Saturday 25th April 2020
Lockdown Week 5 will soon be over and done with and there’s a definite air of the new ‘normal’ becoming normalised. I’ve become unnervingly accustomed to seeing empty buses sauntering along traffic free roads and trains gliding along the tracks carrying fresh air and not thinking it won’t be long before these little used journeys are cut back “to save costs”. It’s something of a luxury to not worry about empty buses and trains thanks to the all new and welcome “whatever it takes” Government financial support. Except, we all know it won’t and can’t last.
You can also tell things are settling down with social media channels sporting a welter of amusing distractions dreamt up by low-pressed tweeters unaccustomed to having so much time on their hands. I know most of these distractions are hilarious to many; and I may be suffering from a humour by-pass, but it seems to me some of the non-furloughed-remaining-on-full-pay train company tweeters might be better occupied reading a book than thinking they’re reality show entertainers. Last week saw LNER’s twitter team spend the best part of a day running a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire style quiz (since deleted from their timeline) while other TOCs are filming and uploading dancing staff aiming to outdo each other by challenging a fellow TOC. This is not a Strictly Come Dancing entertainment interlude. This is a tax-payer fully funded railway carrying vitually no one and with all staff’s wages paid for by the public. Rant over.
On a brighter note and following GTR’s lead. reported last time. more dignified and ever more novel NHS tributes have been appearing across fleets over the last week. Not least the rather clever bus parking arrangement overseen by Brighton & Hove’s Lewes Road bus garage supervisor Lee Weir last weekend and captured by drone (see lead photo above).
You can always tell a good idea because as sure as ‘ramping up’, ‘guided by the science’ and ‘flattening the curve’ appear in every Number Ten Coronavirus press conference Bingo card, so you’d just know similar bus parking variations would soon be circulating across social media; and it wasn’t long before East Yorkshire and Stagecoach’s Elgin garage joined in the vehicle manoeuvring fun for the NHS clapathon on Thursday.
Stagecoach even posted a video of the pre display manoeuvring captured by their drone on YouTube. Worth a quick look here.
Over in Keighley a special bus was named in honour of the town’s new local born national hero Captain Tom Moore; what would anyone give to have chart topping Tom as an ambassador and fundraiser for their industry? What a truly fantastic man. Wonder if he likes buses?!
Sister company Harrogate Bus Company extended the thanks theme further by adding photographs of locally based key worker staff (Harrogate heroes) to the side of a bus making for a great community link.
Meanwhile on the trains Northern followed GTR’s lead by adorning four trains including 195111 with an NHS supportive message and it can’t be long before other class fleet numbers ending 111 around the country follow in the same tracks.
Service reductions seem to have reached their nadir now. You might think Cross Country are doing some sensible pruning from this Monday by reducing the extreme ends of its hourly cross country routes to a more sensible two-hourly frequency. This effects south of Reading to Bournemouth; south of Bristol to Plymouth (Penzance was culled weeks ago); north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Edinburgh; east of Leicester to Cambridge (Stansted was culled weeks ago); west of Birmingham (from Nottingham) to Cardiff.
However over on LNER’s website are details of a stepping up of the East Coast Main Line service from the previously operated two-hourly London to Edinburgh increasing to hourly (thus compensating for the Cross Country cutback north of York) by extending its perviously two-hourly journeys terminating in York on to Edinburgh. Am I alone in thinking the frequencies being run on the railway are still far too generous for the reported 5% of passengers travelling, particularly on long distance routes which surely can’t be accommodating many, if any, essential workers who I would guess mostly work locally?
Not previously recorded on these blogpost updates are reductions on the Arriva owned Yorkshire Tiger network of ‘Flying Tiger’ branded routes serving Leeds Bradford Airport. From Sunday 19th April route 757 (Leeds to the Airport) ceased operating completely with route 737 (Bradford to the Airport) terminating short at Yeadon while route 747 (Harrogate to Bradford) continues but not serving the airport. All very sensible, and although Yorkshire Tiger’s home webpage summarises these changes, it’s a bit confusing that pre-Covid timetables are still on display when clicking on the Timetables tab.
Back in London the implications of making all bus travel free have not surprisingly soon became financially obvious with Mayor Khan making the point TfL will run out of cash next week unless the Government throws it a bail out lifeline. Sources tell me DfT mandarins were distinctly unimpressed with the free fares policy being introduced seeing it as the Mayor’s mistaken knee jerk reaction to Unite the Union’s pressure following their understandable concerns at the number of bus driver deaths. Outside of London every other bus company continues to charge fares, albeit some have moved to an exact fare policy without drivers handling the cash as well as heavily promoting use of contactless. Go North West launched a small tray for passengers to use to hand cash over to the driver which looked a neat solution.
Over at Ensign Bus the team issued a statement on Monday as “a number of of people have asked if we are going to follow TfL London Buses and only allow centre door boarding and have free travel for everyone”. In a characteristic straight talking response the company pointed out they only have front doors; from early on hand sanitisers were installed on buses, protective gloves and face masks provided to all staff with protective screens and social distancing. The response went on to explain “we rely on fares revenue for our services to survive; we cannot just say everything is now free”, pointing out London buses are part funded by the taxpayer and other means. “It’s a bit like saying to a supermarket all food should be free”.
Interestingly Ensign’s statement went on to say “alarmingly there have been social media reports from London bus drivers claiming current free travel has increased the amount of people travelling on them with people making non-essential journeys because the buses are free”.
And at the daily Number 10 Coronavirus Press Briefings the travel graph now shows TfL bus use stopped as at 19 April as presumably no-one has any idea how many people are travelling as recording ceased with everyone piling on and off for free through the centre door.
It’s not going to be easy to exit this free fares strategy. Good luck with that one Sadiq. It looks like the unions may well be the new ‘influencers’ in the Capital as there were also reports on Tuesday (BBC London’s Tom Edwards tweeting) “sources say new interim tube timeables due to start on Sunday has been postponed for a week. Unions rejected it as unsafe”.
Meanwhile TfL announced on Friday it was furloughing a quarter of its 28,000 staff – and that number doesn’t include any staff working for the contracted bus companies of course. It does make you wonder why it’s taken so long, what they’ve been doing for the last five weeks and what the other 21,000 staff not being furloughed are doing now.
Earlier in the week the Urban Transport Group on behalf of tram and light rail operators called on the Government to provide assistance for their ailing finances. Mayor Burnham was reported as saying he’d have to mothball Manchester’s Metrolink without a timely bail out; which actually might not be a bad idea for some of that network. I can’t believe the new 5.5 km extension to the Intu owned Trafford Centre was introduced the day before lockdown on Sunday 22 March and would be amazed if it’s carrying anyone. Unbelievably it’s being promoted online even now!
Grant Shapps drew the short straw of turning up at the daily press conference on Friday which was an opportunity to let it be known a rescue package would indeed be heading towards the tram operators but interestingly no word in the announcement about Croydon (nor aiding TfL more generally) or Blackpool (and Edinburgh, albeit that comes under Transport Scotland’s juridisction).
There’s no doubt Government funding is going to be necessary across all public transport modes for some considerable time ahead. A poll released today from consultancy Systra suggests commuters using buses and the Underground in London “could fall by as much as 40% from pre-lockdown levels” with “rail use dropping by 27%” although there’s no background information indicating the ‘scientific validity’ of the poll.
The biggest unresolved issue for post lockdown public transport still remains how on earth social distancing measures can apply on buses, trains, Underground and trams once travel restrictions begin to be lifted. Realistically keeping a 2 metre distance is not possible without a significant reduction in capacity (and its economic consequences, let alone availability of vehicles) and just at a time when public transport availability will be crucial to avoid a return to extensive car use, congestion and air pollution.
Measures will be needed to ‘suppress the peak’ (for travel, not ICU bed occupation) by encouraging workplaces to stagger their operational times so employees can travel to and from work at quieter times. This could also be encouraged by transport operators offering price incentives; e.g. attractive fare reductions for travel pre 07:30. School attendances may also need to be staggered and, for sure, we’re all going to be wearing face masks when using public transport, so get the sewing kit out of that multi purpose drawer in the kitchen now.
There also needs to be a balance between those high-viz, yellow and black security style, safety shouty-at-you notices aimed at instructing passengers to the new Covid-19 coping way of behaviour and offering a warm friendly welcome to the attractive world of public transport travel.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) updated its members on Friday including news of its Back Britain’s Coaches campaign. It’s good to see 300 coach companies responded to CPT’s request for details of coach ‘mothball’ costs so a case can be put for support over the medium term. A few coach companies have got together to produce a nice little five minute video explaining the challenges. You can view it here. There’s no doubt coach companies are really up against it and more company failures will sadly surely be in the news during the next few weeks.
My other highlight of the week was receiving another update letter from the CEO of Stagecoach, Martin Griffiths which was nice of him – I haven’t heard anything from the CEOs of Arriva and First even though I must have handed over my email address a multitude of times when signing in to use their onboard wifi – I’m guessing that’s how Martin has contacted me!
Martin courteously “would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your part in helping us to keep operating our vital bus services safety to protect our customers and our drivers, ensuring we contribute to get key workers to their jobs and help people to shop for essentials”. Which is all very nice, but I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve such thanks; other than stay at home. The letter goes on to tell me about the way “heroes behind the wheel” are also helping in communities with grocery shopping among other things as well as running shuttles for NHS staff and additional services to food production sites and distribution centres. All good PR stuff I guess.
Finally, in other news this week it was interesting to read South Western Railway’s Class 707 trains will be offloaded on to southeastern as part of a leasing deal between the two TOCs. Presumably the deal follows the recently announced award of a contract extension to southeastern. The 30 5-car units had been ordered by South West Trains and only entered service in 2017, just at the same time as new franchise holder SWR decided to get shot of them in favour of brand new Bombardier Aventra class 701 trains instead. Such is the Alice in Wonderland world of train fleet procurement. Speculation is the non-toilet equipped 707s will be used on ‘metro’ type services such as the Hayes line.
As a twist on the bus parking drone photo, I’ll leave you with Go North East’s NHS tribute from its Deptford garage on Thursday.
Lockdown Week 6 beckons.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.