What a week

Saturday 21st March 2020

Prime Minister Harold Wilson coined the famous phrase “a week is a long time in politics” after tumultuous events before the 1964 General Election enabling Labour to overturn an expected Conservative victory by thirteen seats. I wonder what he’d have made of the seismic developments over the last seven days as day by day we woke up to the realisation a pandemic turns life as we know it completely upside down.

What were unimaginable and unspeakable decisions just over a week ago have quickly gained acceptance as being the very best actions for our healthy futures. John Lewis announces this afternoon all its shops will close after Monday and no one is surprised at all. Pret A Manger too.

All travel, except for essential purposes, is now pretty much on hold. Like pubs and restaurants, normal public transport as we used to know it has effectively closed down for most passengers. Suddenly it’s not worrying about having enough bus drivers attending work because of rampant sickness levels, although that scenario will play out in viral hotspots; it’s more a case of having too many drivers employed as service levels are slashed to reflect Government ‘war time’ advice to “only travel if your journey is absolutely necessary”. Unlike Pret A Manger, bus and train companies can’t just close up and send all staff home to receive 80% of their pay from Government. One small bus company director told me this afternoon of his dilemma whether to seek volunteers to move “off the books” for now, albeit still subject to employment law, with a view to keeping enough staff for the reduced commitment, but then what if those left active get sick and become unavailable? And what if not enough staff volunteer? Sounds like transport is another case for special treatment.

Reduced timetables are now being universally implemented from Monday, some offering a Saturday timetable, others going straight to Sunday service levels with extra journeys to fill gaps. My guess is even these will need to be reduced still further as Spring turns into Summer and a skeleton service is all that’s needed as personal travel restrictions could become mandatory. The tide won’t have turned by then; we all know a lie when we hear it. There’s no way Covid-19 will “be sent packing” within twelve weeks.

I see National Express coaches are moving to Christmas Day timetables from next week which feels poignant. I doubt Roy Wood and Wizard contemplated such an apocalyptic scenario when they wished “it could be Christmas every day”.

With no presents to open, nor the joys of family reunions over a leisurely festive lunch, I doubt our new found alien ‘life on hold’ way of living will be featuring at the top of many wish-it-could-be-every-day lists. Still at least our food and store cupboards are groaning under £1 billion of grocery purchases. We won’t be needing to go food shopping for some time.

Who’d have thought we’d hear Cornwall’s council chief pleading for tourists to stay away not because the County is full up, but because they need to keep it half empty; who’d have thought London Underground PA announcements would be playing out messages telling passengers not to travel unless they’re an essential worker with the Mayor of London regularly tweeting the same message. It makes a change from the “to the Mayor and TfL, every journey matters” inane slogan at the end of adverts on Global owned radio stations promoting TfL’s scrappage scheme – hopefully those adverts will be off air by next week.

Strange times indeed.

As for the coming week, it obviously can’t be quite as seismic as last week, simply because short of a complete legally enforced lockdown there’s not much more left to implement, surely. I’ve managed to survive my first week of non travelling, and am up for plenty more ahead, which is just as well. There’s a whole pile of reading to keep me occupied.

But this period of enforced social distancing also leads one to pontificate and muse so I’ll close these ramblings with two random thoughts.

It’s occurred to me now might be a good time to see how the DRT model for running buses really can shape up.

Coaches can cater for the limited school travel movements for children of ‘essential workers’ making regular journeys from home to school and back while essential workers needing access to employment such as hospitals, care homes and food distribution centres can be catered for by regular bespoke contract type bus or coach journeys all free to users and Government funded; and for the rest of us who don’t have access to a food shop and pharmacy within walking distance of our homes then why not withdraw all conventional bus routes and run a DRT service with minibuses or Enviro 200 type single decks. How about giving it a try first of all in say …. Watford, Liverpool, Leicester, Stockton, Sutton, Ealing and Oxford?


It would be particularly interesting in Oxford, where the performance of PickMeUp was under review anyway due to it being “challenging to operate on a fully commercial basis”, and see how it works across a wide area of the city with all conventional buses withdrawn. Rather than give up on PickMeUp, keep that going and curtail all the conventional bus routes. Just a thought. I don’t think there’d be a problem with passengers keeping to social distance guidelines on board – I’ve always been able to practice self isolation when travelling on DRT buses. DRT might just become the right idea at the right time.

It also occurred to me now might be a good time to bring forward ‘shovel ready’ disruptive maintenance or ‘track improvement works’ on our railways. Instead of shutting a line down during half term or over long weekends for extended track possessions why not get the suitably sanitised orange army out to finish off the works needed to improve access to Kings Cross and a host of other improvements in the pipeline. Financially starved coach companies could run limited substitute services. You might be thinking such workers should be at home keeping healthy and safe, as that work isn’t essential, but I notice the M23 is closed yet again this weekend for completion of the works to convert it into a Smart Motorway. The Secretary of State has already announced there’ll be no more Smart Motorways until remedial measures are added to reduce the danger of using them, so they’re hardly essential works for this weekend I’d have thought.

OK, that’s enough pontificating for now. Back to my pile of reading.

Roger French

8 thoughts on “What a week

Add yours

  1. Hello Roger

    Thanks for your regular posts which I enjoy reading.

    I note your comments re tourists being dissuaded from coming to Cornwall. As of yesterday Cornwall Council are still insisting that the 29 March changes should be implemented in full. Plymouth Citybus are planning to go onto ‘Super Sunday’ timetables in the city and shipping spare staff into Cornwall to drive empty buses. This will include some completely new routes and the doubling of the frequency of others. Meanwhile First Kernow are likely to cut far more important services. This is a complete nonsense and a waste of public money. Where else will a local authority be paying for more buses at a time when we are supposed to be avoiding all but essential use of public transport? To make matters worse there has been no attempt by the council to broker an agreement on the inter availability of tickets or the use of bus stations. This information is correct but there has yet to be any public confirmation so it needs to be used with care. Keep up the good work even if it is from behind closed doors. All the best David

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t often use the OMG tag but OMG! That’s totally crazy Dave, and a great example why local authorities ‘taking back control’ is worrying. The ridiculous scenario you’ve described can’t possibly last longer than a week or ten days with empty buses being driven around Cornish lanes. Surely common sense must prevail? Many thanks for the update; good to hear from you.


  2. There’s several difficult choices to be made now, and there are no correct answers. Here are some questions and answers:
    Passenger numbers are crashing downwards. What do operators do?
    We need to cater for many essential groups, none of which are complementary . . . . we need to provide transport for NHS workers, who have some strange shift times, so we can’t simply pull early and late buses off . . . . we need to provide transport for students whose parents are “essential” workers, so we need to continue some dedicated school trips, but for how many students and for how long (during school holidays?) . . . . we need to provide transport for people simply going shopping . . . . not everyone has a shop locally.
    Simply running a Saturday service (or even a Sunday service) won’t do it . . . maybe in London where first and last buses are generally at standard times around the week . . . . . so some form of bespoke amended timetable is required. Even with modern computer programs, this takes time, and then staff rosters have to be adjusted . . . . all this can be done, but with fewer schedulers now available (long standing reductions in staff with the implementation of the new programs) . . . . there’s no magic F46 button!! . . . . it takes time.
    Concerning new networks being introduced . . . . for next weekend we’re simply too far along the process to halt it now. It may well be possible to replace weekday services with Saturday services from 30 March, but trying to dial back the preparations (and remembering that Government advice is changing daily) is simply impossible, especially if we’re trying to make short-term plans as well.
    My company is planning a complete change to all our (non-)London routes from 28 March; what should we do? We don’t know about school numbers (other than they’ll be miniscule), but the two main schools are some distance off line of route . . . . do we simply pull the lot? Not a responsible action, I’d submit. We’re running a normal schoolday service next week, until we see how many students are actually travelling . . . . with that knowledge, we’ll decide mid-week on what we do from 28 March.
    I’d submit that this will also be happening in Cornwall. I’d submit that ArrivaClickWatford is also in the same difficulties . . . if the operation IS pulled . . . what about the staff engaged? Do they simply get sacked? Who will pay their wages if they have no work to do?
    As I said . . . . no correct answers . . . but I’m darn sure that the armchair enthusiasts will be damning our every move!!!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Confusion reigns with bus and train service for Monday. Most train services are being reduced by up to 50% but information on Mondays timetables is scant particularly in London where there is now a confusing mess of services operated by National Rail and services operated by TfL. The situation with buses is even more confused particularly with School service. Some companies are saying they will be operating non school day service but often the councils are saying they will be operating normal school day services until l the situation becomes clearer so who knows what will happen on Monday

    Many council have lifted the morning restriction on pensioners passes so that they can be used at any time. This seems to in response to supermarkets opening for pensioners and disabled mainly between 8am and 9pm


  4. It’s a beautiful, sunny early Spring Sunday. The kind of day we haven’t experienced for months following a long, miserable wet winter. The 10.40 bus to Dawlish Warren would normally be doing a roaring trade on a day like this – but it passed my house with just two people on board. We cannot carry on like this.

    Over the past week, every day has seen a speech or policy announcement, each one of which has served to drive ever more people off the buses and trains. Ensignbus is already introducing a skeleton service in its corner of Essex from Monday, with dire warnings that even this is under threat if financial support from the Government is not forthcoming. And I reckon that Ensignbus is only just ahead of the curve on this. Operators are fooling themselves if they think moving to a Saturday level of service will be enough to contain the losses, and I reckon this week will see schedulers working flat out to produce the emergency schedules that will be widely implemented on Monday 30th March.

    If the Government wants services to carry on for essential workers and other essential travel needs, and wants there still to be a viable bus industry at the end of the current crisis, it needs to get its hands in its pockets, and offer firm guidance as well as extra support on the ground. Now. Nothing else will do.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update 24th March 2020
    Time: 12:25 Date: 24 / 03 / 2020
    In light of the changing situation regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19), we have made the decision that as of Monday 30th March Transport for Cornwall will be running special emergency timetables.
    There will be two timetables. One for Weekdays and one for Weekends.

    We have been working closely with other ‘Key Worker’ companies to make sure that we still provide a service for their staff to get to work safely.

    The timetables also give connections for communities to ‘Essential Shops’, for those needing to go out and shop for necessities such as food and medicine, which following the governments advice, must be as infrequent as possible.

    Please use contactless card for your travel and make sure you abide by social distancing rules, when both on the bus and waiting / boarding the bus.

    We will shortly be removing all other timetables from our website and publishing the two new emergency timetables. We are working as fast as we can behind the scenes to get these available as soon as possible. Please, please allow us time to do so. Our customer experience team are then available to answer any questions by phone or email.

    Thank you for your continued support and understanding.

    0808 196 2632


    Liked by 1 person

  6. DRT may be the right model for now, with the number of passengers right down, but I am not at all convinced that it is the right model long-term for when the country gets back on its feet.

    It will lead to more buses on the roads than we have now, especially if the idea is that nothing bigger than a 20-seater is used, and that will make it harder to turn a profit on commercial services. It will give less reliable or predictable journey times than a fixed timetable, and less consistent or predictable staffing and resource requirements.

    And if we’re using now as a trial period, how it works when a handful of essential journeys are being made with regular travellers is very different from when everyone wants to travel, especially those who don’t travel often or are travelling in unfamiliar areas. We can now easily find out about bus routes anywhere in the country, but if operators are using different apps then it would be a nightmare for users.

    Liked by 1 person

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