Thursday 19th March 2020
I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard ‘unprecedented’ used so often than in the last week. Even that’s unprecedented.
Unprecedented has become the new normal. In fast changing developments it’s difficult to predict what we’ll be facing at the weekend, let alone next week. Only a few days ago in a packed House of Commons MPs were cheering the Chancellor’s future spending plans based on 1.5% growth in the economy next year. He’d clearly not read the file marked ‘Pandemic Contingency Plan’ kept in a bottom desk drawer somewhere in the Treasury outlining the devastating impact such an event has on a global economy.
Presenting a winter trading update just last Wednesday First Group Chief Executive Matthew Gregory reassured city transport analysts he’d “seen no significant impact from the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to date”. What a difference a week makes. First West of England are reporting a 50% (and counting) drop in passenger journeys as this week conitnues. I dread to think the calamatous financial state South Western Railway and TransPennine Express must be in by now.
I really don’t envy those in the thick of it working hard to keep up with these rapidly accelerating and unprecedented developments. I’m trying to write a topical piece for next month’s Buses magazine with a looming deadline, not even knowing if there’ll be a coach sector left at all, nor much of a functioning bus industry by publication in a month’s time. Any thoughts of what to write will be very welcome in the ‘comments’ below!
If we’re three weeks behind Italy, as the experts say, that means we’ll certainly be in ‘lockdown’ by then with emergency legislation governing travel movements. There’s a growing feeling that’s coming to London within days. Interestingly I hear this morning that scenario is being denied by Downing Street sources, which probably means it’ll definitely be happening.
There isn’t one part of the economy or our social lives COVID-19 isn’t impacting, Whether it’s a boom in the grocery retail sector as supermarket staff do their best to keep up with our natural tendency to stockpile to the devastation those businesses, self employed and freelancers are experiencing as their businesses collapse in front of them. Just as an unseen computer virus suddenly makes your computer screen go blank as you helplessly look on so the invisible Covid-19 virus devastates your income down to zero while fixed costs continue.
It’s already clear how an unprecedented crisis of this kind sorts out those able to rapidly adapt and do their best to stay ahead from those lagging behind desperately playing catch up. You have to admire the initiative of Ensign Bus installing hand santisers on their fleet overnight (see photo above). Most bus companies are preparing to implement a resource saving Saturday service from next week as the Traffic Commissioners play catch up issuing advice to send requests for such short-notice authorisations by email for approval. Approval? There’s no time for that. It can only be a matter of days before all buses and trains are running Sunday levels of service supplemented with a few additional early morning journeys for those who still need to travel to work. That’s if there’s a service at all in some areas.
There’s no point running ghost buses to closed schools and universities and deserted retail and leisure destinations nor maintain normal schedules when staff are reporting sick in increasing numbers.
There was an inevitablity planned service developments would be canned (as I mentioned last time) but there’s still optimism in some quarters – I see Oxford Bus have given a revised date of 17th May 2020 for the X50’s introduction. Sadly I think we’ll still be in the thick of a lockdown by then. It will certainly not be ‘business as usual’ at Heathrow by May.
Down in Cornwall, Go-Ahead are still getting ready to launch the new Transport for Cornwall branded tendered network with timetables now online. But I can’t see these surviving in the published form beyond the first week or two, if that.
It was also inevitable that some of last year’s kite-flying intiatives would cease, and I see Stagecoach South East have announced their M2 express route from Canterbury to North Greenwich introduced last July will be ending in May, although it looks like that decision was not related to COVID-19 but facing up to the harsh realities of generating enough income to make a service of this kind viable. It’s a tough ask. In the current circumstances there seems no sense in keeping the route going beyond this Saturday. Hopefully the Traffic Commissioners will authorise that.
It’s been impressive to see how quickly customer orientated bus companies eased peak morning restrictions on concessionary passes to allow pass holders a decent chance to grab a toilet roll or tin of tomatoes from Aldi first thing in the morning; it’s not been so impressive to see the so called Demand Responsive Arriva Click taking two days and a series of reminder tweets I sent pointing out their prescheduled inane marketing tweets were inappropriately encouraging people to use Arriva Click to celebrate St Patricks Day at the pub or see a theatre production at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre despite it closing until further notice. Demand responsive? Sadly not.
It would be good to see the DfT enable train companies to introduce similar flexibility and abolish peak hour ticket restrictions giving passengers who have to travel at that time a welcome reduction in travel costs, with compensating arrangements for season ticket holders.
As always when facing severe challenges it’s great to see public transport staff responding with dedication and commitment. Keeping services going despite what’s thrown in the way whether that be congestion, severe weather, roadworks, or a whole host of more usual obstacles is something bus and train companies are well used too.
But this truly is unprecedented. And the worry is it’s not going to end any time soon. A routine of not travelling is likely to become the new norm for many people as they gain experience at home working and home shopping. That much seems certain to still be the case in a month (and well beyond). Perhaps I’ll write about that for the May issue of Buses.