Saturday 13th June 2020
Good news this week for those convinced social distancing and public transport don’t mix. Trouble is it’s 11,000 miles away in Auckland where everything returned to normal on Monday. New Zealand closed its borders on 19th March and locked down on 26th March. We can but live in hope.
Closer to home in Spain, also on Monday, UITP Secretary General, Mohamed Mezghani, recorded the “first step towards full use of public transport capacity” with “no more physical distancing for seated passengers”. Spain locked down on 14th March.
Meanwhile in 2-metre-socially-distanced-UK as our 23rd March lockdown continues its “baby steps” easements as the R-rate hovers perilously close to 1 in certain areas including in the south west (0.8-1.1) where Stagecoach introduced these helpful window stickers which make it clear where you can sit in a more subtle way than we’ve been seeing elsewhere (although it looks as though two people are allowed to sit next to each other, which should only apply if they’re in a bubble)….
In London, buses are getting busier, well, in the new scenario where a handful of passengers on board is now considered busy, and I’m grateful to London based blogger Diamond Geezer (who writes the best daily blog going and is always well worth a read) for snapping this ‘Bus Full’ sign on a socially distanced ‘full’ bus last weekend on route W15 in Ruckholt Road, as well as supplying the first photo displayed above of Tower Transit’s Wright Gemini double decker, complete with more notices on windows than passengers on board, during a driver changeover at Bow Church.
TfL’s bus spec has retained traditional destination blinds for years despite high-vis electronic blinds the norm elsewhere in Britain so these yellow supplementary signs – which have all the hallmarks of ‘driver-forgetting-they’re-on-display-on-the-front-of-the-dashboard’ – have become necessary. How frustrating it’s going to be waiting for a bus running every half an hour, or even less frequent, to then see it drive by ‘full’ with just a handful of passengers on board.
I see Centrebus are reflecting how passengers will most likely feel in their signage, but it’s not much comfort to show a sad face. (Thanks to Dave Smith for this photograph).
While rail companies wait for tech start-up Zipabout to roll out the promised “personalised information service” it’s good to see more bus operators working with established and experienced tech companies (including CitySwift, Omnibus, Passenger and Ticketer) providing helpful information for passengers about journey status and numbers of passengers travelling.
I’ve shown the Passenger and Ticketer innovations in previous round-ups with their real time capacity utilisation guides, so this week I’m featuring the newly launched ‘when2travel’ facility introduced by GoNorthEast (before being rolled out to other Go-Ahead companies) in conjunction with CitySwift.
It’s a website/App addition where you enter your route number from a drop down menu as well as your date of travel which will bring up a timetable with colour coded journeys according to experience of how busy they are.
Here’s how the X20 is looking for this coming Monday afternoon heading out of Sunderland. The display gives passengers a heads-up on likely busy journeys but if you have to travel at peak times, it doesn’t really help, other than reaffirming what you probably guessed already, that your bus is likely to be busy. Still, it’s nice to see steps being taken to enhance information provision; and I can see these enhancements becoming the ‘new normal’ even after Covid has been ‘sent packing’.
Also adopting a traffic light system is Stagecoach (“Britain’s biggest bus and coach operator”) who finally caught up with the App based craze for bus occupancy features on Friday by launching “a new smartphone busy bus indicator to help passengers plan their journeys”. It will “use extensive data and artificial intelligence to provide a traffic light indicator to help customers choose quieter services and maintain social distancing”. But you’ll have to wait until next Thursday (18th) to use it, as that’s its release date on android and iOS as an update of its existing App. Unless you live in Tyne & Wear where blog reader Rob has kindly let me know it’s already up and running.
I did a double take this week seeing Route One magazine online and read Confederation of Passenger Transport CEO Graham Vidler urges “avoid public transport” messaging be changed so coach and bus can reach its “full role in the economic and social recovery of the country”.
Graham’s rightly gained an impressive reputation for his handling of the industry’s dealings with the DfT during this crisis (securing the Covid Bus Service Support Grant, this week’s ‘last minute dot com’ panic over face coverings and relentlessly plugging the case for support for coach operators) but CPT bleating about the “stark messaging on avoiding public transport”, is a bit rich when one of the worst offenders on social media during the last few weeks has been CPT itself, as I pointed out a few weeks ago. For a while it was tweeting out the Government’s crime scene warning messages, when it didn’t need to.
But the issue now is: how to limit the number of people travelling within the restricted capacity, but do so in a positive way. I acknoweldge it’s not easy. Hopefully, as in Auckland and Spain, we too will be able to reduce or even dispense with social distancing in a few weeks, and then we’ll need the mother of all promotional campaigns to enocourge people on to buses and trains. Never mind providing financial support for novel DRT schemes or creating ‘electric bus cities’ as was once the Government priority pre-Covid, it’ll be all about getting passengers back on board.
In Scotland, I see ScotRail are promoting “Five rules for safer travel”. But ‘rule’ 2 is a bit anomalous.
Is it a “rule” or guidance? Obviously it can’t be a “rule” otherwise it wouldn’t be worth running trains during peak hours – which is really when most people need to travel especially for ‘essential work’. It’s stark; but it’s also rather misleading as to whether it’s a “rule” needing obeying, or not.
Which brings me to ‘rule’ 4, face coverings. On Tuesday the Welsh Government recommended their use on public transport but stopped short of mandating their wearing, while in Scotland it is recommended you “conisder using face coverings in limited circumstances such as public transport” which doesn’t quite square with ScotRail’s more authoritive sounding ‘rule’ 4 shown below.
Meanwhile, face covering compulsion in England begins on Monday, but there’s still confusion over how it’s going to be enforced and even how it’s being officially enacted.
By all accounts it’s been a frenetic week at the DfT with officials rushing round trying to make sense of how the face covering requirement would be formally introduced. The original plan announced at the Downing Street briefing last Thursday was for it to be included in the National Conditions of Travel but at yesterday’s briefing Grant Shapps announced it would be enacted as part of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 as an additional statutory regulation, but this late change means it won’t be finalised until this weekend. Talk about cutting it fine. The effect of this is transport companies having to wait until the weekend to receive confirmation of the guidance and the exemptions which start on Monday.
I hear earlier in the week the DfT were discussing with CPT the idea of bus drivers being required to enforce the policy and issuing fines as well as wearing face coverings themselves. With most buses now equipped with screens, it’s good to hear these ideas were dropped. But it still leaves the question who is going to enforce it?
I’m sure the vast majority of passengers will be only too pleased to follow this “rule” and enforcement will be a side issue for a small minority; but unfortunately due to the action of Cummings and the inaction of Johnson, respect for “rules” is not in a good place.
Talking of rules, spot the subtle deletion of ‘Please’ in GTR’s posters ready for the new order from Monday…..
The RMT union wrote to Grant Shapps at the beginning of the week raising a number of concerns in addition to the enforcement issue, including who will be exempted and be identified as genuine cases. Here’s their list of quieries….
Bus companies face similar uncertainty over enforcement, all the more so as there’s no recourse to the British Transport Police as train companies have.
The DfT issued a draft list of exemptions for face covering wearing on Thursday which include those: under 11 years old; on dedicated school buses; with breathing difficulties; with some physical, mental or sensory difficulties; and carers travelling with someone who would find communication wearing face coverings difficult. It’s not going to be easy identifying who falls into some of those categories. And uncertainty at this late stage with the fine print of the official guidance unavailable is completely unsatisfactory. Even last night, Friday, CPT were having to advise its members “please note this is not official guidance and some of the information contained within this update may be subject to change”. It’s undertaken to update members over this weekend, once official confirmation is available.
Friday saw Grant Shapps back on Downing Street briefing duty at the lectern along with one of the many medical professors we’ve all got to vaguely know as well as our very own Sir Peter Hendy CBE; there once again to give some badly needed credibility to this incompetent Government and integrity by-passed Cabinet cabal. Shapps reminded us about Monday’s facial cover up, recommending visiting the updated gov.uk website, except the ‘guidance for passengers’ was showing as being last updated on 28th May.
As always bus companies just make the best of it and are taking a practical approach. All the managing directors I spoke to yesterday, Friday, confirmed they’re encouraging drivers to avoid conflict and use a ‘request and remind’ approach when appropriate. Matt Hancock reckons there’ll be a “light touch approach for the first few days” to enforcement. Just as well.
No surprise Transdev Blazefield are explaining the new requirement in an engaging way on the fronts of their buses…..
…. and well done to train companies and Network Rail for making face masks (as well as sanitisers and wipes) available in drink vending machines around the network…
… while Xelabus in Eastleigh, now back on the road after it’s furloughed break, have followed Ensignbus and installed sanitisers inside its buses…
… although I’m told by those running major bus fleets across the country we won’t be seeing installations more widely as there are risks from spilt liquids making floors slippery as well as leading to bunching of passengers as they board and pause for a squirt and adding yet another complication for buses out on the road, eg how to keep units topped up with sanitiser solution.
Following last week’s reappearance of Stagecoach’s South West Falcon (which on reflection I am a bit surprised about, as presumably social distancing restrictions means it can’t possibly be a commercial proposition assuming it doesn’t qualify for CBSSG Restart funding), I see Chris Coleman, managing director of Stagecoach Oxfordshire posted a statement on the Oxford Tube Facebook page on Thursday: “we wanted to reassure customers we are working to re-introduce services as quickly as possible, working to the government’s guidelines on social distancing and looking at our operational plans. In addition, we are focusing on getting our fleet of coaches ready to welcome customers back, with deep cleaning taking place and our team of specialist engineers carrying out stringent checks. We would like to thank all of our customers for their continued patience whilst our team prepares for the return of the Oxford Tube services, we will share full details in the near future.” Not surprisingly this rather unspecific update didn’t satisfy everyone including Robert who asked “is it possible to give an indication when services will resume, days, weeks more than a month?”. So far no indication has been given, nor is that “reasurance” on the main Oxford Tube website.
It looks like Oxford Bus withdrew from the London market just at the right time.
Most councils have been announcing this week it will be back to normal from next Monday for the 09:30 weekday commencing validity for concessionary passes following the easing of that restriction earlier on in lockdown.
In good taste news this week, South Pennine Community Transport continued its policy of offering more than just a bus service. If you were lucky enough to live on one of their many bus routes in South and West Yorkshire on Tuesday you could have popped out and stopped a bus for some scrumptious bread.
More news this week on whacky schemes by local authorities to re-prioritise road space for the “new normal”. This week’s booby prize for coming up with the most inappropriate reclassification goes to Glasgow City Council who not only closed down a busy bus stop in the city but created a ‘McDonalds Drive Thru” lane. That’s a new one for the Street Sign Manual. (Photo credit to Stephani Mok).
As Caroline Thompson pointed out on Twitter, “other cities have their cycle lanes, here in Glasgow we have our McDonalds lanes (as well as the highest rate of coronary heart disease in the Western world).”
This comes as a study by the Active Travel Academy at Westminster University, published on Wednesday, concluded “limited capacity of public transport will lead to a 7% rise in commuter car journeys during rush hour” which translates to “a million extra cars on the road”.
In Manchester Transdev Blazefield spoke out at the continued pedstrianisation of a key section of Deansgate necessitating a “lengthy diversion” for its bus routes (Witchway and Red Express) which normally use the road and conveniently located bus stops for shoppers.
While in Colchester commuters catching a bus from the station now need to watch out for cyclists who’ve taken over the bus stop lane thanks to some deft work by the Council without, I’m told, consulting the bus operators. (Photo credit Wayne Bell)
Back in London another 102 routes are reverting to front door boarding from today, Saturday. I’ll save you the bingo card listing, but it leaves only around 100 middle door freebies left to convert back; presumably next Saturday for them.
My prize this week for the most inappropriate Covid related notice goes to Arriva for this one (below) spotted on the side of a bus. I’m not sure passengers really want to know Paul O’Neil has “carried out a Covid-19 risk assessment and shared the results with the people who work here”, but I guess at least the lawyers will be happy, especially the bit about “have taken all reasonable steps”; so no claims of any sort welcome here.
Finally for this week’s Covid round up I hear the Government want train companies to return to operating full normal timetables from 6th July, so I thought it prudent to chase up my expression of interest to become a ‘Journey Maker’ as trailed by Grant Shapps at one of his recent Downing Street briefings and mentioned again at yesterday’s. You may recall plans for double the number of 3,500 British Transport Police, Network Rail and TfL staff were going to be recruited as volunteers (which I assumed meant 7,000) to help reassure rail passengers from “1st June at the earliest” – which 6th July would qualify as.
Having only had a thank you email acknowledgment to my emailed expression of interest from the British Red Cross I telephoned the charity with overall responsibility for the scheme, Volunteering Matters, on Thursday and Mark very politely took my name, number and email promising someone involved would ring me back either later that day or Friday, but at the time of writing, still no response. Maybe next week. Maybe not. I’ll update you all next Saturday.
In other news this week, construction work is really getting going on HS2 with the tunnel portal alongside the M25 in Buckinghamshire (near the former ‘Give Peas a Chance‘ Chiltern Railways viaduct) which will take the tracks underground for almost eight and a half miles through the Chilterns starting to take shape…
…while TfL announced a phased restart over the coming weks for works on Bank capacity upgrade, the Northern Line Extension, Four Lines Modernisation, Barking Riverside Etension, the renovation of the Central Line fleet and safety improvements at Old Street roundabout. A number of step-free access and station enhancement schemes will also be restarting.
Down in Hampshire it was announced work will commence on Monday on the final section of the Eclipse Busway between Fareham and Gosport.
Also, looking ahead, comes news that Arriva Click’s operation for Watford originally planned for a late March introduction will commence on 6th July. Funded by Watford Borough Council the four year contract will see the Mercedes Sprinter minibuses limited to a socially distanced capacity of four; but based on experience of DRT schemes elsewhere that’ll be plenty enough.
In new vehicle news, Greater Anglia received authorisation from the Office of Rail and Road on Friday for their much delayed Bombardier built Aventra Class 720 trains to enter service….
… as South Western Railway took delivery of their first Aventra Class 701 delivered to Eastleigh from Bombardier’s Derby factory on Wednesday….
… while over at GoSouthCoast’s Salisbury reds new buses in a smart new livery (designed by you know who) are now running on the joint activ8 route with Stagecoach, between Salisbury and Andover. Photo courtesy Mark Lyons.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Northern Trains were given further dispensation by the DfT for Pacers to continue operating beyond the already extended date of 31st May (for 24 two-car Class 142 trains) having been originally outlawed from 31st December 2019. Another 13 two-car Class 144 trains had been given an extension until 31st August. The new extension is until the end of 2020, but it’s all rather academic as Northern have confirmed it doesn’t have any Pacers in passenger service.
Over in Tyne & Wear, Nexus launched a pot pourri of all the network’s liveries over the years on original protoype Metrocar 4001 to mark the Metro’s 40th anniversary this year.
Exciting news, to mark 100 days on Monday since Arriva was unceremoniously stripped of the Northern franchise back on 1st March the company (now under DfT control through the Operator of Last Resort) announed a new logo to be rolled out over the next two months.
Here it is.
And here’s the logo it’s replacing.
I wonder how much the design agency charged for that update.
Finally for this week, much admiration for the positivity and optimism of bus builder Alexander Dennis who Tweeted on Friday “we need urgent action now to … invest in at least 10,000 clean buses to make public transport an even better alternative to driving!”
Good luck with that one. I’m sure they’re right, but all I’m hearing from bus company managing directors, aside from being busy firefighting current day-to-day problems, is how they’re planning for a post Government funded era for significant fleet reductions as they realign expected reduced demand of around 20% to smaller curtailed networks and sadly, orders for new buses are unlikely to be featuring in that scenario any year soon.
Still, the shops are all opening on Monday, and I see DFS has got a sale, so some semblance of normality really is returning. Let’s see how many Bus Fulls next week brings.
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.