Saturday 16th May 2020
So much for an orderly transition out of lockdown in England.
The DfT has been discussing timetable enhancements with train companies and TfL to apply from this Monday, 18th May for a few weeks, while discussions have also continued with CPT and bus operators about running more frequent services from the forthcoming bank holiday weekend together with revised funding to cover continuing financial shortfalls.
All this, I assume, in preparation for an orderly ‘baby steps’ easing of the lockdown as people return to work. It’s always good to get transport provision in place ready for an uplift in demand, especially when capacity is critical.
But characteristically our gung-ho no-time-for-detail Prime Minister fired the return-to-work starting gun in his TV address last Sunday evening stating “anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work” implying this new diktat applied with immediate effect from last Monday.
Despite being Mayor of London for two terms and therefore should be knowing better, Johnson continued: “and we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible – because we must and will maintain social distancing and capacity will therefore be limited……if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle”.
Around half London’s households don’t own a car. What did Johnson expect people to do, especially if they aren’t able to use a bicycle or walk due to the distance involved or personal physical limitations?
Inevitably photographs and video clips were soon circulating of Monday morning’s peak period showing Underground and buses in media centric London with no social distancing notwithstanding Johnson’s hopeless pledge “we must and will maintain it”.
Bakerloo line passengers were barred from entering the area by the driver’s cab just in case the virus slipped under the door perhaps, or the driver had to exit into the carriage … in an emergency I assume. It seems a bit extreme to me (see photo above) as elsewhere, on other lines, passengers didn’t have the luxury of such social spacing available to Bakerloo line drivers..
Having returned to work it wasn’t until Tuesday morning the Government published its 22 page “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Safer transport – guidance for operators”.
This is a cut and paste job from a ‘sector workplace’ template document (it includes: “encourage workers to stay on-site during working hours” and “avoid use of hot desks where possible” – not exactly appropriate guidance for most transport operators) with added paragraphs dotted here and there bespoke for transport including:
“To protect passengers and workers on the transport network, it is essential, as far as possible, to enable social distancing”.
It seems to me the three words “it is essential” aren’t particularly compatible with the next four “as far as possible” particularly when it’s just “good solid British common sense” that on a busy commuter train, Tube, tram or bus it’s impossible; never mind essential.
Well, that’s the situation in London, where a bus driver now has no control over the free fare travelling passengers boarding and alighting from the middle door, whereas outside London the bus driver is better able to control the new social distance enabled maximum capacities of around 20 on a double deck and 10 to 12 on a single deck bus …. but, frankly, these capacities are simply useless if buses are going to provide any kind of meaningful societal function once more people return to work.
Another paragraph slipped into the guidance document for operators is:
“Government guidance is for passengers, if they can, to wear a face covering if they need to use public transport”.
What’s with the ‘’If they can’’? It needs to be compulsory.
Indeed, also on Tuesday another document called: “Coronavirus (COVID-19): safer travel guidance for passengers” was published online. Under the section headed “Public Transport” we get:
Again the first paragraph looks like a ‘cut and paste’ job from a document template aimed at ‘workers’ or ‘customers’ with only the following line containing the pertinant ‘guidance’. The next paragraph waffles on about not needing to use medical grade surgical masks or respirators – again, no doubt taken from the template.
TfL are encouraging passengers to wear face coverings including using posters on the Underground, but it baffles me why this isn’t being mandated.
Outside the capital, CPT impressively tweeted within ten minutes of Johnson’s Sunday broadcast confirming they’re working to provide “a more comprehensive bus network for those who need it”, but notwithstanding the fleet of foot flexibility and rapid response of the deregulated bus industry, it clearly wasn’t possible to amend timetables within twelve hours of a surprise PM announcement calling for a Monday return to work. However, reports on social media from around the country indicate passengers on provincial buses continue to be sparse.
Discussions have continued during the week between CPT, operators’ representatives and DfT officials to hammer out a replacement for the temporary and time limited Covid Bus Services Support Grant (CBSSG) to cover the financial shortfall between costs of ‘ramped up’ services and pitiful revenue as a result of continued capacity constraints and the high profile Government messages not to travel by public transport. I understand financial support is still not finalised this weekend although an announcement is expected on Monday.
Meanwhile the Urban Transport Group (“represents England’s largest transport authorities which between them serve more than 20 million people in London, West Midlands, West Yorkshire South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region”) staked a claim on Tuesday that the “Bus Services Recovery Grant” be paid to Local Transport Authorities, as well as “all the fares from bus services”.
They reckon this would “put bus funding on a sound legal footing and restore value for money” as well as “ensure that bus services can respond flexibly and rapidly to changing local patterns of demand and service need”. I’m thinking recent experience of school buses running to closed schools in Manchester might persuade the DfT to think otherwise on the flexibility front. UTG also reckon giving LTA’s the dosh will “provide a sound basis for the transition to the post-Covid-19 phase”. An interesting take on the use of the words ‘sound basis’ bearing in mind TfL’s perilous finances (part of the UTG clan).
Has anyone else noticed UTG’s logo looks almost coronavirus like?
During the week more local authorities took advantage of a £2 billion fund announced by the Transport Secretary at the weekend to install cycle lanes as encouragement to get us all cycling … a sensible move provided it doesn’t mean buses getting caught up in the congestion on the resultant restricted road space as car use increases once again. It’ll really be a lose-lose situation for buses – a public campaign telling everyone not to use buses while those that do operate get stuck in congestion and become unreliable.
That £2 billion is a reheated part of the £5 billion announced by the Chancellor in Februaray to boost buses and cycling. I seem to recall cycling was only due to get around £250 million – the amount promised on Saturday as an “emergency active travel fund” but ominously also “the first stage of a £2 billion investment”. It looks to me buses could lose a significant part of that original funding support; not that they need it for now with us all being told to avoid travel by bus.
Oh, and just to put the knife in further for buses … petrol is now below £1 a litre at many supermarket owned petrol stations. Yet another factor to encourage car use.
Thursday’s Coronavirus Daily Briefing from 10 Downing Street saw Grant Shapps behind the lectern for the second time in six days. You can imagine the panic in the DfT having to come up with something sounding remotely impressive for the “today I can announce” segment of the tedium. Luckily someone had a brainwave: make out all Network Rail’s engineering work over Easter (when 11% of the work was cancelled – but don’t mention that bit) and the May bank holidays was somehow linked to the effort to tackle Covid-19. Brilliant, that filled a couple of minutes of the padding, and all the more so when the bloke who looks after road upgrades, also in on the Zoom call, casually mentioned the last bit of the revamped A14 had coincidentally opened on Tuesday of last week. Package that together with reheating another funding announcement …. yet another £2 billion for roads (the ‘pot-hole filling’ one) and it was done and dusted …. as in …. (extract from the Shapps speech….):
Transport upgrades during lockdown
“In the coming weeks, as we carefully and cautiously restart sectors of our economy, and people begin to travel once again they should notice that, whilst the country has been in down-time, with the roads and railways quiet, we’ve been busy getting on with essential work fixing the nation’s infrastructure so we can recover faster when the time comes.
This upgrade programme, the kind of work that – at any other time – would cause inevitable disruption and service delays, whilst costing the taxpayer more has instead been carried out in previously unimaginable circumstances of a largely unused transport network.
For example, we completed 419 separate Network Rail projects over Easter, with a further 1,000 upgrades being carried out throughout the May bank holidays. Meanwhile, Highways England has been busy accelerating maintenance projects on the nation’s roads. Last week, for example, we opened the vital A14 upgrade 7 months ahead of schedule. This is a route normally used by 85,000 drivers daily, which will dramatically improve access to the UK’s largest container port at Felixstowe and permanently boost the distribution of goods around the UK.
But to make sure that Britain is ready to bounce-back from coronavirus today I can announce nearly £2 billion to upgrade our roads and railways, to put our transport infrastructure in the best possible shape and to get our economy growing once again.
This package includes £1.7 billion for local roads – making journeys smoother and safer for drivers, hauliers, cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians and others by filling millions of dangerous potholes, we will make our roads safer – and encourage more people to cycle, or even take part in the upcoming e-scooter trials helping more people play a part in relieving pressure on public transport. This investment will also help fix damage caused by winter flooding, repair roads and bridges, and fund numerous road improvement schemes.”
Speech delivered, statistics trotted out, graphs depicting worse death toll in Europe abandoned, and it was on to questions. It had been odd there’d been no mention of any bail out for TfL’s perilous finances (Mayor Khan had said Thursday was the final day before the nuclear button of severe cuts had to be pressed) and Shapps batted away a Financial Times journalist’s question about it, but all became clear an hour after the broadcast, once the Stock Exchange had closed, when the DfT announced they’re effectively ‘taking back control of London’s transport from the Mayor’ in the biggest land grab of the capital’s transport since Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986.
In return for a six-month £1.6 billion bail out (it’s only lasting until October), back comes the congestion charge from Monday and from 22nd June a whacking great price increase from £11.50 to £15 with an evening extension from 18:00 to 22:00 and newly introduced at weekends. The £12.50 Ultra Low Emission Zone is also back. These measures, necessary for air quality as well as congestion control, are already going down a storm with commuters who at the same time are being urged to use their cars instead of public transport. From a date still not certain, passengers will resume paying fares on buses and there’s the inevitable ending of the Mayor’s high profile fares freeze with an RPI+1% increase applying from January 2021. Freedom Passes will no longer be valid for peak hour travel and child free travel will also end. In a power blow to the Mayor DfT officials will sit on TfL’s Board. Quite a coup d’état.
That £1.6 billion includes a £500 million loan but the total bill could rise to a maximum of £1.9 billion if needed. Still, at £61.5 million a week, the bail out is less than the £180 million bill that’s keeping trains running and makes the £14 million for the provincial bus industry in England look like petty cash.
Stand by for future clashes between the Mayor and Government. Here’s Sadiq Khan’s response:
With this month’s Mayoral election postponed until May 2021 it gives plenty of time for accusations of … “it was the Conservative Government that took your free travel away” … “it was the Labour Mayor that was irresponsible with TfL’s finances” … in the year ahead.
Perhaps all this will make Government think again about handing over control of public transport networks to metro mayors in other conurbations? It must put Mayor Burnham’s aspirations for control of Manchester’s buses (and the Government finance it will need) in some doubt.
In other news this week, National Express announced on Friday it’s hoping to restart a ‘core coach network’ linking large and medium sized towns and cities from 1st July as TOCs publicised those enhanced train timetables commencing from Monday.
More controversially LNER announced the introduction of a reservations only system from Monday as on-board seating capacity is signficantly reduced, but adds that seats can be reserved either online or at stations up to five minutes before departure.
I wonder how that’ll work in practice; it’s going to mean a lot of work for train managers. It’s a great shame to see the end of a turn-up-and-go railway on this important inter-city route. Over on the West Coast Main Line, Avanti West Coast are not quite so draconian instead stating “we strongly recommend you book a place on the train to travel on our services, as there will be very limited availability. If you don’t have a booking for your preferred train, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to board.”
It’s certainly going to take the fun and spontineity out of train travel; but then that’s the point I suppose. Sad times.
Transport Focus published its second week of survey results into passenger attitudes to travel. It’s already showing a worrying trend. 20% of passengers surveyed said “as soon as restrictions are relaxed I’ll be happy to travel by public transport again”, that’s down 4% from last week’s 24%, while 70% of respondents said “I won’t use public transport unless social distancing is in place”, up from 62% last week.
There’s still no news on any financial support for the coach industry other than the generally applicable extension of the furlough scheme until October. CPT told its members in Friday’s weekly update: “we have continued to push the DfT for their views on our proposal and will report back with more information as soon as possible”.
In social media news this week TikTok dancing train staff is so last month as TOC Twitter Teams get excited at outdoing each other at fox spotting, including ScotRail at Edinburgh Waverley …
… and on LNER’s ‘FoxCam’ at York station….
….. while welcome news came on Monday that Crossrail’s Class 345 trains have finally been cleared by the Office of Road and Rail to run through the tunnel to Heathrow Airport (only eighteen months after they were supposed to do so in service and another two years before passengers will be carried; no rush) …..
… even if they do look somewhat squidgy in ORR’s photo as a result.
You win some, you lose some, as Monday also brought news it’ll soon be farewell to the only commercially provided DRT scheme left running with Oxford Bus pulling the plug next month on its two year Pick Me Up operation. There was an inevitability this would happen, more the ‘when’ rather than the ‘if’ but good on Oxford Bus for giving it a go, if a costly go.
Meanwhile Stagecoach announced on Friday a new app-based DRT scheme with ‘social distance’ accommodating full size single deck buses will commence on Monday in the Mansfield area. Under the brand name ‘Stagecoach Connect’ it will serve Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Trust’s King’s Mill Hospital in Sutton-in-Ashfield.
It’s another collaboration with ViaVan (the DRT software specialists) and there are pats on the back all round in the press release for getting the scheme up and running “from concept to delivery in just two weeks”. Geared up for NHS workers, Stagecoach hope the service will be the first of others as discussions with other NHS Trusts continue, including in Humberside where it’s hoped to roll out a similar service. It’s not clear where the funding is coming from for ‘Stagecoach Connect’ but Nottinghamshire County Council are listed as a partner so may have a financial input, as might the Hospital NHS Trust.
It’s been another week of ‘Stay Home’ for me with no ‘essential travel’ required, but it has given me plenty of time to thoroughly digest the Government’s latest guidelines for travel (above) so I can ‘Stay Alert’ (in England, at any rate).
… or as some wag tweeted last Sunday, as amusing variations were doing the rounds ….
A final thought for this week about TfL’s new Government imposed restriction on the use of Freedom Passes during peak periods – surely the afternoon peak restriction cuts across legislation enabling the English Concessionary Travel Scheme which lays down a minimum 09:30 to 23:00 (weekdays) availability for concessionary travel?
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.