Saturday 18th April 2020
And so Lockdown Week 4 is nearly at an end and we’re still very much in the ‘who’d have thought it’ phase of Covid-19’s transport fallout. From free bus travel across most of London to committing billions on HS2; it’s been quite another week.
This coming Monday sees TfL’s finances take a further downward dive as it switches to free travel for most bus passengers across London. Who’d have thought that would happen just one month ago? It follows last week’s hastily arranged middle door boarding trial in response to drivers’ concerns at passengers coming too close to their screen protected cabs when boarding through the front door. No such reassurance for drivers on the 52 more minor bus routes operated by single front door only buses in London though, where passengers will still pass by drivers’ cabs just like happens everywhere else in the UK. But there’ll be no need to touch in on the ticket machine. Bus passenger numbers in London have reduced to 85% of normal times so many observe the revenue lost is not that great; but it’s still 15% of a large amount of dosh about to be forgone.
It’s not going to help the financial recovery in the Capital with TfL already struggling from four years of frozen fares and an ever delayed Crossrail. Neither is running bus routes at service levels well in excess of demand. Take one small example of this genre: Route 404 a backwater suburban round-the-houses route running between Caterham-on-the-Hill and Coulsdon.
Its half hourly ‘Saturday’ timetable is now operating all week, but that’s much the same as the half hourly Monday to Friday timetable anyway. Route 404 never used to operate on a Sunday until just before lockdown was announced on Monday 23rd March, TfL went ahead with its long planned minor change to part of the route together with the introduction of a new half hourly service all day Sundays from 06:27 to 19:44. Despite travel being restricted to essential purposes only, two buses have continued to run up and down the 37 minute route for the last four Sundays and will carry on doing so as lockdown continues, with I’m guessing, no passengers travelling on board at all. Still, at least drivers will feel protected and safe I suppose.
Other such anomalies can be found in provincial busland too; not least in Manchester where TfGM continues to enhance its reputation for shambolic rigidity and frustrating bus companies who see example after example of buses running where they’re simply not needed, not least school buses to schools which are closed or carrying a taxi load of a passenger. Manchester Community Transport (MCT Travel) and Jim Stones Coaches have both sadly ceased trading with consequential changes to many tendered bus routes organised by TfGM from this weekend, yet I’m told no details were available online even yesterday, Friday. Thankfully details are now posted on TfGM’s website, but as usual with these things, you have to know something is changing, unless you diligently and regularly click an online list of service changes as a lockdown pastime.
Meanwhile down in Cornwall where the County’s new ‘Superbus’ style Transport for Cornwall branded publicly funded network was introduced at the end of Lockdown Week 1, a correspondent commenting on last week’s Blogpost reports you can find “four buses linking closed tourist attractions in North Cornwall running from ten past eight in the morning to three minutes past nine in the evening; an hourly bus service between Looe and Polperro with one bus every two hours diverting via a closed camping site; buses to remote hamlets which have never previously enjoyed a Sunday service before last month while essential workers continue to complain at the continuing absence of early morning and evening buses to get them to and from work with care home workers particularly affected”.
I understand nobody has yet been furloughed in the rail industry. It must make social distancing in staff canteens and mess rooms a challenge as surely they must be pretty busy with less drivers and on board staff needed for the slimmed down timetables out on the tracks. I guess Government thinking is they’re paying for everything on the railway now anyway, so it’s not worth worrying about the 20% saving by reducing pay to a furloughed 80% pay rate. But those twenty percents would all add up; as would the savings achieved if the number of near empty trains were reduced to better match the 5% of passengers reportedly now travelling.
I love the idea that someone is tweeting for Grand Central Trains every day even though no trains are running. “Good morning, we’re here to help until 22:00” they duly tweet every morning at 06:00; and then bidding us all goodnight after a hard days non-tweeting at 22:00. Even better those tweets often gets three or four likes too!
It’s reported the rail industry is costing Government around £160 million a week; with TfL losing £100 million each week. Provincial buses are surviving on £14 million per week (plus the existing funding).
Whichever way you look at it, the commercial bus industry has really come into its own over the last few weeks showing enormous flexibility and responsiveness. Introducing flexible use of tickets across operators, concessionary passes before 09:30 and coordinated timetables are just some examples introduced at very short notice. A pragmatic deal was quickly reached with Government for financial support (Covid Bus Services Support Grant) even though they “will not be permitted to achieve an operational margin through CBSSG funding”. The £1 a km payment (actually to be precise, it’s £1.0051) is in return for companies operating ‘essential’ timetables at “up to 50%” of normal levels despite demand plummeting by at least 90%. In more normal times such a disparity between supply and demand would have meant instant service withdrawals but now it’s seen as a measure of success for key workers to be able to travel to work, whatever the cost. What a pity such an approach wasn’t around over the last few decades during the vicious spiral of retrenchment and decline. Still, better late than never, it’s really positive buses are being seen as a valued resource and their staff as key workers; and all at a very reasonable cost per mile compared to other mass movement modes.
Let’s hope this supportive attitude and financial grants towards buses will continue as the other existential threat facing the world – climate change – is slowly and steadily creeping up on us.
I took part in a fascinating “round table” (thanks Zoom) discussion with leading lights in the bus industry on Friday afternoon sharing ideas about the industry’s exit strategy from bus lockdown.
Much will depend on how return to normality is ramped up (to coin one of the many Covid-19 phrases we’re becoming accustomed to) as we’re all keen to see buses play a key role in our transport future. But there are understandable concerns that until mass Covid vaccination is available by mid 2021 (if we’re lucky) how the new social distancing norm will work in practice on board buses once the “avoid public transport at all costs” message is lifted and we are allowed gingerly back out to travel again for more than the essentials.
Sadiq Khan has been banging the drum these last few days for mask wearing as the way forward which isn’t surprising when you think how impractical it is to enforce a 2 metre rule on a peak time bus on route 24, never mind a Victoria Line Tube. Apparently Dublin Bus now reckon a double decker is full up with 18 people socially distancing on board. In the UK Stagecoach are having to lay on four socially distanced practising double decks on a journey taking workers to a food distribution plant in the Midlands whereas in pre Covid days one bus would have worked perfectly well for the numbers travelling. My colleagues tell me around 30 is about right for a social distanced double deck capacity – and that’s if you can persuade passengers to go upstairs, which apparently is not easy to do. The economics of running buses to such a business model is obviously flawed before they even leave the garage.
With schools likely to be among the first institutions returning to normal working post lockdown, their consequential need for buses will put a strain on peak hour resources with little compensating increase in the off-peak if concessionary pass holders are still required to continue watching Homes Under The Hammer instead of enjoying retirement making use of their bus pass. The economics of such an imbalanced network is also obviously flawed with no flattening of the bus graph curve.
So it’s not going to be an easy summer that’s for sure, and Government will need to make provision to pay the much welcomed Covid Bus Services Support Grant for many more months yet. “Turn-up-and-go” style frequencies are not returning any time soon; the passenger numbers just won’t be there to justify it. Sunday frequencies will be too little; Saturday frequencies too much. We’ll need Goldilocks style ‘Sunurday’ frequencies for a few months. It looks like much valued back room bus schedulers are going to be busy bees once again.
In other news this week the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) has commendably launched its campaign to Back Britain’s Coaches. Coach operators up and down the country are on the edge of extinction as future business has all but collapsed. CPT points out coach tourism contributes over £6 billion to the economy each year so its unfortunate the Government has requested the Local Government Association withdraw the advice to operators to access support being offered to leisure businesses (rates relief and grants) as “they do not believe coach operators fall within the scope of the leisure definition”.
CPT is on the case and is encouraging coach operators to provide information on the financial impact the outbreak has had on their business so a case for specific support for the coach sector can be made. But, it’s concerning that as at Friday over 500 coach operator members of CPT have yet to respond to a simple request to provide key financial figures. It’s no good moaning about your business being under threat if you don’t help those trying to help you.
It’s not as if Government aren’t holding back on support and funding at the moment. I’m sure I’m not the only one to raise an eyebrow at Wednesday’s award of £3.3 billion worth of contracts to begin the first phase of HS2. Accompanying the announcement, the DfT published a revised business case for the project. But this was prepared before the Covid-19 pandemic which HS2 critics have been quick to point out will fundamentally alter UK travel demand. They may well have a point.
Finally for now, it’s a shame so few passengers will be able to see the appreciation being shown on train sides for our much loved and valued NHS now installed on a Thameslink and Southern train – appropriately enough units numbered 700111 and 377111 respectively. I wonder if this will start a trend.