Monday 25th May 2020
Among the “today I can announce” sound bites at last September’s Conservative Party Conference was Grant Shapps gifting £23.5 million over four years to Cornwall Council to reduce bus fares across the county in the hope of boosting passenger numbers.
At that time a spokeswoman for the unitary authority said “the details were still being worked out but the scheme would be launched in May next year (ie May 2020) and could include a zonal charging system”.
Just in the nick of time this Sunday, 31st May, Phase 1 of what’s become known as “The Cornwall Bus Fares Pilot” gets underway; but in a peculiar twist, instead of reduced fares, it involves completely free bus travel across the county lasting three months until 31st August. Phase 2 with reduced fares will follow on in September which begs the question why on earth introduce free bus fares now, especially at a time when all but essential bus travel is being discouraged, and capacity is severely limited? It defies all logic.
Details of the Scheme were sent out to bus operators only last Friday morning, with a deadline of 5pm tomorrow afternoon, Tuesday, to confirm whether they’ll be participating or not. It’s somewhat concerning so little time over a Bank Holiday weekend is being given for such an important and far reaching decision and then just three days left this week for implementation. And all this at a time when bus companies are struggling to get updated enhanced timetables and schedules organised for lockdown easing with an expected increase in passengers from next weekend.
But it gets even more concerning when you delve into the logic of why free travel is being offered in the first place. Cornwall Council say the scheme,“to kick-start bus travel across the county” as part of a “Transport Recovery Plan” has the short term objective “to restart public transport and offer a service to those people without access to an alternative mode of travel but to do so in compliance with Government guidance for reducing boarding and journey times, limiting contact with the driver and adhering to social distancing seating”.
I’m not sure I get how free travel reduces journey times, but I guess the assumption on reduced boarding times arises because passengers will just be waved on board with no need for driver interaction, ticket issuing etc. Except, no, in the barmy world of free Cornish bus travel, bus operators have to keep a record of “shadow fares” and crucially “passengers should clearly state the destination they want and ticket type. The relevant ticket needs to be printed or mTicket to be utilised”.
So if I’ve got this right passengers will still be expected on boarding the bus to ask for a single ticket to a destination, or maybe a return ticket, or even a weekly ticket, and the driver will issue an appropriate ticket with a zero value (with the ticket machine recording the originally priced ‘shadow’ fare for reimbursement). The passenger keeps their ticket, if a return or a weekly, and shows it on further journeys, even though all travel is free. I understand passengers are even expected to download a zero value weekly mTicket on their phones if they choose that option! This is completely bonkers. Far from speeding up boarding times and reducing interactions with drivers I can see this creating confusion, delays and complex interactions.
How on earth is all this going to be communicated, bearing in mind it starts at the end of the week and bus companies haven’t even agreed to take part yet?. Cornwall Council reckon “messaging must focus on the fact that the services are for Cornish residents who have no alternative but to use public transport to complete their essential journeys, with focus on the positives of reduced travel and interaction time”.
Unbelievably the guidelines continue “no messaging to the public should advertise this provision as an encouragement to get people back on buses”.
This is going to be tortuous; how to let passengers know buses are now free to use, but hey folks, you’re not being encouraged to use them …. and that’s why we’ve swept away fares. This is set to beat “Stay Alert” as a communications fiasco.
In last Friday morning’s email to bus companies explaining the scheme, Cornwall Council’s Passenger Transport Manager, David Edwards attempts to explain the logic:
…”with restrictions beginning to be lifted on people’s ability to travel further and wider, we must consider those who are without transport and now wish to once again access employment or essential services. Passenger numbers here in Cornwall are much lower, and we believe that by offering free travel, we are not only addressing social isolation but in doing so, are also reducing the need for interaction between drivers and passengers at boarding times thus giving assurance to both parties of their safety.
Furthermore, ongoing traffic monitoring during the lockdown period, has evidenced significant reduction in car usage and carbon emission levels resulting in visible benefits to the environment and citizens’ health and well-being. Cornwall Council is keen to sustain this reduced level of car use and will be re-introducing parking tariffs, and providing Traffic Signal Priority at key junctions on the network to prioritise the operation and running of public buses.
These initiatives demonstrate Cornwall Council’s commitment to the use of public transport and its desire to re-energise public bus travel across the county.”
So they’re ‘re-energising bus travel’ and at the same time …. “operators within the Scheme must adhere to, support and promote both the set Scheme messaging and the Department for Transport messaging for Covid-19 recovery where applicable” (that’ll be all the shouty high-vis yellow and blue notices, I assume).
Sounds like it’s going to be “travel by bus for free; but avoid bus travel if you can”. That’s going to work well.
Bus companies weighing up whether they are going to take part will obviously be interested in how they’ll be reimbursed. David Edwards explains “to use the oft-quoted cliché, bus companies will be no worse off through participation in the Scheme but will, unfortunately, be no better off either.”
The use of the word “unfortunately” is, perhaps, unfortunate, as it rather gives the impression bus companies could expect to be better off; as indeed, normally, if they carry more passengers, they are. Which brings me to the query of what if additional costs are incurred from laying on extra buses due to the Covid-19 capacity contrasts and free travel “energising bus use”?
David continues in his email “should numbers increase to where additional capacity is required to meet social-distancing guidance, then we will, I am sure, work together to resolve this”.
If I were a bus operator in Cornwall I’d be a bit wary of that rather vague commitment particularly when the Scheme document attached to David’s email contains the following ….…”It is expected that the reimbursement paid will fully reimburse Operators for the carriage of passengers under the Scheme. In exceptional circumstances, however, an Operator may be entitled to claim additional reimbursement payments where the Operator demonstrates to Cornwall Council that:
- the Operator has necessarily incurred costs in order to meet the extra demand created by the Scheme additional to those costs that had been taken into account in the standard method of reimbursement calculation; and that:
- those costs are such that they will not be met by standard reimbursement during the year in which the costs are incurred.
- this additional capacity was sought through the Council’s own planned additional capacity provision as detailed within this Scheme document and that it could not be met. This request must have been raised as part of the weekly/regular review. The Council has 7 calendar days to respond, or 5 working days – whichever is longer.
- the Operator has plans to absorb this additional capacity within the running costs of the service e.g. through service re-timings.”
It looks to me there’s plenty of room for significant social distancing between the parties on reaching an understanding here.
Covid-19 has brought with it many changes to how things are delivered and we’ve all become used to a new way of living. This Scheme must rank as one of the most peculiar and bonkers outcomes yet. It doesn’t bode well for getting best value from financial support handed out to local authorities to support buses and rather flies in the face of Government’s recent concerns at using tax payers money to bail TfL out. Now, taxpayers from all over the country are funding free bus travel for Cornish residents; but only those who absolutely have to travel on a bus.
It will be very interesting to see if Cornwall’s bus companies sign up to the scheme by 5pm tomorrow. Watch this space.
More generally, the vision for the self styled “One Public Transport System for Cornwall” (“one of the Key deliverables under the Cornwall Devolution Deal”) is to “improve public transport and provide a seamless integrated public transport network for Cornwall”. This was to include integrated timetables and ticketing between bus companies and between modes. Perhaps Covid-19 has stalled the progress, but it’s not looking very integrated so far with passengers needing two separate timetable books, or to look up two different websites, to find out when commercial and tendered journeys operate on the same bus route as well as tickets not being inter-available as promised.
There’s also the rather peculiar situation whereby the Council’s new Transport for Cornwall branding covers all public transport in Cornwall including its vision of integration with rail, yet the TfC website gives its ‘registered address’ as 41-51 Grey Street, Newcastle – the registered head office for the Go-Ahead Group. Because of course, this isn’t a Transport for Cornwall website at all; it’s a website for GoCornwall Bus the sister set up to Plymouth Citybus being laid out exactly the same with the same corporate information. Yet on the page headed “Transport for Cornwall Funding” it confirms it’s “the partnership between Cornwall Council, Go Cornwall Bus and other local public transport providers who are delivering the vision for a high-quality, integrated and customer-focused public transport network”. It doesn’t look very partnership with “other local public transport providers” to me.
Finally, it’s not just free bus travel for Cornwall’s bus users from this Sunday, the Council also intend to enhance all its extensive tendered bus routes across the county to their full timetables, which haven’t actually been introduced since the award of the tenders originally to commence from 31st Mach. This will see many frequencies doubled as well as completely new bus routes where there is absolutely no demand; and all this with the “avoid public transport if you can” messaging.
‘Bonkers’ doesn’t come close to describing what’s happening down Kernow way.
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.