Saturday 30th May 2020
The DfT published details of the second tranche of Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant on Wednesday. A letter from Stephen Fidler, DfT’s Director, Local Transport to bus operators in England “confirmed an additional £254 million will be provided” backdated to 12 May. It will be reviewed every four weeks and works out at roughly £1 per km. I understand it’s not a ‘capped’ amount. It assumes local authorities will continue to pay concessionary reimbursement and tendered service contractual payments at pre Covid-19 levels. Some local authorities already struggling with finances may pull back from that – Luton comes to mind as one which has lost a huge amount of income it normally receives from the airport. Others have seen parking income decimated which they used to use for concessionary travel payments.
Stephen Fidler’s letter was accompanied by 23 pages of ‘Terms and Conditions’ containing the small print including:
“Operators will propose the services levels they expect to run (up to 100%). They must consult and agree with the relevant LTAs regarding the services that should be provided, having regard to the critical concerns of serving key workers such as NHS staff, and that buses are not heavily loaded because of reduced service patterns. These agreements should provide operators with sufficient flexibility to ensure that social distancing guidelines can be met on services, and that operational issues are accounted for (for example, staff shortages). Operators may consider increasing service levels through agreements with other operators and/or coach operators.”
Other than the “up to 100%” in brackets, that’s pretty much what’s been happening since Lockdown with CBSSG1, and although bus companies in England are doing an amazing job returning timetables to around 80% of ‘normal’ service levels from this weekend, or phased over the next couple of weeks, it’s still the references to “serving key workers” and “social distancing guidelines can be met” requirements which pretty much kills the idea of public transport playing any useful wider role for the foreseeable future.
In that context it’s understandable bus and train companies are making it very clear to potential passengers capacity is limited. I’m not criticising Diamond Bus for the stark warning illustrated above, they’re following Government requirements, but make no mistake, THIS IS NOT PUBLIC TRANSPORT. It’s certainly not mass transit. Bus companies running single deckers have morphed into taxi companies providing nothing more than a fleet of people carriers. Double decks and train companies aren’t much better.
As highlighted last week it’s becoming evident there are two approaches to messaging. There’s the “scare them off” with, what’s become known as the “crime scene” approach ….. perhaps illustrated at its starkest by Northern Rail (photo below courtesy of @every_station) where you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d jumped on a train heading straight back to the depot …..
… the First Bus approach (photo below courtesy Wayne Bell @lynxrnli) ….
… to the more friendly “keep it in line with our usual way of doing things” approach of Transdev Blazefield ….
Either way, it’s still the case, despite all the positive messaging (and you can’t get more positive than Xelabus’s message about their services returning on 8th June – see below), I’m sitting at home realising I’m not welcome back on board buses and trains any time soon ….. and there’s still weeks, if not, months more of avoiding public transport ahead.
I’ve been commenting for a few weeks, following Mayor Khan’s lead, that I would very much like to see Government mandate the use of face coverings on public transport and the social distancing rule reduced to 1 metre (as I’m sure it will once pubs reopen – and it will have to be relaxed when school buses get going again in September).
Those who say bus drivers won’t be able to enforce face coverings may have a point, but there are plenty of other rules and regulations about what isn’t allowed on board a bus which drivers seem well able to enforce. As we’ll come to later in this round up, trains are supposedly soon to be awash with ‘marshalls’ who could similarly enforce face covering on trains. Transport Focus’s weekly surveys over the last four weeks are now showing a consistently high 62-63% of respondents “think wearing a face mask while using public transport should be a requirement”. There’s an even higher proportion (83-85%) saying “hand sanitiser should be available on public transport”.
Can we learn from experience overseas? The demand for public transport in South Korea, according to Google data, is today very close to what it was before the coronavirus crisis. Crucially there is an obligation to wear masks on public transport, as in many other countries, but with a difference: early in the crisis, in February, the Korean government decided to contact producers to subsidise the production and mass distribution of N95 masks to the population, at a price that is affordable. Also in Seoul, public transport vehicles are sanitised several times a day, without exception.
I’m sure we can learn from this; and it’s good to see public transport companies in the UK increasingly promoting their enhanced cleaning regimes in a reassuring way.
Meanwhile in London another 124 bus routes revert to front door boarding with passengers having to pay bus fares from today (Saturday). The routes chosen don’t seem to follow any particular logic being ones operated by Abellio, Go Ahead and Stagecoach but not all routes operated by those companies, and not Metroline or Tower Transit:
8, 14, 25, 36, 37, 42, 45, 47, 49, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 61, 62, 75, 77, 86, 89, 96, 97, 104, 109, 115, 118, 122, 128, 130, 135, 136, 145, 147, 156, 161, 165, 167, 169, 171, 172, 174, 176, 177, 179, 181, 193, 195, 196, 197, 199, 201, 205, 207, 208, 212, 215, 238, 241, 247, 248, 252, 256, 257, 261, 275, 277, 270, 278, 284, 287, 290, 291, 294, 296, 314, 320, 323, 330, 337, 344, 345, 350, 353, 362, 363, 366, 372, 380, 381, 407, 414, 422, 427, 433, 472, 474, 482, 484, 490, 496, 497, 498, 499, 549, 969, C3, C10, D3, E1, E7, E9, H25, H28, P4, P13, R68, R70, U5 & U7
I understand there’ll be notices to advise passengers front door boarding is back, but on corridors with multiple routes it could become very confusing. Capacity is being restricted to 20 on a double deck but drivers have discretion to allow 25 on board if households travel together. I’m not sure how drivers are going to be able to monitor this, let alone control it on dual door buses with passengers exiting through the middle door. Single deck buses have a capacity between 6 and 10 (depending on size) or up to between 7 and 14 (depending on households). I can’t see this working very well.
Still in London, Mayor Khan released a letter he sent to Grant Shapps on Thursday asking the Government to rescind the funding conditional requirement to charge bus fares to under 18s. Reintroducing bus fares for youngsters, especially at short notice, opens up a whole bureaucratic nightmare working out entitlement to free home to school transport (an obligation which strictly falls on the London Boroughs although TfL has historically paid for such concessionary travel). Deputy Mayor Heidi Alexander is meeting DfT and Number 10 officials next week with the hope of reviewing this. It’ll be interesting to see who wins this tussle over fares.
It was also announced this week the new Transport Commissioner for London from the end of June will be Andy Byford, replacing Mike Brown who steps down on 10th July. He’s a rail and transit career man with roles at Southern, Southeastern and London Underground as well as more recentlty with the Toronto Transit Commission in Canada and currently as president and chief executive of New York City Transit Authority. An interesting time to be taking over the helm at TfL.
Down at Gatwick Airport, as easyJet joined the shrinking airline industry by announcing up to 4,500 redundancies, work has begun in earnest on the project to increase the capacity of the station concourse and platforms. Platforms 6 and 7 are now closed as part of phase 1 of the works and thanks to station staff for the photo.
Following my outline of Cornwall Council’s bonkers plan for free bus travel from tomorrow, 31st May, I was pleased to hear the DfT had further ‘meaningful discussions’ with the Council’s transport staff and the whole idea of free bus fares has sensibly been completely dropped. Back to the drawing board on those zonal based reduced fare plans now, I guess.
Innovative ideas keep popping up on social media; here’s one during the last week showing an idea of redeploying redundant seats on trains as bike racks. You have to admire the ingenuity of some people for coming up with such whacky ideas.
I like this idea from Passenger, the tech company behind many of the most successful Apps used by bus companies. It’ll give an idea of the number of passengers on board at any time, in real time, as well as reassurance when the bus was last cleaned. Good thinking on both counts. Well done Tom Quay who’s been at the forefront of many great developments at Passenger and to companies such as Transdev Blazefield leading the way using their products.
Following last week’s trading update from Go-Ahead, this week we heard from both First and Stagecoach on Thursday welcoming the DfT’s £254 million support announcement for buses in England. Inevitably these talked up both Group’s sterling work to keep services going, if a little ‘lilly guilding’ from First as in ‘lead the industry’:
“First Bus continues to lead the industry with the introduction of a number of measures to support adherence to government guidelines, offering safe, socially distanced space across its bus fleet.”
“Stagecoach has put in place extensive enhanced measures to keep buses clean and passengers and staff safe and ensure people can feel confident about using buses, Britain’s most important transport mode.”
… and there were reassuring words aimed at investors about the role buses will continue to play, despite the signficiant capacity constraints (which I noticed didn’t feature too prominently in the statements)…
Stagecoach’s Martin Griffiths reassured “buses are going to continue to play a crucial role in the country’s recovery ahead. As well as helping restart our economy, they are vital in bringing normality back to many areas of our daily lives. They keep families and communities connected and have a major role in delivering a safer, cleaner and healthier country.”
Not at 20% capacity or less they don’t, while First Group’s Matthew Gregory said….
”our bus services perform a unique and essential role in sustaining local economies and communities, and in delivering real improvements to air quality and congestion. As restrictions are gradually eased we will be ready to respond quickly to resume services that will reconnect people and re-open communities.”
I’m sure First Group’s shareholders will be pleased to read the update on the Group’s liquidity position that “for the first month of the current financial year, cash generated by operations in our Road divisions and for the Group as a whole was positive and ahead of our projections at the outset of the month.” Government bail outs have obviously helped.
But the longer social distancing capacity restrictions continue necessitating essential Government funding for bus companies, and the Government’s massive (and, in the medium term, completetly unsustainable) financial support through the Emergency Measures Agreements with train companies is in place there hangs a question mark over the future profitability of the plc Groups.
It’s becoming clear smaller sized bus companies, and those medium sized players with less demanding shareholders (eg Transdev, Wellglade, RATP, Rotala etc) will survive on the smaller margins now becoming the norm in the industry, and which will inevitably continue for the foreseeable future. There will come a time when such slim pickings will not be quite so attractive for hungry shareholders who play the stock market and the Groups will no doubt be working out what strategic decisions need to be taken for some of their previously highly profitable bus companies with strong commercial markets that have now disappeared. Some structural changes are ahead, that’s for sure.
Another looming problem could be a shortage of bus drivers as service levels increase. It’s highly likely a number of furloughed staff will never return to work; there’ll also have been the usual turnover of leavers and retirees during the last few months …. but there’s also been a complete shut down of recruitment, training and PCV driving tests for three months during the usual busy Spring period. It may not be so easy to get staffing levels back to where they’re needed for quite some time; although if coach drivers are willing to turn their hand at bus driving (doesn’t often happen) there’s likely to be many available as sadly there’s still no Government support for the beleagured coach sector. That support now looks a forlorn hope.
Back in London if you think last weekend’s Bank Holiday didn’t quite work out as originally planned for the Prime Minister’s boss, spare a thought for rapper Swarmz who Sky News reported “is believed to have been involved in a crash between a £250,000 Ferrari and a London bus” after he posted videos of the crumpled car on his Instagram account admitting it’s a write-off. Sadly I doubt many of his 1 million followers will have shown much interest in Metroline’s LT109 but I understand it escaped with scratches down the side.
But of course, this past week has been dominated by just one major news story at the expense of everything else. Yes, that headline grabbing announcement from Grant Shapps he was so desperate to tell everyone about at Saturday’s briefing and on Sunday’s TV political programmes … his plans to upgrade the A66 to full dual carriageway throughout. The media couldn’t get enough of this scoop of the year all over the weekend and during the week. ‘Move on”, but no, ‘let’s hear more about the A66′ the media cried.
If only it could have been; in Grant Shapp’s alternative world!
Imagine waking up last Saturday morning knowning your rota line had dropped for ‘playing the Cabinet Stooge’ duty for the No 10 Daily Press Briefing and Sunday TV appearances and it was too late to do a duty swap with anyone, and you couldn’t throw a sickie. You just had to go into work and plough on. It’s difficult to feel any pity for the man as he, like most of the other Cabinet lap dogs, tried and failed to defend the indefensible; making himself look totally incompetent with a complete lack of even a modicum of integrity. How to trash a reputation in one easy lesson.
As this is a transport round up, back on topic, on Saturday afternoon, Shapps ploughed on regardless trying to make transport initiatives sound impressive including £283 million “to ensure more buses, trams and light-rail networks return to service”.
Of course more buses isn’t like turning a tap on, but despite this being the first bus operators had heard a figure mentioned, and being less than expected and with no details of how it would be distributed, companies had been beavering away in good faith finalising new timetables and schedules to introduce this weekend and into June.
Shapps admitted “even a fully restored service will only be capable of carrying – at best – one fifth of normal capacity, once social distancing is taken into account. So only if you need to travel, and you can’t cycle, or walk or drive, should you take a bus, tram or train. But please; avoid the rush hour.”
He pointed out “nearly 3,500 British Transport Police, Network Rail and TfL employees will be deployed” but I wasn’t sure why that was breaking news as that seemed like a pretty ordinary day’s staff deployment; but it was followed by news that Journey Makers are back.
Yes, indeed, the happy smiling faces of the 2012 Olympics will return with the charity Volunteering Matters co-ordinating their deployment. Shapps lauded “from 1 June at the earliest we will start to deploy twice as many marshals with the assistance of groups like the charity Volunteering Matters”. Now I assume that’s “twice as many” as the 3,500 BTP, NR, TfL employees (but you never know with a Government that counts an individual glove as a piece of protective equipment) which means another 7,000 people (making 10,500 in total) to “help produce reassurance, advice and friendly assistance to commuters”. As well as muddying a simple statement of numbers, I hate the way Ministers trot out timelines which are completely meaningless. What on earth does “from 1 June at the earliest we will start…” mean? Could be any time in the future.
Anyway, that seemed like a fun thing to volunteer for, I thought; so I turned to the Volunteering Matters website to offer my services and be one of the 7,000 recruits. I’ve always wanted to wear a high-viz bib and wave those oversized foam hands at commuters to give reassurance as happened so well during last year’s Brighton Main Line blockade.
But logging on to the Volunteering Matters website doesn’t offer the facility to sign up on the page headed ‘Journey Makers’. Instead it explains “we will be working with local partners and community organisations to keep people safe on the transport networks as lockdown restrictions ease over the coming months”.
The website goes on to explain “on behalf of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership and the Department for Transport we will be co-ordinating this scheme”. So I gave them a ring to see if I could sign up to volunteer over the phone but it just went to answerphone. The website explains they’re “the central hub for this UK-wide effort. By commissioning local partners, providing resources and expertise in volunteer management, we’ll be supporting partners and transport providers to recruit and train volunteers and keep people safe”. So perhaps not surprising they’re not interested in volunteers like me.
Instead I clicked on the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership hyperlink on the Volunteering Matters website which takes you through to a page on the British Red Cross website. Here you can sign up as a volunteer for the British Red Cross rather than a Journey Maker. It all seemed a bit strange, and left me puzzled where these 3,500, or is it 7,000 volunteers are going to be sourced “from 1 June” albeit “at the earliest”. Anyway I’ve now signed up as a volunteer with the British Red Cross and had my welcome email acknowledgement, so we’ll see what develops in the weeks ahead. I’ll keep you posted.
Back to the Shapps “today I can announce” Saturday speech. After Journey Makers the next initiative he explained: “as I have said, it’s essential we stagger journeys and avoid the rush-hour. That’s why, at a recent roundtable, we asked the tech sector to come up with innovative proposals to help passengers avoid congestion. One good example is ‘Passenger Connect’ from Birmingham start-up ZipAbout. A personalised information service which tells rail users how disruption and crowding may affect their journey, while providing alternatives and helping people to maintain social distancing. The service has been successfully piloted over the past 12 months and it will be rolled out soon.”
Now I’m a great believer in “round tables” if a little sceptical at getting too many “innovative proposals” from the “tech sector” especially one “to help passengers avoid congestion”. Personally I find posters at stations colour coding the busiest peak time departures by some Train Companies are far more effective at communicating the information than anything too techy. I hadn’t heard of “ZipAbout”, nor their “personalised information service” being piloted over the last year.
Taking a look at Zipabout’s website includes: “Seamless Journeys: We envisage a future where every transport decision – by individual commuters, planners and operators – is based on genuine knowledge and true insight. We think every journey should be a seamless journey”. Meanwhile, as featured earlier, experienced tech company Passenger are already updating their existing tried and tested Apps.
As befits a Bank Holiday weekend, Shapps repeated his update from the last Bank Holiday about the “490 separate engineering projects happening around the country – work that would normally take months of weekend closures are much quicker on these quieter railways” implying it was somehow linked to Covid-19. What a load of nonsense – it was the normal bank holiday programme.
Then there was the bit about “we’re getting on with plans to reverse some of the so-called Beeching rail cuts too”. Adding, “today the next 10 schemes to benefit are announced”. I’ll comment on these another time, but for now, it’s illuminating to note the list must have been hastily drawn up with its incorrect references to “reinstatements” of lines which already exist, rather than reintroducing passenger services. One of the ten was “reinstatement of the Abbey line between St Albans Abbey and Watford Junction” which was more a Covid-19 cut a couple of months ago than a Beeching one over fifty years ago.
Someone in the DfT realised the howler and later corrected the online listing to “reinstatement of passing loop between St Albans Abbey and Watford Junction (Abbey Line)” and other subtle word changes throughout the list as can be seen comparing the corrected version below with the original above….
Lets hope the ensuing analysis to see if the ten development ideas stack up is more accurate than that original listing.
And then, of course there was that infamous announcement about dualling the A66 Shapps desperately tried to use as a distraction during interrogations from Sky’s Sophie Ridge and BBC’s Andrew Marr on the Sunday morning programmes.
The DfT blurb confirms it’s a £1 billion project connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh with Leeds Sheffield and Norwich. Depending which route you take, as it goes nowhere near any of those cities. Ironically it’s very handy for visiting Barnard Castle.
Although I note the scenic town’s Trip Advisor website (or is that websight?) has been closed for new recommendations following an avalanche of amusing updates last weekend:
What a shame. It’s a lovely place with some great large print bus departure times especially for those with sight issues…
As buses and trains return to more ‘normal’ frequencies, I’ll leave you with this rather presient quote from Master of Eton College, Martin Hammond in April 1982 that’s been doing the rounds again this week showing another ‘normal’ hasn’t changed ….
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.