Thursday 19th March 2020

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Roger French

22 thoughts on “Unprecedented

Add yours

  1. Let’s hope ‘Buses’ Magazine doesn’t get renamed ‘Bus’ Magazine as a result of all the turmoil our brilliant industry is currently facing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The problem with not running ghost buses and trains (and planes and ferries)is those that do travel during the crisis are crowded onto less services and in closer proximity thus helping the spread of coronavirus.i read the Danish railway (DSB)are adding carriages to help increase the separation between people but here they will use it as an excuse not only to reduce the service but to provide smaller trains on those that do run.some like Trans Pennine 185s are already tiny and under gunned anyhow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point – as revenues drop , service will need to drop and less buses/trains/planes will be used to provide such service , helping the Coronavirus transmit more.

      Compensating transport companies for loss of revenue for a given full service level makes excellent sense to protect public health, but like you I doubt it’s going to get past anyone here…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The only other way is to ban travel but Boris is in way over his head and indecisive.he models himself on Winston Churchill but has proven to be more of a John Major!I can’t believe that the pub’s,etc, are still open.the first thing you do with a contagion is try to stop it spreading.boris claims to be a history expert but obviously knows nothing about the Spanish flu of 1918 and how it spread…. through human contact!they will try and put forward crackpot theories that it’s airborne to deflect the issue ;close human contact is what spreads it.theres no reason to believe that it’s method of transportation is any different from any other cold or flu.non of them are airborne apart from the short distances flying out of somebody’s nose or mouth! sitting,or probably standing as far as York!,on a full 185 full of coughing people wouldn’t be a vomit comet but a corvid-19 comet!oh that’s one recent theory about how these viruses get here;on comets.im open minded on the matter but in space you have harsh uvc light as you approach the sun, very hot and very cold,solar rays and cosmic background radiation could lifeform survive that?but are viruses lifeforms?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. “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.”

    Yeah – that’s what’s mostly happened to me with my other hat as a photographer , with a lot of my work coming through via events 😉 It’s been difficult , but I’m sure I’ll get through it.

    Great read as always Roger about the challenges faced by operators in these times , not the easiest venture to make money. I can imagine a very different world once the Coronavirus is brought under control , and one which bus services might look better.

    Against this backdrop can I commend my local op Nottingham City Transport for their wonderful scheme offering compensation for lost travel due to self isolation from Coronavirus for those with pre-paid cards : https://www.nctx.co.uk/coronavirus

    I needed to self isolate recently , and in these times having some travel back has been really unbelievably helpful. Considering the situation is beyond their control for , and one they can’t be reasonably held to fault for – and as you say one which is going to affect their revenues I thought that pretty remarkable. Contrast that with Arriva , First et al who all say that becuase Government hasn’t instructed them to cut service , their refund policy is normal where they invite you to look through Conditions of Carriage to find it…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice piece Roger. Thank you. I share the view of the couple of commentators above who feel that less services = busier vehicles = higher risk, but only government will AND funding can sort that particular one. And it will be far easier, and in the short term cheaper, for them to suggest that people avoid public transport. Just when we thought that bus fortunes were changing…. How ever are we going to get car drivers back into buses and trains after this?
    We have, by the way, cancelled all Moorsbus services for 2020, but left our options open for a couple of months running later in the year if all our fortunes change. Optimistic lot at Moorsbus, we are!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Always a different law for motorists than everyone else.i remember during the foot and mouth epidemic all the public footpaths where shut but motorists where free to drive the country lanes.it would be only fair if public transport is shut down no driving either but obviously in a motocracy it isn’t fair!

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  5. As you will appreciate, whilst not disagreeing with anything you’ve written, I see another issue – concerning our environment. The situation may be leading to greater, single-person, car journeys as people seek to avoid proximity to other people at a time when mass transport is the way forward in terms of both pollution and congestion. There must be a worry that, if my hunch is correct, some people may not easily return to buses and trains and this could possibly be exacerbated if the providers are slow to increase frequencies / capacity as demand, hopefully, returns.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent piece, Roger. I take a slightly different view of how things will pan out. I work for a local authority and people are being asked to work from home for the first time. At the moment it is seen as a bit of a novelty, but I think in two or three months time many are going to be mentally affected by the enforced isolation. This will go for many others in society who took the ability to take a bus to visit relatives or pop to the shops for granted. I predict that, once this is all over, people will embrace their new-found freedoms and we’ll be back to traffic jams and pollution but bums on seats!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Would these ‘unprecented’ times spell the end of HS2 for two reasons? Firstly, people may get to like working from home, and may find it hard to go back to their old ways. Secondly, the Chancellor needs to find the money from somewhere to pay for all the additional promises he has made in the last few days.

    On the other hand, we will need big capital projects like this to drag us out of the recession we will invariably find ourselves dragged into due to the pandemic.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m amused by all the doomsayers predicting that trains will end up wedged solid, with people standing in each others pockets, all throwing the virus around, if the TOCs reduce service levels. Based. of course, on their intimate knowledge of travel numbers this week while they’re going nowhere near trains or stations.

    I worked through both peaks yesterday, and not one of my trains had more than two dozen people on; most had single figures. That’s a 90% drop in loading for the peak trains, and it’s being mirrored across the network. Numbers travelling have dropped off a cliff this week, and they’re dropping further day by day.

    At the moment all we’re doing is wasting fuel running empty trains around; more importantly we’re expecting to have a significant number of staff forced to self-isolate once the NHS confirms which long-term conditions are at greatest risk from Covid-N19 (if hypertension really is one of those conditions then public transport is utterly screwed), and so we’re unlikely to be able to resource anything like an ordinary level of service by the end of next week.

    The blunt truth is that we can either bite the bullet now, introduce a service level which is appropriate for the incredibly low numbers travelling, attempt to reduce the staffing requirements ready for when this thing really bites – or we can sit there pretending everything’s hunky-dory and cancelling trains left, right and centre because we’re running out of drivers, guards and depot staff to maintain the trains…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Without some sort of government help, the industry will be desimated. Most operating companies don’t make that much profit despite what you read from *some* politicians. They have big wage bills and big turnovers to help pay that, and that is going to be a major problem in the next few weeks.

    It’s the smaller operators that will get it worst. I hope council’s ask these operators to keep running the tendered work so at least it give them a chance. But with schools closing and the day trip market now gone. Who knows where we all end up in a few weeks time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Remember risk taking wheeling dealing full on Thatcherite venture capitalist oligarch Richard Branson is first in line for his state bailout of 7 billion!a state his kind doesn’t believe should exist as a safety net!crumbs for everyone else! surely the situation is out of hand and time for Boris to step down he’s dithering and indecisive and by keeping the pubs open he’s allowing it to spread.anyone can tell you voluntarily closures don’t work, it’s the “mind if I smoke”thing you use to get in in eateries.perhaps the army and police should take command of the situation during the emergency….a dangerous road to go down on the civil liberties front?


  10. Images of people in face masks maintaining social distance will be seared in our memories for some time and that will put people off using public transport with potentially catastrophic consequences for our road capacity, air quality and the social isolation of those without cars. Unless there is a national public transport plan to overcome this I’d be extremely worried about the consequences. The ‘motorcracy’ (great invention) are dead scared of buses even more than trains in the best of times so I’m really worried for the future. Given that some experts are saying that many more lives have been saved in China through the reductions in air pollution than were killed by the virus the real downsides of losing the paltry progress that has been made starting with Cornwall are truly frightening.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Clearly a sad situation, that is going to take much longer than “late summer” to sort out. The “lockdowns” are being introduced merely to delay the infection and give the health service a breathing space in which to prepare for much worse to come. Until a vaccine is discovered, possibly 15/18 months away, it is estimated 80% of the population will succumb. So, by this time next year the transport situation may look very different with pluses and minuses. Hopefully, but I fear not, the ludicrous “globe-trotting” practised by many will be less, thus aircraft pollution levels may fall, impacting on many airport bus/coach services. There will possibly be less commuting, but I fear much more will be by car as those who already hold a high opinion of themselves and thus find the humble bus “distasteful” now have the perfect excuse. And there will probably be less jobs to go to anyway, as even with government intervention on the scale proposed, many firms already teetering will have collapsed in the same way as FlyBe. Rail travel and coach services will take a knock, but many local bus services will be the worst hit by far, with many smaller names totally disappearing and much reduced services all round. It is indeed unprecedented, but to me, merely underlines how fragile the World economy is that it can collapse almost overnight. Hopefully, “Globalisation” will become a city word.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But no airliners so it took longer to spread plus they didn’t even have antibiotics then let alone antivirals.corvid-19 killed a mind boggling 627 people today in Italy,627 in one day!at least Boris has finally shut down the pubs,clubs,etc.. it’s pretty frightening.


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