Saturday 23rd May 2020
It’s been another week of mixed messages. On Wednesday Rees Mogg decided “work from home, but you should go to work if you can‘t work from home” (B. Johnson, 10th May) no longer applies to MPs (who’ve been successfully working from home since the ‘virtual Parliament’ began after the Easter recess on 21st April), by ordering them back to Westminster after the Whitsun recess. (A fine time to have another break – in the middle of the greatest peacetime crisis the Country’s ever faced.)
Presumably MPs and their staff won’t be using the Jubilee Line or taking a bus on the 11 to get to Westminster when they return on 2nd June as “you should avoid public transport if at all possible” (B. Johnson, 10th May).
But if they do, it looks like they’ll be mandated to wear a face covering as Mayor Khan told the London Assembly on Thursday “we ae reviewing what’s happening in London in relation to voluntary wearing of non-medical facial coverings” adding “next week I will be considering whether I need to use the option I’ve got to make it mandatory”. Definitely go for it Sadiq, I say. You can’t take a can of Fosters on the Underground (a condition imposed by one Mayor Johnson in his time) so why allow the possibility of someone coughing and spluttering close to other passengers and potentially infecting them? Interestingly 63% of passengers surveyed by Transport Focus think face coverings should be a requirement on public transport (up from 51% two weeks ago); and public transport needs all the passenger positivity it can get at the moment.
Also in London, the row between Government and the Mayor showed no sign of abating this week. Sadiq Khan released a statement on Monday alleging “the Government has made ordinary Londoners pay a very high price for the consequences of doing the right thing on Covid-19” referring to the DfT insistence “Londoners’ fares must go up above inflation next year; that TfL must suspend free travel for Freedom Pass and 60 plus card holders during peak times; and for under 18s all the time”. To me, it looks like the Government’s much hyped “levelling up” agenda; except in a novel twist it’s London being levelled up to public transport pricing regimes long established elsewhere. This story line in London’s transport soap opera won’t be ending any time soon; the recently agreed £1.6 to £1.9 billion bail out only lasts until October. Expect more recrimminations come the Autumn.
Back to mixed messages; there’s been a torrential deluge of shouty messages not to use public transport and ‘keep busses safe’ (the buses aren’t unsafe) including a whole suite of HM Government produced high-vis yellow and blue war-like propaganda slogans pretty much warning us off at all costs.
Even the Confederation of Passenger Transport spent the week tweeting out to any passengers who follow the trade body’s time line advising not to travel on their members’ buses.
No wonder Transport Focus’s weekly barometer of public attitudes towards public transport shows an alarming downward trend in people “happy to use public transport when restrictions are relaxed” – from 24% in week 1 down to 18% in this week’s third survey. Some might argue that’s just about the right number of passengers, bearing in mind most bus and train companies are busy cordoning off most of the seats with crime-scene warning tape so only around 15-20% of normal capacity can come on board.
It’s interesting to see the wide regional variation between the South West at just 11% and London at 30% happy to get back on board. And counter-intuitively bearing in mind the higher than average ethnicity risk of Covid, 18% of White respondents compared to 24% BAME are happy to use public transport.
But just how risky is it to take a bus or train ride? This week’s recorded Covid-19 cases in London, where it was very severe at the end of March, have fallen 99% since then with fewer than 100 cases a day now being diagnosed – in a city of 9 million.
It’s time for a positive picture of public transport use especially when the alternative for many people is to use their car (if they own one) adding to congestion and damaging air pollution, and then finding nowhere to park at the destination. A recipe for town centre chaos.
All the more so as pop up cycle lanes are appearing in more places leaving even less room for traffic than normal …. it’s that shouty blue colour again ….. (photo credit @andrewgarnett78)….
It’s good to see some enlightened bus companies promoting positive and reassuring messages to show buses are safe to travel on; of course they are. I’d particularly single out for praise Transdev Blazefield’s brilliant campaign video showing passengers all the steps being taken to make bus travel “clean, safe and ready to go”. Give it a view on this link.
Not a hazmat suit or high-vis yellow and blue shouty notice in sight. Well done Alex Hornby and his team. We need much more of this if public transport is to come out of intensive care.
Ray Stenning at Best Impressions has been busy designing greatly improved imagery than HM Government’s shouty offerings and it’s good to see a number of bus companies using his superb skills including … Transdev Blazefield, First Bus and Reading Buses….
But so long as the Government still insists on 3 fridge width social distancing, the prognosis for buses and trains is not good. (Just how wide is a fridge? One big enough for a Prime Minister to hide in?)
For a start, the industry is going to continue needing financial support of previously unimaginable size. Train companies are busy blocking off seats as they soak up an eye-watering £180 million of bail out money a week. That simply can’t continue. Respected long time rail industry commentator Christian Woolmer wrote in The Times on Tuesday “by trying to do the impossible, the railways are on a suicide mission. Attempting to enforce social distancing while running a train service is simply impossible. A railway run on 15% of former numbers of passengers doesn’t work either practically or economically.”
While the financial bail out for buses is much more modest; currently around £14 million a week, it’s still makes no sense at all to enforce the one bed length social distancing rule decimating capacity. It’s all very well putting up ‘Bus Full’ signs but that’s no good to passengers (including key workers) if their route only runs once an hour or even less. They won’t risk it tomorrow.
And, just a small point, please add the route number to the ‘Bus Full’ sign so at least passengers know it’s their bus route leaving them behind rather than another one that doesn’t concern them.
More mixed messaging came from news on Thursday of easyJet’s plans to begin flights on domestic and some European routes from 15th June – albeit the news came prior to Friday afternoon’s quarantine announcement. The airline said it will be introducing measures recommended by the European Aviation Safety Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control including “the wearing of masks at all times on planes and at airports, hand washing and physical distancing where possible”. Interestingly, easyJet won’t be blocking off middle seats, the airline saying its measures “have been implemented in consultation with aviation authorities” and in line with government and medical advice. So how is it, the “authorities” are relaxed about passengers sitting next to each other on an aeroplane flying from Gatwick to Edinburgh, but not on a train. Baffling?
And I’m willing to wager you won’t be seeing any high vis yellow and blue shouty tweets from easyJet telling passenger to avoid flying and try cycling or walking instead.
Contrasting with the optimism from easyJet was the sad news on Friday afternoon Specialist Leisure Group entered Administration involving the loss of 1,200 jobs and 64,000 cancelled holidays. Such well established and familiar names to all of us in the bus and coach industry have now been lost including Shearings itself but also Wallace Arnold and National Holidays, which was the very first subsidiary of the National Bus Company to be privatised in the late 1980s sell off. What a sad ending.
It’s rather looking as though, sadly, more coach businesses will be heading the Administration way with still no news on any financial help from Government in reponse to CPT’s Back Britain’s Coaches campaign. Perhaps the Government just accepts there’ll be more casualties.
News also on Friday that a number of transport authorities are reintroducing morning peak restrictions for concessionary bus passes; West Yorkshire, TfGM, Durham and Tyne & Wear were just four highlighted to me on social media but I expect there will be many others. TfGM are also ending free travel for NHS, social care staff and care workers on Metrolink trams from 2nd June. Capacity issues on peak hour buses (and trams) is a useful hook on which to hang this reimposition, and in any event, special first thing priority for oaps at many supermarkets. which prompted the relaxation. has now become less necessary as we’ve all become used to the ‘new grocery shopping normal’ and the toilet roll and pasta panic has long abated.
A Zoom catch up with sixteen or so bus industry colleagues from around the country on Thursday unearthed much uncertainty about the DfT’s promised and much needed Covid Recovery Grant to cover the continuing shortfall between revenue and costs. Despite a promise on Monday something will be forthcoming, no details have been announced at the time of compiling this round up. The word on the 4 chairs or 2 bench distanced street is it’s waiting for Shapps’ turn to be rolled out behind the daily Downing Street lectern again to give him another “I can announce today” spot. In the meantime, bus companies must have faith and put arrangements in place for enhanced timetables and schedules ready for the 1st June uplift and hoping there’ll be enough grant money to keep the wheels turning. It’s a funny old way to be organising things though.
Most companies are planning to increase timetables to around 80% of ‘normal’ over the next fortnight. Some are concentrating resources on weekdays with much less service provision in evenings and weekends with two or three phased step ups, while others are going for the big bang all-in-one-restoration-go approach; depending on scheduling resources and availability of vehicles and staff. Most will have drivers still furloughed for some weeks due to shielding either themselves or with vulnerable relatives at home. It’s no easy business ramping back up. Schedulers and staff allocators will once again be the heroes of the back office.
Another mixed message this week was back in London with TfL announcing bus fares will be reintroduced from today, Saturday, on 85 bus routes and 1,200 buses – those operated by single deck single door buses and New Routemaster double deck buses where card readers have been reinstalled by the middle doors through which boarding will continue for now. I’m struggling with the logic of this; it it’s deemed safe to board and tap on at the reader on a single door bus, why not on a double door bus? If it’s to do with sealing off the cab and the time needed to roll that out fleetwide, it’s not something bus operators are doing outside of London. It’s going to be confusing for passengers who’ll need to be proficient in bus type spotting to know whether to pay or not, and I really can’t see many volunteering to tap in at the middle door of a New Routemaster. Things won’t get back to normal until middle door boarding ends.
News also of more Covid style DRT bus developments this week including a new three month trial of ‘Fflecsi” in the Newport area (Fflecsi is Welsh for flexible) which, like the trial in Sevenoaks, described a few weeks ago, is using conventional sized buses and the ViaVan app for passengers to book journeys. This set up is being operated by Newport Transport on behalf of Transport for Wales and Ken Skates (Economy & Transport Minister) reckons “the pilot scheme could shape the bus services of the future …. it could be the answer to some problems faced by our key workers trying to get to and from work at a time that suits their shifts”. It didn’t work out like that in Oxford where John Radcliffe Hospital is located within the Pick-Me-Up operating area, which, as reported last week, will soon be coming to an end. Good luck with this latest trial – I doubt it’ll last beyond the three months.
Meanwhile, Austin Blackburn from Sevenoaks based Go-Coach Hire has been in touch to update how things are going with the experimental go2 DRT service there. Austin writes the service “seems to be going very well, with passengers, drivers, us and the various councils all very happy with the operation. As a result of this it has been decided to not return to normal timetabled tendered or commercial bus operation, but to expand the area and operation. Additional vehicles will be fed into the operation as demand dictates and normal buses only re-introduced when demand exceeds supply. When we do eventually move back to fixed timed buses, data will be used to where and when buses operate. The next local step being to integrate timetabled buses with DRT on the same Via Van app platform.”
On Friday the Go-Ahead Group issued an updated trading statement prior to its financial year ending 27th June. Naturally it included the best positive spin on the situation – talking up the continued payments of concessionary fares income, contracts and BSOG for regional bus; the guaranteed income for London, Singapore and Dublin buses; the new 2% profit margin Emergency Measures Agreement for GTR and direct award contact for Southeastern but the two relatively recent rail operations in Germany and Norway look like they’re in trouble with the former subject to “a comprehensive review of our German rail business underway including an assessment of longer-term financial expectations” which usually means it’s not long for this world (its been beset with staff shortages following problems of late delivery of trains) while in Norway “discussions are underway regarding ongoing funding to support increasing service levels while demand remains suppressed”. The Group hasn’t had much luck with Continental European rail ventures.
Go-Ahead’s share price was trading at a pre-lockdown high of £21.44 in February, crashing down to £4.74 as lockdown began then climbing back to just over £12 before falling again by over 10% yesterday to close just under £11 as investors presumably took fright from the statement’s conclusion “we are not in a position to provide guidance in relation to the 2020/21 financial year or beyond at this stage”, which isn’t surprising in the current circumstances. The only certainty is uncertainty and all that.
Finally in other news this week, and in a parallel universe, the planning application for the new Old Oak Common station in west London “was waved through by the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation” on Wednesday evening.
Due to open in just six years it’s being billed as the ‘best-connected rail station’ in the country (I think Kings Cross/St Pancras might have something to say about that claim) as well as “the largest new railway station ever built in the UK” (according to the Architect’s Journal). It’s estimated 250,000 people will pass through the 14 platform ‘super-hub’ every day; well, at least that’s what was estimated in the days before a certain coronavirus changed the way we travel, work and shop a couple of months ago.
Old Oak Common will be the southern terminus of Phase 1 of High Speed 2 for two years, between 2029 and 2031, until the revamped expanded Euston comes on stream. It will initially see six trains an hour to Birmingham (three an hour) as well as Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow (one an hour each) and have connections to Crossrail and the GWR mainline and close links to the West London Overground. Anything HS2 is another distant world entirely during the current continuing crisis and years of financial turmoil as the economy hits deep recession; goodness knows what the deficit will be by 2029, but I guess one day, HS2 might turn out to have been a good idea. I’m not sure I’m seeing it just at the moment.
Another thing I’m not seeing is the optimism of northern Conservative MPs that all’s well with the economy and it won’t be long before ‘levelling up’ means the opening of new railway lines. This week’s PMQs (Starmer’s forensic examination of the ever evasive Johnson is quickly becoming a ‘lockdown must see’ every Wednesday lunch time) saw two such Tory MPs asking planted questions either side of Starmer giving Johnson ‘six of the best’. Richard Holden (Durham North West) asked Johnson to support him in his ‘Formal Expression of Interest’ just submitted for “a new rail line between Consett and the MetroCentre” to which Johnson tellingly “congratulated my right honourable friend for his imagination …. plans are …. entirely in keeping with the Government’s infrastructure revolution” (‘imagination’ being the operative word!) while Sara Britclife (Hyndburn) wanted Johnson to join her in thanking SELRAP (Skipton East Lancs Rail Action Partnership) for the “continuing campaign to reopen the Skipton to Colne railway line”.
Back in the real world, we’re about to enter Week 10 of whatever we’re calling this now.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.