Monday 16th March 2020
For those who enjoy trying out new bus routes and train services, as I do, there are some exciting developments planned for the next few weeks.
Or are there?
Not just because I’m personally ceasing travel for my own health and wellbeing during the current pandemic crisis, but my guess is bus and train companies are going to be in such dire financial straits within weeks due to passenger demand falling off a cliff, that the last thing on the agenda will be flying kites with introducing new routes.
Indeed I’m expecting news of emergency timetables with significantly reduced frequencies and curtailed evening and Sunday services coming along very soon. These will not only reflect significant reductions in passengers travelling, but the lack of staff available to work due to sickness.
All this just at a time when buses had suddenly become in vogue with a £5 billion Government financial boost over five years. Never mind that paying for a fleet of new electric buses and much needed (when traffic returns to normal levels) bus priority measures as well as action to “seriously transform buses making every day journeys easier, greener and more convenient” to quote the Government’s news release; all that cash injection (and more) is going to be desperately needed within months simply to stop bus companies from going bankrupt.
And on the trains, never mind finally getting round to announcing what the elusive Williams Review actually concluded for the future structure of the rail industry, those franchises which have been teetering on the brink of financial collapse will have to be nationalised within weeks to keep wheels turning. Photographs of a deserted peak hour Waterloo and Manchester Piccadilly circulating on social media say it all. The Operator of Last Resort is set to become the dominant, maybe even the only, player in the industry by the summer.
So, in the absence of blogposts sharing my various journeys around Britain over the next few weeks and maybe months, you’ll have to put up with the odd comment column on developments on a less frequent basis.
And in that context, here’s what I would have experienced on my travels over the next few weeks…..
This week was originally the target date for the introduction of a new hourly route 99 coach service running between Bracknell and Heathrow Airport Terminals 5, 3 and 2 by CJJ Coaches of Fifield near Maidenhead. I hear the introductory date has now been optimistically put back to 23rd April and still subject to how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting us all by then (probably, a lot). Seeing the nosedive the airline industry is currently taking with talk of possible grounding of entire fleets I don’t think we’ll be seeing this new coach service any time soon.
Another new service to Heathrow is due to take off in a couple of weeks on Sunday 29th March. It’s a new hourly X50 running between High Wycombe, Maidenhead and Heathrow Central Bus Station under the ‘airline’ brand from the Oxford Bus Company. So far the Oxford Bus Company’s website is still promoting its introduction with no word whether it will be postponed. If it does go ahead it will be a ‘courageous‘ investment of what looks like at least three coaches running virtually round the clock (02:35 to 00:00) to an Airport which is going to take on the air of a ghost town for the foreseeable future.
Then next Tuesday Arriva are due to begin a four year contract (with a two-year extension option) awarded by Watford Borough Council to bring their Click DRT brand to the area. The contract involves seven minibuses (five in the off peak) operating between 06:00 and 22:00 running around the Borough with no changes to the commercial bus network nor the tendered bus routes and journeys funded by Hertfordshire County Council.
It’s a project spearheaded by the directly elected Mayor of Watford aiming to “support the provision of sustainable transport, particularly in the light of additional growth for Watford which is expected to be around 800 new dwellings per year” to quote the Council’s report. £1million has been set aside in Watford Borough’s financial projections through to 2022/23 to fund this latest DRT venture – I may be reading the year by year breakdown wrongly, but there’s an alarming drop off in assumed revenue support in years 2, 3 and 4 (£550K to £95K) which I’d be very surprised is made good by income from passengers travelling. All the more so if the service kicks off as planned next week bearing in mind travel in the next few months is going to be decimated.
Down in Cornwall managers at Plymouth Citybus must be running round like the proverbial getting ready to launch their newly gained tendered network across the whole of Cornwall in a fortnight – at the same time as working out how to keep profits at Plymouth’s city bus network above break even. What a time to be launching a brand new high profile ‘Transport for Cornwall’ brand! I’m sorry to be missing out on giving it a try out. I’d booked a flight on the newly launched four journeys a day Gatwick to Newquay service with FlyBe for Monday 30th March to have a ride round for the day. Sadly that journey got canned a couple of weeks ago when FlyBe collapsed – still it had only cost £30 one-way; mind you at that price (inclusive of the £13 Air Passenger Duty) no wonder the airline went bust!
Over on the tracks new train services are planned by a number of Train Operating Companies for the May timetable. Most ambitious is Grand Central with its new direct Euston to Blackpool service and then there’s LNER already building up the hype around their once a day extension of a Leeds train to start and finish its journey at Huddersfield. The latter probably doesn’t involve much additional cost but in the current travel downturn if I were running Grand Central I’d back off flying that kite on a new service to Blackpool just now; certainly until May 2021.
It’s a scary time for everyone working in transport. My best wishes to all who are facing very difficult decisions over the next few weeks. I’ll be watching with interest safely based at home.