going to take a few years to pass the legislation and to deliver public control of buses.

"So I want the Welsh Government to provide emergency funding to maintain core services until privatisation is reversed and we can invest in public bus services which serve our communities and not shareholders.”