Saturday 9th May 2020
Week 7’s almost over as speculation grows about how the hell we’re going to get out of the lockdown travel conundrum of providing enough capacity as restrictions ease without compromising social distancing while also avoiding an exponential increase in motoring, congestion and pollution. Anticipation has built towards Johnson’s announcement on Sunday of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown but I’m not confident it’ll get us out of the cul-de-sac we seem to be in. Even the Secretary of State for Transport hadn’t a clue what to do at the beginning of the week.
Take last Sunday’s Andrew Marr programme on BBC1. Grant Shapps drew the short straw for the customary Sunday morning Ministerial grilling on TV’s political programmes. He did his best to toe the Government’s well honed obsfucation about the care homes crisis, failures in PPE, lack of testing, appalling death rate etc etc before being given three minutes at the end of the programme to discuss his apparent specialist subject: transport. After trying to justify the lack of testing of arriving passengers at airports over the last couple of months Shapps was challenged by Marr on the thorny question of trains and social distancing….
Marr: If you’e going to enforce social distancing by 2 metres or whatever in trains then, as we heard earlier on, you’re going to have to cut people in a train by something like 12% of the norm which means the vast majority of commuters around the country will not be able to get to work by train. How are you thinking about doing this, how are you going to organise it?
Shapps: You’re absolutely right about the scale of the problem here, of course about 95% of commuters aren’t travelling at all now, we’ve only got key workers. The first thing is we’ll obviously expand the number of trains and buses running. The second thing to say is active travel is a very important part of this by which I mean cycling, walking and so on; we’ve seen a massive expansion….
Marr (interrupting the waffle): If you’re thirty miles away from work you can’t walk there.
Shapps: Of course
Marr: So will you, for instance be distancing people who are queueing at bus stops or distancing people who are queuing outside train stations and on platforms and then limiting the number of people who can get on to a train possibly by forward booking?
Shapps: So I’m looking at working with the train companies, unions and all the rest of it and there’s a series of different things we can do including for example staggering work times, working with business organisations to do that but I just want to make the point about bikes, you’re right not everyone will be able to cycle I totally accept that but there’s been a massive increase, I’ve been looking at the figures, hundreds of percent more people using the existing scheme where you can go to your employer and ask for a bike through that which you pay back through the loan and effectively before you pay tax. That’s a very popular scheme and active mobility is something we can do a lot more of.
And that was his solution. So now we know. Norman Tebbit was right all those years ago; the strategy is “on your bike”. I like cycling too but the future of mass transit? I don’t think so. And as someone rightly pointed out on social media, where are all the cycle racks in towns and cities for the “hundreds of percent” growth in use?
Train companies are gearing up for new timetables and schedules from next weekend, 17 May, which was always the date for the mid year timetable change, with reports circulating it’ll be a 70%, Saturday style, service with emphasis on commuter routes rather than inter-city. Graham Vidler, CEO of the Confederation of Passenger Transport advised in the organisation’s weekly update on Thursday “CPT has been in extensive discussions with ministers and officials this week about how we ramp up bus services as the economy begins to reopen. Clearly whatever social distancing measures remain in place for travelling on public transport will have a huge difference on capacity and I have been pushing ministers to provide clarity on this, alongside the necessary support to allow operators to run increased mileage without a significant increase in passenger numbers. We are making progress but there is still some more work to do.”
Staggering work times mentioned by Shapps in the interview is all very well and makes a lot of sense, but surely it’s going to need 2012 Olympics style coordination otherwise employers and businesses could all ‘stagger’ their times to the same ‘new’ and simply shift the peak to a new bulging off peak. Years of pre-planning went into the 2012 Olympics to avoid transport hotspots with high profile media, online and poster campaigns advising us all when peak hour London stations were likely to be busy with alternatives suggested as well as information at other venues around the country.
Developing this theme, on Wednesday, London TravelWatch held an ‘Emerging from lockdown’ webinar featuring, among others, Deputy Mayor for Transport, Heidi Alexander.
Heidi freely admitted she had no idea what to expect in the immediate future. “If anyone tells you that they know exactly what’s going to happen, they’re lying. We are in completely unprecedented times, short of New York, there is probably not a city in the world where the transport ecosystem is as complicated as it is in London and I think also that there are few cities where pre Covid the population had a similar tolerance to levels of overcrowding that it had in London. People put up with a lot in London if you think about the rush hour and this makes it a very very complicated picture as the Government eases the movement restrictions that it has placed on us all. It’s a difficult puzzle that we’re trying to fix at the moment. I sometimes feel as if at City Hall and TfL we’re trying to do a jigsaw puzzle in the dark, because at the moment the Government haven’t obviously set out their answers to some of the really really big problems that we’re all talking about at the moment. When are schools going to go back; is it just going to be primary schools or secondary schools; will it be all pupils in a year group or just some; what sectors of the economy are they going to open up first… non essential retail …those people over 70 and in vulnerable groups ….use of face coverings in crowded settings ….. I don’t have the answers to those questions because the Government hasn’t yet been clear as to what its answers are going to be. At the heart of it we’re not even clear for example as to whether the 2 metre social distancing requirement that we’ve become very very accustomed to is going to remain in place. So we’re all waiting with quite bated breath I would say for the Prime Minister’s speech on Sunday.”
It’s a bit concerning, like the Secretary of State for Transport, that the Mayor’s office and his Deputy in London responsible for transport, have no better clue of what’s likely to happen than pundits like myself. Surely they should be determining policy and a strategy for ending the lockdown not doing jigsaws in the dark?
Heidi did present an interesting chart showing the devastating impact of normal peak hour surges on the Underground (left hand blue spiky graph) and current demand (right hand side) showing the network capacity with either 2 metre social distancing (blue line on current service and red line on normal service) and 1 metre (green line). It’s not looking very good.
And then on Wednesday the PM himself was at it. In Prime Minister’s Questions London’s Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers pointed out TfL’s announcements on the London Underground have been wrongly saying passengers shouldn’t be on the system unless they’re key workers (if you can’t work from home and your job continues then you need to get to work, key worker status or not) so she asked the Prime Minister to ask the Mayor to restore public transport capacity in London so her constituents can travel safely to keep as much of the economy going as possible.
Naturally, Theresa being a Tory, Johnson replied the honourable lady was quite right to raise it adding (and in complete ignorance of the implications of Heidi’s capacity limiting graphs) “a crucial part of our success now in getting transport to run safely will be running a bigger and more expansive tube service so that people can observe social distancing and we’ll certainly be working with the Mayor to try to achieve that though there must be, and we’ll come to this on Sunday and next week as well, there must be mitigations to help people (who) for reasons of social distancing cannot use mass transit; and there’ll be a huge amount of planning going into helping people to get to work other than by mass transit” and turning to the former Secretary of State for Transport, Johnson concluded “this should be a new golden age of cycling”. Maybe thinking Grayling would fix it so we’ll all be buying bicycles from shops that don’t sell bicycles, or naff ones from a dodgy supplier in Turkey?
I’m sure cycling and walking “and so on” as Shapps added (what other ‘active travel’ was he thinking of … swimming to work?) are going to be important, but make no mistake, they won’t make much of a dent in mass transit commutes such as Brighton to London. Not even e-scotters will do that – another diversionary discussion which absorbed the London Travelwatch panel in Wednesday’s session. A total red herring when the elephant in the room is solving the conundrum of social distancing and mass movement public transport being incompatible.
Still in London, the seldom positive RMT launched a campaign on Monday to demand a reversal of TfL’s “disgraceful” decision to deny free travel to London Underground’s cleaners.
And for once I’m in complete agreement with the RMT. I think it is a disgrace these so called “heroes” doing such “vital work” – making sure tube trains are clean with virus free surfaces – are outsourced to businesses usually paying minimum wages with precious few benefits and Tube style employment conditions. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said “the hypocrisy towards Tube cleaners is breath-taking”. He’s right. Take cleaning back in house London Underground, and give the cleaners the free travel perk all other Underground workers enjoy. They’ll appreciate that more than a bit of weekly clapping, I bet.
Stagecoach published a ‘six point plan’ for the ‘new normal’ this week (makes a change from the ‘five pillars’ the Government prefers for these things). A concise summary might be… (1) rebuild confidence in mass transit with a move away from peak-time commuting to spread demand; (2) prioritise street space for walking, cycling and high capacity public transport as well as ‘mobility hubs’; (3) new strategies for High Streets; (4) lifestyle changes to replace car trips with public transport; (5) transformation of how transport journeys are taxed (polluters pay); (6) investment in decarbonisation including electric buses and release the potential for bus manufacturers.
Meanwhile as First West of England began downsizing it’s double deck fleet to a capacity of just 20 seats on each bus on Monday, First Bus in Scotland told BBC News “social distancing will be unsustainable” and “it would not be possible to run enough buses to comply with the current rules”. Commercial Director Graeme Mac Farlane added “the transport system is not going to be able to provide all of the normal capacity that people would expect to be there”.
Adding to the ‘how’s it ever going to work debate’ the Scotsman carried an article on Wednesday suggesting “event-style queuing systems” and “new one-way systems on platforms and boarding and alighting from trains” are likely “according to train operator Abellio”. The paper pointed out “this could reduce punctuality” and “space on trains is likely to be significantly cut” A spokesperson said “crowd management like we have for major events (like sporting fixtures or concerts) could be normal practice for the rest of the year. One way systems could be extended to passengers getting on and off trains perhaps using different doors. Passengers will also be encouraged not to stand up until the train reaches a station to prevent people crowding round doors”.
I’m not sure how that will work, as passengers boarding won’t see anyone at the door wanting to alight, so they’ll naturally start boarding and then clash with the alighters.
If train capacity “is reduced to 15-20%” of normal, as the article explains, I just don’t see how passengers will ever expect to get on a train from an intermediate station. They’ll have to gamble someone is going to alight, like waiting outside to get into Tesco, except trains may only be half hourly or hourly. Someone has also made the point that a 1,400 capacity Thameslink Class 700 train taking a full load at Brighton Station would mean a queue stretching for 1.7 miles of passengers keeping 2 metres apart – the distance from Brighton to the next station at Preston Park is only 1 mile.
Transport Focus have been beavering away with more surveys to identify attitudes to using public transport post Covid-19. The online 2,000 sample sized survey, which will be repeated weekly, showed an overwhelming 83% thought hand sanitiser should be available with 62% wanting social distancing in place which leads to the obvious thought, what if social distancing was in place but means you can’t travel due to lack of capacity, then what do you think?
Ominously other answers in the survey show 60% saying they’ll drive more rather than use public transport (and air quality proponents hope congestion was going to be a thing of the past?) with 51% saying they will cycle and walk more rather than use public transport.
Mask wearing was not quite so clear cut, with 51% not happy using public transport unless passengers are required to wear a mask but in the same sample size only 28% will be wearing a masks outside for “my own and for others’ safety”.
Overall 24% said there’d be happy to travel again by public transport “as soon as travel restrictions are relaxed” which doesn’t strike me as a very encouraging result for anyone banking on a financially sound short term future for public transport.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) also weighed in with some not-so-pleasant thoughts on Monday suggesting peak hour fares needed to be raised. Among its recommendations the IFS said the usual logic of promoting public transport use – to cut congestion and pollution – “could be reversed in order to limit the spread of the virus on packed commuter trains and buses, especially in London. The government could alter the relative prices of different types of commutes to better reflect this new reality. Examples would be to increase the relative price of commuting at peak times on the London tube and bus network, or to suspend the London congestion charge for drivers,” it said in its report.
It’s becoming clear bus and train companies must tread a fine line between reassuring passengers what measures are being taken to clean and sanitise vehicles to make them safe to travel in while at the same time not overdoing the message to the extent it makes a bus and train look like a murder scene, or worse still there’s been a radiation leak from a nuclear reactor.
I saw a classic example of this with a bus cleaner hard at work in full hazmat suit attire in what I guess was meant to be a reassuring tweet with accompanying video from TrawsCymru during the week. Personally I felt distinctly un-reassured just watching it let alone travelling on board. I can’t help thinking if it’s that bad at the end of the day, what’s it like if I travelled mid afternoon! See what you think on this link.
The supermarkets have shown the way; they offer a welcome but at the same time demonstrate good safe hygiene practices and I feel quite comfortable doing the shopping.
Prentice of Haddington promoted an interesting experimental solution on Monday comprising a plastic protective screen between certain pairs of seats. They explained “once the design is approved we will aim to fit these wherever possible on our buses to protect our passengers and aid social distancing”.
In other positive news this week, Tuesday was ‘Show Your Appreciation For Bus And Coach Workers’ day organised by the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT). It was lovely to see social media full of praise for the new found public transport heroes, now rightly dubbed ‘key workers’ (even those outsourced cleaners were involved) including over fifty tweets by CPT featuring front line and back room staff across a range of companies from all over the country. Some featured in regional media which was good and even Danny Boyle got in on the campaign with a video clip in a tweet giving a shout out to his local bus route the 524 between Bury and Bolton via Radcliffe.
Also this week Chiltern Railways caught up with GTR and Northern by adding a ‘Thank you NHS’ message’ to its train fleet number 168111…..
…. and preparations got underway at Network Rail and its contractors to shortly begin rebuilding Gatwick Airport’s rail station and realise long laid plans to substantially increase its capacity … but just as Virgin Atlantic followed British Airways in announcing they’re mothballing their operation at the airport with 3,000 workers redundant. Sadly the third largest airline at Gatwick, Norwegian Air is also grounded and not in good financial health. It makes sense to press on with this station expansion while passenger numbers are much reduced thereby causing minimal inconvenience as train services are also reduced in any event; but there’s no doubt this refurbished station won’t be needed in its new enlarged form for many many years to come.
Following its Back Britain’s Coaches campaign, CPT announced on Thursday the coach tourism industry needs £65 million each month to stave off bankruptcy for many coach operators. That might sound like an awful lot of money but contextualising it a bit, it’s roughly two and a half a day’s worth (instead of a month’s worth) of financial support the rail industry is receiving which is normally also in the tourism and leisure travel market. The best way forward in the short to medium term for many coach companies might be to utilise their vehicles and drivers as back up for the many buses (and even trains) which are going to overload with returning commuters if the new socially distanced public transport world becomes a reality.
Some are already on to this, and I’ve featured the techy company Zeelo in previous blogpost round ups and they’re still at it, sending emails encouraging me to hire bespoke coaches to get my employees safely to their work place.
I also spotted Grey’s of Ely (Est.1947) also explaining last week how their reduced capacity would work with a poorly loaded but nicely socially distanced coach. Covid safe; financially unsound.
Meanwhile England’s tram systems got their promised bail out this week with £30 million for a 12 week period back dated to mid March; but it wasn’t enough for some of them including Tyne & Wear who are concerned its share of the pot (£8.6 million) won’t be enough to fill the £10 million hole in its budget. Tobyn Hughes. managing director, said “the government’s funding goes a long way towards that and is very welcome, but it still leaves a funding gap that we need to close”.
Characteristically Mayor Burnham, who receives £11.6 million, said he was “struggling to find words of support about this decision” adding “at the start, we were told to spend what we needed to provide essential services, but now we find out we only have three-quarters of the income Metrolink needs to run at its current reduced services for key workers and essential journeys”. Burnham added once the funding ends in early June, “we will simply not be able to continue running Metrolink. The public should be under no illusions that mothballing the largest light rail network in the country remains a very real possibility.” Bearing in mind Blackpool have done just that with the parallel bus route adequately providing a replacement, it might be an interesting experiment if Burnham went ahead with his threat, especially if passenger numbers are still minimal. Something for all those coaches lying idle around the country to get their wheels into … and much cheaper per mile too.
A few other news snippets from the week include LNER reporting it’s now using new electronic whistles to dispatch trains….
…. apparently they’re much safer to use, if not quite so traditional as the old style. In a Covid-19 world it’s better to avoid hand to mouth contact. Give the whistle a play via this video clip on this tweet to see what you think.
If you’re nostalgic for a good old dot-to-dot puzzle during lockdown, Avanti West Coast obliged on Tuesday with this puzzle to complete:
And a shout out to the team at First Kernow whose engineers have hurriedly converted their publicity vehicle into a mobile clinic for NHS Cornwall’s newborn baby screening team enabling them to continue their work but now out in the community during the pandemic. What a great idea and gesture.
This week’s look in on an area comes courtesy of East Midlands resident and bus industry follower Daniel Stone who contacted me during the week with news of bus operations in his home area…..
My local operator, Trentbarton, in addition to the usual measures such as more stringent cleaning regimes and – for the first time – installation of cab screens which the company had always shied away from until now, one measure I was particularly impressed to see was the extension and diversion of certain journeys on buses in and out of Nottingham at key times to serve the Queens Medical Centre Hospital, providing new direct links at core times for the heroes deep in the thick of this crisis, the NHS staff who are working extra hard to keep us safe and fighting fit.
My local Stagecoach Depot at Mansfield has been making great use of the extra capacity introduced when taking the ‘pronto’ service in house after Trentbarton relinquished their share, by utilising spare Enviro 400MMC’s from the reduced service across the rest of the Mansfield Depot network, taking the ‘pronto’ brand to unusual (and often far from exotic) areas of the network. It’s allowed Stagecoach to encourage passengers still travelling to practice safer social distancing much easier than with a saloon
Nottingham City Transport have also done a sterling job during all this, reducing services to run on their core routes only. These emergency timetables were implemented on 25 March 2020 just after lockdown, and seem to be adequate as they’ve only changed once, which was on 5th April to add some extra peak journeys on many routes to aid social distancing for key workers following feedback.
CT4N have hit the headlines in our region at the beginning of last month after one of its drivers tested positive for COVID-19 and tragically passed away as a result, and after a second driver started to show symptoms they suspended all operations indefinitely from 10th April 2020. NCT stepped in with a half hourly ‘Medilink’ service from Queens Medical Centre to City Hospital via Wilkinson Street Park & Ride for NHS staff. Meanwhile, Derbyshire CC reallocated services 14 (Sandiacre to Ilkeston) and 29 (Sandiacre to Long Eaton) to Hulleys of Baslow temporarily on an emergency single bus timetable, taking the long established independent into areas it has never operated before. CT4N subsequently restarted operations on service 18 (Nottingham to Stapleford) from 20th April 2020, before taking back the 14/29 emergency timetable from Hulleys the following Monday.
Nottinghamshire County Council Transport Services has moved away from its fixed service arrangements, after initially maintaining a full service across the region but advising that all travel was free to stop cash handling and encouraging social distancing on board (although I appreciate this may be harder inside a Bluebird-bodied FIAT Ducato than many buses!) and aside from a handful of core timetabled key journeys in the morning and evening peaks for key workers on a handful of routes, it has moved to a largely on-demand ‘ring and ride’ model across its networks. One wonders if this may become the new ‘normal’ for such Council tenders that were only lightly used anyway prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
And finally it turns out it’s not just South Pennine Community Transport using minibuses for lifeline grocery deliveries instead of carrying passengers (as featured in last week’s round up).
Over in Aylesbury Vale ‘Bernie the Bus’ has been doing much the same. Bernie’s seats “have carried fare of a different kind” (not my pun, it comes courtesy of Buckinghamshire County Council’s news release writers)…”much needed groceries collected from generous village residents to keep the local food bank stocked”.
Aylesbury MP Rob Butler praised the good work of Bernie the Bus during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday pointing out party music plays out from the back of the bus “bringing a note of joy and happiness”. Butler asked Johnson to congratulate the organisers and all who support it, to which a beaming Johnson replied: “as a great believer in buses and part time manufacturer can I agree very strongly with him at the good work done by Bernie the Bus and all who support it and travel therein”.
“Part time manufacture”? No doubt baby Wilfred can’t wait for playtime as he gets older, but please spare us anymore costly bus design white elephants.
To finish, a nice NHS blue background from bluestar’s supportive bus ends this week’s round up. Onward to Lockdown Week 8 on Monday heralding the beginning of the end, or, as they say, the end of the beginning.