Saturday 27th June 2020
If you’re a believer in public transport, spent your whole career in it, use it extensively, love everything about it, feel passionate about it, you know the sort of thing; you’d have been forgiven back in March for getting mildly excited at the DfT publishing its ‘Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challrnge’ report.
How refreshing to see a Government supposedly serious about achieving modal shift. There it was in black, white and green leading six ‘strategic priorities’: “accelerating modal shift to public and active transport”. Yes, at last, along with the new buzz phrase ‘active travel’, a commitment to “public transport …. the natural first choice for daily activities” and “support fewer car trips”.
So when Secretary of State Grant Shapps appeared before the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday (just three months after the report was published) and was bowled an easy opener from public transport supporter, former chair but, thankfully, still a committee member, Lilian Greenwood (Labour MP Nottingham South) about setting traffic reduction targets – after all, who wouldn’t want to lock in the much welcome free flowing, congestion banished, unpolluted emptier roads we’ve been enjoying these last three months – you’d have thought we’d have got a positive response along the lines of “yes, I’m totally committed to setting modal shift targets”.
I’ve transcribed Shapps’s actual full responses later in this blog, but suffice to say, he exposed himself as a motoring loving libertarian, wanting none of this modal shift nonsense. For Shapps, decarbonising is not about modal shift, it’s all about swapping petrol and diesel engines for electric propulsion and eulogising over a world where a driverless car will pick him up, collect someone else along the way, and glide effortlessly along traffic free roads to his destination. Dream on.
This week has sadly marked the end of the road for traffic free roads.
Photographs of packed coastal resorts all around Britain, sorry, England, (it appears Wales and Scotland are still dealing with a coronavirus outbreak) showed what happens when public transport is demonised and the car is promoted as the first choice of travel. (I’m assuming a trip to the beach from the Midlands is beyond an average ‘active travel’ cycle ride or walk.)
Matthew Arnold, commercial director of Stagecoach South East captured the leading image above of Lydd Road at Camber Sands with Rother District Council also sharing similar images from Wednesday (Sussex Police had to close the road on Thursday)…
… and in London traffic is now even worse than its usual crawl as captured by Tom Bowell showing a queue stetching all the way from Tower Bridge to the Limehouse Tunnel which he was able to walk quicker…
A video of a packed train arriving at Bournemouth Station (allegedly the busiest station on the network on Thursday) with hundreds of no-face-covered sun worshippers making their way to the beach must have warmed Johnson’s heart. That “bustle” he talked about was back with a bounce. The much promised sunlit uplands are here for us all to soak up. Just don’t catch a bus, train or tram to get there.
Except why not catch a bus, train or tram? Is it because they’re unsafe? Is it because their capacity is being artificially restricted? There’s a big difference between the two. The first is unfairly demonising public transport – it IS safe. The second is saying it’s a great way to travel, but there’s just not enough room for everyone. The reason isn’t nuanced in the messaging.
But why haven’t we got enough room for everyone? Other Far Eastern and European countries (yes, I know we’re not allowed to make international comparisons – well, unless it’s for the purpose of covering up for the lack of a workable App – “no other country has one” – what about Germany?) are allowing normal passenger numbers back on to public transport with properly enforced mandated face coverings, reckoning that, together with good ventilation, passengers all sitting the same way (no face to face) including side by side seating, generally not much talking, and not being on board for very long …. it’s a low risk proposition – much less so than being on a packed out Bournemouth beach (albeit in the open air), a pub, a restaurant, a hairdressers, a theme park, a zoo and a whole host of other activities now on the ‘bustling’ agenda.
Right, now that’s off my chest, here’s a canter through eighteen bus, train and tram news items this week…..
1. Rail and bus timetables are increasing to 85% next week according to Grant Shapps. But that’s 85% of ‘timetables’. He also reckons the new ‘1 metre plus’ social distancing restricts capacity to 25-30%. (“if you run 100% of the service, you move from somewhere like 15% to 20% of the service being available at 2 metres to something like 25%, perhaps 30%, at 1 metre-plus, but with lots of caveats to the data” he told the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday). So by my reckoning that means rail and bus timetables are ‘increasing’ to an average capacity of 23.375% next week.
2. It was good to see six transport bodies (Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers, Association of Local Bus Managers, Bus Rapid Transit UK, Bus Users UK, Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport Greener Journeys and Transport Focus) send a letter to the same Secretary of State for Transport on Friday with proposals to replace the current capacity limiting social distance rules on board buses with a practical list of alternatives. The letter explained “Government messaging on public transport has reduced passenger numbers very effectively but, with both retail and hospitality sectors now opening up, it is essential that buses can play their part in returning the nation to near normal.”
The proposals include: no standing passengers; seats behind the driver and seats facing other seats barred; encouragement to occupy window seats first; best practices cleaning regimes; use of hand sanitisers encouraged; encouragement for avoidance of cash; plus a positive campaign to bring passengers back. On Shapps’ showing at Wednesday’s Transport Select Committee he didn’t seem in any hurry to change the ‘avoid public transport’ mantra, and impressive though the above list is, sadly, I don’t think it’ll result in any change.
3. A brand new railway station opening up during a pandemic must be a first, but it was announced on Friday that Horden station near Peterlee on the Durham coast line between Hartlepool and Sunderland will be opening tomorrow, Sunday. So that’s good news for the 98% of residents who welcomed the building of the station back in a 2016 consultation. And I guess the other 2% aren’t that bothered anyway. First day enthusiasts are being urged to stay away and may be refused entry without a legitimate reason for travelling. The town last had a station slightly south of the new site which closed in 1964, so welcome back Horden.
4. Network Rail Wessex came up with a way to prevent overcrowding on Bournemouth’s beach this weekend. On Friday afternoon they announced the main line from Waterloo would be closed west of Southampton all day Sunday for ‘engineering works’. Nice one. Err, except I’ve just rembered everyone’s being advised to drive rather than take the train anyway.
5. My old boss David Brown wrote in The Times on Tuesday how Government messaging must change and buses are the way to go. You can read his article here. Other Group CEOs please do the same. The more voices the better.
6. Grant Shapps’s enthusiasm for electric propulsion is just the start. As well as an announcement in the pipeline for an ‘all electric bus town’ he confirmed there’s also going to be a ‘Hydrogen Bus Town’. Let’s just hope modal shift policies come with it, as I can’t see too many motorists thinking, ‘you know what; I’m definitely going to stop driving now I can get on a bus powered by hydrogen’.
7. Following the return of National Express coaches from this coming Wednesday is news Megabus will be back on the road from Friday, but only in England and Wales at this stage. The Company’s ”excited MD” confirmed the return on social media on Thursday. “We’ll be operating a reduced network whilst we get started, but you can still go to many of the towns and cities we all love, and to see people we have been missing. As government restrictions start to lift further, we’ll start to adapt our network. So if you don’t see a journey you used to travel on right now, please bear with us whilst we get back up and running.” There’ll be the usual Covid precautions, but unlike National Express, no temperature checks as you board.
8. It’s a busy time for coach restarts with Stagecoach’s Oxford Tube also announcing it’ll be back … from Monday 6th July. Running half hourly (every 15 minutes in the peaks) on the standard route (rather than via Baker Street) the southbound timetable operates between 03:15 and 23:15 with northbound journeys between 05:25 and 01:25. Quite impressive. The usual social distancing arrangements will be on board.
9. Still in Oxford, this week saw the end of the road for Oxford Bus Company’s Pick-Me-Up running for the last time on Saturday after two years of giving it their best shot….
10. ….but as one DRT ends another begins …. on Monday. It’s a second ‘Fflecsi’ (as DRT is known in Wales) this time in Cardiff (the first was in Newport) and will be operated by NAT Group (“Wales’ leading transport provider”) in partnership with Cardiff Council and TfW.
It’s a one vehicle (Optare Solo) operation directly replacing previous fixed timetable route G1 between Garth and Whitchurch.
I’m not convinced moving away from a system where you can clearly see when the bus is due, and even click an online map to see exactly where it is, with a system where it could be anywhere along the route at any particular time and you have to make contact before travelling is an improvement. But that’s tech based DRT bus operation for you. It’s a three month trial.
11. Next week is a bumper week for new DRT as Watford Borough Council’s scheme finally gets underway on Wednesday initially with three vehicles provided by Arriva Click.
You can find out the start date on Watford Borough Council’s website …
…. but as of Friday no update on the Arriva website. I’m sure that’ll be sorted by Wednesday (*cough*).
12. It was good to see First Kernow getting their open tops ready this week for the summer season. Normal service is resuming.
13. And looking slightly further ahead comes news CJJ Coaches ‘Bracknell Express’ route 99 linking Bracknell with Heathrow Airport will be getting underway on 15th July having had its launch postponed from 22nd April due to lockdown. It joins a number of routes being funded by the Airport; and comes at a financially challenging time with airline passengers at an all time low at around 3% of normal levels. Maybe the upcoming ‘air bridges’ will help.
14. It’s good to see operators reponding to Covid causing capacity issues by upgrading single deck routes to double deck; and keeping them on brand. Well done Transdev Blazefield again.
15. The latest fashion accessory for Covid concerned commuters was launched by Plastock, a UK plastics company this week.
Company Director Dan Myers developed the protective shield because “I feel self-conscious wearing a mask” …. hmmm, like you don’t feel self conscious wearing a large plastic tube over your head?
If you want your own ‘Tube Tube’ it costs “more than £100” and has to be ordered on a bespoke basis. If there’s enough intent the company plans to mass produce it. Go on, you know you want one.
16. In other news this week the Rail Minister wrote to Heidi Alexander, Deputy Mayor and Deputy Chair TfL, confirming TfL can get on with plans to take over the Great Northern operated routes out of Moorgate to out-of-London Hertford North, Welwyn Garden City. and Stevenage. London’s Overground network is expanding again, but not expected until Autumn 2022. Class 717 trains might look quite tasty in orange.
17. Rail cameras were clicking on Friday morning as Grand Central’a rather smart looking Class 90 engines taking the refurbished and repainted Mark 4 coaches out for a test run. I would think it must be doubtful their proposed Blackpool service (originally planned for May) will get going any time soon.
18. Something went very wrong at Chalfont St Latimer last Sunday evening when a Chiltern Railways train found itself heading the wrong way towards a Metropolitan Line train already in the station. Luckily the driver stopped in time and avoided a nasty accident, but serious questions are being asked about how on earth it could have happened.
This week my aspirations to become one of the army of volunteer Journey Makers were finally dashed. Regular readers will know of my frustrating attempts to sign up to this scheme launched with much fanfare by Grant Shapps back in May but it seems no-one had got round to discussing the practicalities and safety implications with the RMT nor the train operating companies. In a final curtain call to the continuing charades of counting individual gloves as items of PPE, counting tests sent out rather than people actually being tested, last weekend The Guardian reported “ministers had asked train companies to dress staff in the purple tabards meant for ‘journey makers’” presumably to make out the hapless scheme had begun. The report went on to stay “the last-minute request to keep up appearances, relayed to train operators by the Rail Delivery Group, was largely rejected by bosses”. Quite right too. What an absolute farce.
Highlight of this week as trailed earlier was Grant Shapps’ appearance before the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday morning. It was a two hour session with questions spanning right across sectors from local transport via bus, rail, aviation and cycling to maritime. It was far too tedious to relay it all to you here, but if you really are dedicated, you can watch it on Parliament-tv here. A full transcript also appeared online here late on Friday after I’d transcribed the most pertinant answers of most interest to bus and train users like myself. They’re worth a read if you have the time, but if you want an even shorter précis of proceedings….
1 Active policies for modal shift aren’t going to happen on Shapps’ watch (despite what it says in DfT’s recently published ‘Decarbonising Transport report).
2 Bus subsidies will have to continue beyond early August, but he’s not saying so definitely.
3 EMAs with TOCs will have to continue beyond 20th September, and at an unspecified ‘some time after that’ the ‘guiding mind’ (looks like the DfT) will control everything through awarding concessions to ‘make sure trains run on time‘.
4 Ticket reform. He wants more contactless. That seemed about it.
5 Relieve pressure points on congested tracks with less trains? No way. Digital signalling (on the East Coast Main Line) is the answer (and concessions controlled by the ‘guiding mind’).
6 Stop the ‘avoid public transport’ messaging? Can’t give a timing on that. Only when ‘the virus is absolutely in the right place‘.
Here’s the slightly longer version: (be careful your despair factor doesn’t go into overload as you read the verbatim replies)…
As mentioned earlier Lilian Greenwood opened the questions on Local Transport asking if Grant Shapps is concerned at the potential for long term behavioural change as people avoid public transport and choose to drive instead?
“I do think we have to be very conscious of this point, after all we are quite literally signalling to people to avoid public transport … (then the irony bit about it not being usual for a Secretary of State for Transport to be saying that) … and one of the options, it should be said, after walking or cycling, is indeed to drive because right now it prevents the overcrowding on the public transport system that we’re working so hard to protect …. it must be a concern that we don’t end up bedding long term changes of the wrong type in that process. You’re right to focus on this”.
Which I didn’t think really got us any further forward, nor I suspect did Lilian Greenwood as she followed up by referring to the recent ‘Decarbonising Transport’ document which she pointed out set the vision that public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice so asked “in the medium to long term are you thinking of setting targets to halt and reverse traffic growth – will that be part of the decarbonising plan?”
Here was the rather disappointing reply: “I think it opens up a number of different possibilities including how fast we can accelerate the take up of electric vehicles” which has nothing to do with a vision that “public transport …. will be the natural first choice”.
He went on: “I always reject the idea that just because roads are being used that’s a bad thing – it’s a bad thing if its spewing out nitrogen dioxide or CO2 – but actually it’s not because I have a principle objection to roads and cars, indeed we’re putting £27 billion into building and improving roads. We just want them to be environmentally friendly at the same time which means switching to zero carbon at the tail pipe of vehicles. So I think it does have an implication there and it has made us look at driving that forward even faster and harder so for example we’ve always ran with the sector a sort of “go low”, “go ultra low” campaign which is driving towards being a ‘drive zero’ campaign to really focus on zero carbon being the desired outcome”.
Lilian wasn’t taken in that her point about setting targets had been evaded: “but when you said we will use our cars less … there are wider issues around congestion …. again, will you be setting targets for seeing a reversal in road traffic?”
Here’s the really telling reply indicating this Government are not remotely serious about modal shift and tacking traffic congestion (despite what it says in their Decarbonising Transport report):
“No; and certainly not in the short term I think to be completely candid about it – because in the very very short term, and I don’t want to send mixed messages about this – we must make sure we protect the transport network so that it’s used only by those who need to use it and that we can maintain social distancing albeit it at 1 metre plus if required …
“In the slightly longer term?” Lilian Greenwood persisted sensing waffle overload ….
“In the slightly longer term, no, I don’t have a sort of ideological bent against the car . I think it’s fine for people to use cars, however, I think it is inevitably the case, and I’m really enthusiastic about it, that car ownership will probably change, people will use car sharing services more, when we can all sit together and even clever algorithms will mean an automated car comes to you and picks you up and picks somebody else up on its route to the ultimate destination. So I think there are lots of things that will change about this — and I really notice this, I’ve got kids of starting to drive age and their attitude to wanting a car and to start driving is quite different to when I learnt to drive, so I think there is already a different attitude and that comes about because it’s so much easier to have an app and call a taxi or a private hire vehicle than it was, or as has happened during this lockdown period jump on a bike or even an electric powered bike so you get some assistance. Other forms of transport which just weren’t around when we learnt to drive such as e-scooters which we’re just starting a year long trial at the end of this month, beginning of next, so there are more options available and I don’t want to see our roads filled up, but I don’t want to, especially not speaking where we are today, see mixed messages it is important that before people take public transport people walk, cycle and then I’m afraid, drive, before taking public transport for the immediate future”.
I thought that reference to “I’m afraid” before admitting people are being extolled to “drive” before taking public transport was particularly interesting as he obviously feels guilty about having the views he does that “I don’t have a sort of ideological bent against the car”. It was also noticeable how the word “bus” didn’t even get a mention in these waffly answers.
It’s nice to have a vision, but I think if he’s relying on automatic cars coming to pick him up from his Hatfield home to take him down to the station, picking others up along the way, he’s got an awfully long time to wait for that one to come to fruition, if ever.
Robert Largan (Conservative MP for High Peak) took on the questioning about buses and after an unilluminating exchange on the intricacies of the ‘1 metre plus’ change not really making much difference to seating capacities, he pointed out the current Covid Bus Services Support Grant Restart runs out in August so what are the plans for it to continue?
“I think it is fairly obvious if I say that if you’re not able to run your services with 100% capacity then it is difficult to make those services profitable so let me just put it on the table and be blunt with you, it’s the reason why during the crisis we had £397 million right at the beginning on 3rd April that I put in to keep the bus service running in England, that’s £397 million, then on the 23rd May I announced another £254 million in support to help increase services actually on that occasion and we’ve got essentially an agreed financial support for bus services which runs now until early August and is reviewed on a four weekly basis so I make no bones about it of course it’s extremely challenging to run public transport services including the buses whilst at the same time I’m sending out the message please try and avoid unless you’ve exhausted other options, and as a result you’re right it’s going to continue to be challenging.”
Do you think there’s a training school where Secretaries of State learn how to state the obvious in 175 words where one (“yes”) would do?
Robert Largan also asked about improving timetables to give extra support for people travelling out and about to enjoy the night time economy from 4th July – and remember this was the section about buses, to which the Secretary of State rambled:
“To make sure we didn’t end up with pictures of crowded public transport and people put at risk. So we did a number of different things including the messaging asking people I’ve talked about to find other forms but also I pulled in Sir Peter Hendy who did a couple of the No 10 press conferences with me and charged him with getting on top of the situation in order to ensure that we’re running the right services at the right time, that we’re plugging gaps as soon as they appear, that all the transport operators, the unions,. and everyone else were responding to the increasing service provision to match people coming back to the service, albeit slowly, I was having daily meetings with updates and we watched it very very closely and monitored the situation very closely and I’m pleased to say so far that has worked, but clearly the next challenge for this will be on 4th July.”
Brilliant. I can just picture the daily meetings with Sir Peter rushing in with updated timetables for every bus route and train service in the country and Shapps monitoring passenger loadings on them all and wondering whether an extra journey from Little Bedworth Beyond to Blandish Cove needs to be added to the schedules.
And then it was on to trains. Chris Loder (Conservative MP for West Dorset) asked if the Emergency Measures Agreements will be extended beyond September and for how long? Mr Loder, who knows a thing or two about railways, did his best to press the Secretary of State for a straight simple answer to a somewhat straight forward question. Here are the replies:
“We’re working very hard on that”.
“We were already going to be moving to a different type of railway and different types of contracts. There is now the opportunity to move things along a little faster than might otherwise have been the case so we’ve got these Emergency Measures and we need to put in place what will replace them or continue from them from 20th September. Although I can’t tell you exactly what that’s going to be right this moment I was trying to strongly hint that there was already a changed future.”
“The strong steer I’m trying to give you is we already know that the railway had to change, because of what’s happened we’ve ended up running all of the operations, being the ultimate guarantor of them as it were and that actually provides a number of different challenges but also some significant opportunities to move much faster to a different type of railway.”
Chris Loder asked if all this meant introducing the Williams Review is being expedited?
Grant Shapps seemed to feel the need to explain what the Williams Review is:
“It envisages a railway which is brought back together a lot more with a central guiding mind (or as the media always call it, a Fat Controller) in charge so you end up not in a situation where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and if the bird that hits the overhead line and brings it down is larger than a pheasant it’s Network Rail’s problem, if it’s smaller then it’s the train operating company’s problem and all these weird kind of outcomes. Instead runs a system which is a bit more like TfL actually contracts other operators to run London Overground lines so they’re run as concessions, most people wouldn’t realise as they look like they’re London, part of TfL, these Overground lines are actually run privately but they’re run on the basis the fares being collected centrally by TfL in that case and investment decisions being made by the central organisation and that’s basically what Keith Williams has proposed …. clearly what we need to do is to put in place a situation that gets to the Williams world and in some ways the route between where we are (or were rather) and where we need to get to has been changed and you might say speed it up.”
It really does make you wonder when you acually read word for word such nonsense trotted out by our politicians in charge of the railways.
Committee Chairman Hew Merriman (Conservative MP, Bexhill and Battle) tried to hurry it all along with some quick fire questions.
A date for Williams?
“We would have released a White Paper already were it not for coronavirus. Now we’re holding the entire network in our hands we can do things more quickly – before the end of the year I’ll have more to say. I’m not sure what form it might take, we might not need a White Paper.”
Shapps said he was “working with Keith every single week to work out the best way to accelerate this work” (presumably in between pouring over timetables with Sir Peter) and “coronavirus has sped things up”.
Next quick fire question: “Ticketing reform – a good time to do it now?”
“Another great frustration is why it is half the people are still having to walk around with paper tickets when contactless is the way forward and much more flexible and retrospectively can charge you. On the route that I take in to come here although I’m outside London I’m able to use a contactless reader machine which is not an Oyster machine per se but which works with Oyster at the other end so when I get here I’m able to touch in today with my phone contactlessly and touch out again to get out the barrier at the other end. We should be able to roll these things out much much faster; we’re already committed to roll that out to 200 more stations particularly in the South East. There are other schemes for example in the north that I want to see accelerated, I’m rather frustrated that contactless ticketing has been too slow to take off, I know that people like Transport for the North have been looking at this. You can expect much greater intent from me as to why this hasn’t rolled out much faster and how we can get it there”.
Next quick fire: Hew Merriman: “Timetables – performance at the moment is very high – they’ve got slack in the system – is it arguable it makes sense not to go back to the 100% timetable we had before – and it’s much easier to change now because people won’t be complaining as much”.
“When I became Transport Secretary I just wanted to make the trains run on time and I didn’t really expect to see that happen by having a fraction of the people using it but as you rightly say the PPM figures are 98% and 99% of trains are running (within 5 minutes and 10 minutes late) but it turns out to do that they’re just not carrying the passengers which is clearly not sustainable.
“I don’t think its an either or. On Monday I announced £350 million to upgrade a large section of the East Coast Main Line to digital signalling That means that unlike the Victorian system when you … waffly explanation about … trains being in blocks along the line, digital signalling means that in the train cab there’s proper reporting, proper information, and the people controlling the network can have trains run much closer together” … blah blah blah … “digital signalling and the like are the way forward” … blah blah blah …. “we ought to be able to incorporate in a modern railway system much greater efficiencies through technology, but also through simplification …. so that the concession model I was talking about before, where the thing they’re being charged with doing is running trains on time for passengers – not the revenue side which will be collected centrally or directly making the decisions over investment. So they’ll be charged with a single simple responsibility to run the trains on time for passengers.”
So, never mind the fact normally too many trains are scheduled to run between Manchester’s Piccadilly, Oxford Road and Deansgate stations each hour than the infrastructure can cope with, digital signalling on the East Coast Main Line will sort all that out with train companies compelled through concessions to run to time. Hew Merriman wasn’t letting go. He tried again:
“Have you considered not going back to the full timetable to put some slack in the system so that it can run more to time?”
“No, I think we do need to get back to full timetable to answer that, we need to get back to the full timetable and we need to make the system run more efficiently, which is in the longer term, fewer less fragmented organisations involved, more technology, higher quality standards and better recovery from incidents.”
Finally Chris Loder was back pointing out the messaging to the public to avoid trains and buses is crippling the commerciality of services particularly rural bus services and asked when will that message change and are there any mitigations in mind to prevent in effect the cutting of services as a result of it.
“We have to be honest with people and say that we want to protect both lives and livelihoods and in doing so we cannot recommend people go back to using it until we have the virus absolutely in the right place. We’ll see on 4th July we’ll clearly have an uptick…..”
He was all set for another waffle so was pressed for a reply which turned out to be…
“I can’t give you an answer on timing.”
Chris Loder pointed out with pubs and other leisure facilities back on line it seems odd there’s been no adjustment to the advice on using transport.
It is indeed very odd and dispiriting.
And finally, the ‘and finally’ for this week. Anyone want a Pacer? There are plenty going spare at the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway….(photos credit: ‘with thanks to Tim Moody from KWVR’)….