Saturday 2nd May 2020
Welcome to another weekly round up of corona-bus-and-train ramblings. (Reader alert: I’ve rambled on a bit more than usual this week.)
First up, it’s been heartening to see bus and train companies doing their bit to support local communities as the Covid-19 crisis continues. Being active in the community is a great way of making a valued contribution which will long be remembered after we’re through all this and Covid-19 has finally ‘been sent packing’. Corporate platitudinal messages from a distant HQ are pretty meaningless compared to real action in local communities.
Ensignbus are making regular collections of snacks and treats for staff working at Basildon Hospital each week including a huge selection of Easter Eggs …
… and more recently they delivered surplus ponchos donated by Golden Tours …
…although I’m not sure they’re official WHO approved PPE, but the staff seemed grateful in the photographs.
Go North East have also been making on board collections of toiletries for local hospitals…
…while Arriva drivers from Hemel Hempstead who presumably were originally destined to bring Click to Watford in March have been redeployed working with Watford Council collecting food supplies and delivering them to food banks in Watford, which is great work…
…..and similarly South Pennine Community Transport have been delivering food hampers for individuals and families as well as receiving donations which they also collect and run a brilliant on board food pick up service promoted on Twitter. As the tweet explains, you don’t have to travel; just stop the bus and help yourself.
Meanwhile ScotRail took a “vital donation of 30 bales of fabric to be made into hospital scrubs for NHS staff in Inverness, Caithness and Elgin” from a voluntary group ‘NHS Scotland for the Love of Scrubs’. The group explained the free delivery “has saved enough money in courier fees to make another 43 sets of scrubs” to add to the 1,000 sets already made after £41,000 was raised to buy the fabric.
While we’re on trains, special NHS train liveries are also still in the news with GWR running a competition last week to “simply create your own livery design” for an Hitachi Class 802 ”to show respect for key workers”; here’s the entry form, but sadly the closing date was yesterday (Friday) and although no age limit is mentioned in the news release, the entry form did ask for your age, so I guess as an over 65 I’m barred.
GWR also named a Class 800 train in honour of the wonderful Colonel Tom Moore. The five-car 800 025 was launched on his 100th birthday on Thursday; except of course it was put in hand earlier in the week when he was just plain Captain Tom Moore. I hope GWR have got the letters S, I and R ready for when the Honours list is announed in June.
And it’s not just real life trains; Hornby are producing a limited edition Class 66 engine model bearing both a ‘thank you NHS’ message and a Captain Tom Moore nameplate. It’s expected £40,000 will be donated to the NHS Charities Together from the sale of the 1,000 being made … well, 1,000 as I write; who knows with Captain Tom, demand could have risen to 30 million by the end of the month as demand pours in.
Sad news on Friday Stagecoach have cancelled their recently announced order for 34 Plaxton Panorama double deck coaches for the Oxford Tube due for delivery later this summer in what is inevitably going to be a trend of lost orders for vehicle manufacturers putting them in a precarious position; not least, I would think, Wrights which was only rescued from Administration earlier this year. Stagecoach did add the 52 new Enviro 400MMCs for Manchester are still going ahead. I hear the Government may resurrect something akin to the former New Bus Grant to try and stimulate the market for bus building and help manufacturers post lockdown. That’ll be good, but I suspect bus companies will find they’re awash with surplus vehicles in the ‘new normal’ of (20%?) reduced demand for bus travel.
Heritage Railways are also having a tough time of it. North Yorkshire Moors Railway launched a fund raising online silent auction on Monday morning encouraging supporters to bid for a range of prizes including dining on a Pullman with Piglet and a week’s stay in their Levisham camping coach. The auction is open until 29th May.
A shout out also to Nottingham Heritage Vehicles Charity who got in touch with me and do a great job preserving and restoring local transport heritage at their base in the former Trent bus garage in Hucknall. They’re asking for donations to keep their valuable work going particularly working with those on the autistic spectrum and those suffering with anxiety and loneliness. Please click on the link to see how you can help.
Meanwhile at the time of writing there’s no further word on the detail of the financial support for England’s tram systems, nor for TfL, where the Mayor had been saying it would run out of cash by Thursday, but still seems to be trading as I write. CPT is still plugging away with its Back Britain’s Coaches campaign as business casualties sadly continue – the respected Truemans coach company based in Ash Vale, Hampshire, being the latest to go into administration on Monday. I see folk are wondering how tour companies like Shearings are fairing; not too well at all I would think.
On Thursday Transport Focus published new advice for bus companies and local authorities on how to communicate bus timetable changes during the current crisis. The seven page document ‘Guidance: communicating changes to local bus services’ was requested by the DfT who expect operators receiving the new £1 per kilometre ‘Covid Bus Service Support Grant’ in England to show they have taken account of the guidance in communicating any changes to the local authority and public. The guidance is good common sense covering all the usual channels and circumstances making for a sensible check list. Worth a browse if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Also announced during the week, on Monday, was a new Inquiry by the Transport Select Committee: ‘Coronavirus: the implications for transport’. The TSC is “asking transport workers, stakeholders and members of the public to write about the transport issues they face during the coronavirus outbreak”. MPs will explore the impact felt by the industry, its workers and passengers in a rolling programme of work to monitor the impact of coronavirus on UK transport, sector by sector. Hmph; I’m a bit worried this may be dated and of no relevance by the time it gets going, let alone published, in what will be a changing scene as lockdown restrictions are eased, but if you fancy writing in, here’s the link to their website. Evidence is needed by Monday 29th June. Perhaps more relevant, would have been an Inquiry into which of the regulations and bureaucracy put on pause during the current crisis can be ditched permanently to improve efficiency and reduce unnecessary costs.
Talking of unnecessary costs I was struck by a BBC News items the other night when a reporter travelled on a train from Sheffield to St Pancras which had just one passenger on board. Keeping the railway on its tracks is apparently costing around £180 million a week; with TfL needing another £100 million or so, it makes the bus industry’s need for about £14 million a week an excellent value for money option, together with its ability to be fleet of foot in adapting to the changing demand.
Interestingly it’s been pointed out approximately half the railway’s costs are wages, so that’s costing the Government about £90 million a week. Just suppose, for a fleeting moment, the railway had been mothballed and the staff furloughed; that would have saved £18 million a week (20% of £90m) …. which is £4 million more than the minuscule support for buses. I’m not saying the railway should have been completely mothballed, but it just goes to show the excellent value buses provide comparatively speaking… and carry far more passengers too.
Doing better than that EMR train journey is Go-Coach Hire’s DRT trial in Sevenoaks. Owner Austin Blackburn reports enthusiastically at the great response from passengers so far. He’s already planning phase 2 for the end of this month with a hybrid arrangement including the return of limited standard bus timetables as lockdown eases. It’s good to see interest in what he’s doing from other areas including Suffolk and North Yorkshire.
For everyone else the big dilemma is how to practice social distancing and at the same time make public transport a practical and cost effective proposition for ‘phase 2′. This puzzle continues to exercise the best minds in the industry across all modes. I see Michael O’Leary poured scorn on the idea of leaving the middle seat empty on planes while BA announced a quarter of its staff face redundancy as it exits Gatwick (for now). No news on what train company managers are mulling over but on Friday I got involved in another Zoom session to see what twelve of the bus industry’s finest are thinking.
But after an hour’s discussion that jury is still very much out on how the future will pan out; mainly because no-one can possibly know (it’s back to that word ‘unprecedented’). First West of England are now practising strict ‘social distancing’ on board buses which has been welcomed by passengers who feel reassured as well as stakeholders who see it as the responsible thing to do. But it’s not a medium term solution and is resulting in a double deck bus capacity reduced to almost a quarter to just 20 passengers and is already leading to some peak journeys having to be quadrupled – and that’s before any phased reduction in lockdown restrictions.
I’m also thinking that covering over 75% of seats as not in use is inefficient for those passengers travelling together as a ‘household unit’. There are no easy answers to the conundrum of making buses ‘socially distant’ reassuring to travel on yet at the same time having enough capacity to (a) carry everyone wanting to travel and (b) encourage modal shift so congestion and air pollution don’t return.
Ominously huge interest in the purchase of cheap (polluting) cars is being reported online by AutoTrader.
There’s much anticipation about what next week’s promised Government ‘road map’ will have to say about social distancing and public transport. That sunlit exit to the Alpine tunnel we’re heading out of (where does he get these strange analogies from?) is looking distinctly hazy to many of us well experienced in travelling.
There’s a sense from many bus companies of waiting to see what TfL do. If they can crack social distancing on a busy Victoria Line peak hour Underground train, it should be a singe for a provincial bus operator.
It looks certain masks will feature in the ‘new normal’ public transport. As reported last week, Mayor Khan has been very vocal on this topic and over the last few days Mayor Burnham also joined the debate.
It’s possible school buses could be exempt from social distancing rules which will be helpful for operators needing peak vehicle capacity. After all, it’s not going to be practical to enforce social distancing in playgrounds I wouldn’t have thought. This should at least give some comfort to coach companies who rely on school contract income for some of their fleets. But schools may not get going until September, by which time it might be too late for many Coach companies.
Meanwhile our friends at Zeelo reckon they’ve solved the problem by announcing on Monday: “UK bus sharing company Zeelo has suggested how transport operators and agencies can look to allow social distancing on buses while still offering efficient and sustainable services”. Sounded too good to be true.
Although not particularly impressed by the rather spartan interior of the vehicle illustrating the story (albeit the two passengers on board are exercising impressive social distancing) I was intrigued to continue reading the article which appeared on the ‘Intelligent Transport’ website.
But having done so, I was none the wiser. You give it a try….
… I think their solution is basically saying ‘use Zeelo to contract coach companies to run extra journeys so everyone can socially distance safely.’ Good luck with that one.
One novel idea that came up in our Zoom session on Friday was to add an App based facility to let waiting passengers know how many passengers are already on board an approaching bus as well as when it was last sanitised and cleaned – all part of a ‘new normal’ policy to reassure passengers that bus travel is safe and welcoming.
It was inevitable news came during the week this year’s UK Bus Awards is cancelled; no-one is going to be in the mood to submit entries for the ‘Making Buses a Better Choice’ and ‘Marketing Initiative of the Year’ Awards (the most effective campaign to persuade passengers not to travel during lockdown?). The supply side of the industry won’t be in any fit state to stump up their usual dosh to sponsor the event either. The same will obviously apply to the regular Autumn bus show at the NEC and Route One magazine’s associated Awards shindig; that venue could still be a stand-by Nightingale Hospital by the usual October exhibition date in any event.
While staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives last week I continued to keep myself amused by monitoring bus and train companies’ tweets. A series of daily tweets from Go Ahead’s Plymouth City Bus and their new Transport for Cornwall brand asking us to guess the location where a photograph was taken caught my eye especially as the photos seemed to get increasingly cryptic as the days went by.
Thursday’s teaser was particularly tricky which unsurprisingly foxed everyone…
.. but there are currently more guesses for Friday’s puzzle below – which shows there are those who know their kerb stones and pavement slabs at bus stop laybys better than bushes and foliage in the background.
To conclude this week a thank you to everyone who’s been sending me snippets of news, updates and views on the content of these weekly musings. Here are a few of those feedbacks on a potpourri of matters……
First a tale of two Julians and two transport authorities. Two of the bus industry’s most experienced entrepreneurs have related fascinating contrasting experiences of the cooperation and help they’ve received from local authority partners. First the positive, Julian Patterson of Lynx Bus in north west Norfolk reports “thanks to a brilliant local authority who confirmed maintaining contract and concessionary payments before they were told to, we’re ticking over about break even while running a skeleton service”. Then why doesn’t it surprise me the not so positive comes from Manchester where the other Julian, Julian Peddle, has had to resort once again to lambasting the actions of TfGM holding bus companies to ransom. Julian a director of D&G Bus and CentreBus issued a press release on Tuesday explaining:
On 27th March Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) wrote to operators with 11 demands in return for making payments mandated by the Government and administered by TfGM. On 1st April they had to concede, and the payments were made.
One month later they have written again with a different set of 8 demands, again which have to be accepted before May payments will be made. Repeated are the two that operators found unacceptable last time, an attempt to control the commercial bus network and the companies’ employees, whilst still not paying operators the full amounts mandated under the Government support scheme.
TfGM has produced a document headed ‘principal objectives for collaborative working’ but has failed to discuss or agree its contents with operators, or the operators’ association ‘One Bus’. The document was sent out on 24th April with a requirement for operators to agree to it, without alteration, within three working days, or it threatened that payments will not be made on 1st May. The document even accepts that TfGM has failed to adhere to the principles laid out for payments by the DfT but makes no apology for its failure.
Julian added “yet again TfGM has decided to put a gun to operators heads, rather than work with them. What amazes me is that having failed once, and being forced to back down, one month later they try the same tactics again.
It’s sad they have time for such antics, and fail to understand basic human nature. No one takes threats lightly, and people and businesses react badly.”
Meanwhile news from the Lake District where my namesake good friend, fellow retired busman and author (and birthday celebrating) Roger Davies reports …
“The Lake District is shut. One of the UK’s major tourist attractions, hosting around 18 million visitors a year. It generates £3bn in revenue and provides 65,000 jobs. Stagecoach are providing a skeleton bus service and the Windermere branch line has a reduced service carrying, according to the young lady looking after Windermere station, “very few”. Windermere station forecourt has been shut for resurfacing and buses now stop down the road at the Tourist Information centre.
Here is a bus on the 505 to Coniston on April 25 and a train near Staveley.
It is ironic that after a truly dreadful winter we have enjoyed the longest spell of good weather anyone can remember, it has not rained for over four weeks. Things will never be the same again.”
Talking birthday celebrating, mention of my good friend Ray Stenning’s birthday bash a couple of weeks ago which has led to an outpouring of well deserved support around the country with a myriad of buses in his Best Impressions’ designed livery being named in honour of Ray – the latest this week on a Buses in Somerset branded bus.
TfL have featured in a number of recent blogposts, not least because of its radical middle door boarding stance leading to a complete loss of fares income. One comment contributor last week explained how reassuring this policy was in the context of bus driver deaths, which I also had mentioned, adding it was quite understandable, but it’s a controversial policy and another view from a bus driver circulating on social media was passed to me by the also birthday celebrating Ross Newman at Ensignbus (Happy Birthday Ross). Here it is:
Personally I feel the new ‘rear door boarding only’ way on buses was a wrong move by Tfl. Now I know this next bit will not be favoured by many of you and other drivers and I respect that. I feel that drivers had sufficient protection from people and the elements before they closed off the front doors. We had the assault screen anyway, a film covering over the speech holes in the perspex itself, plus the front seats (on an Enviro) taped off. There are other keyworkers in society currently who have no or little protection such as supermarket workers, and they are still working as normal. All the rear door only boarding has attracted so far (and this is coming from a driver myself and experienced the variation in loadings since the new way started this week), is people who don’t usually ever use the bus jumping on and bus hopping simply because they can, freeloaders and selfish people, ultimately meaning a busier more packed bus for us drivers, and THAT is now the problem, which completely defeats the point of having all these measures in place, oh and social distancing now goes out the window as a result. By doing what Tfl has done, we have now been put at more risk from this deadly virus.
Which just goes to show how dealing with the impact of Covid-19 is not simple or straight forward.
It’s becoming ever more evident as lockdown continues that we’ve done the easy bit, shutting down (or in the case of buses and trains, severely slimming down); now for the hard part … how to ramp (gradually) back up again. That is going to be the greatest challenge ever faced by the industry, and it lies ahead as we enter into Lockdown Week7 after Monday…..
Finally for this week, how nice Co-op Funeral Care in Wallsend (yes i know it’s Funeral Care, but it’s still a positive story… ) are championing different sets of key workers each week and last week it’s been the turn of public transport workers helping to keep the region moving. Ah; so cute.