Saturday 4th July 2020
It’s been another week of mixed message muddles, inconsistencies and questionable priorities.
No, I’m not referring to today’s reopening of pubs while schools pretty much remain closed until September. Nor fast food outlets up and cooking, while gyms stay closed. Even though such misplaced priorities are questionable enough.
I’m all about public transport mixed messaging, inconsistencies and priorities.
But at last, on Friday, news filtered through the ‘avoid public transport’ mantra which has been doing so much damage to the image of bus, tram and train travel these last few weeks, is set to be toned down and as early as next week. (That’ll just leave all the yellow and black hazard warning tape to dispense with and we really will be back to normal……ish)
It’s certainly a good old British bounce back boost with bus and train timetables returning to some semblance of normal as well as a welcome return of more furloughed express coach routes. But of course these inconsistently came this week alongside the, for now, continued official Government messaging to “avoid public transport” and lots of #EssentialTravelOnly imploration.
What’s a prospective passenger in the north east community of Horden, County Durham supposed to think? On the one hand being SHOUTED AT on social media that Northern’s trains are for “ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY” yet a brand new “multi-million-pound station” opened for business on Monday? It’s not exactly going to ‘regenerate the area’ unless passengers are allowed to use it without being damned by breaking wartime like travel restrictions.
‘Ramping up’ has been all the rage these last few Covid months, but Horden has shown what serious ramping up looks like. I guess it worked out cheaper than installing a couple of lifts.
Those expanded train timetables from this weekend bring news of new peak hour trains from Eastbourne and Chichester to London Bridge. But be warned, they come with inbuilt brand confusion as this photo from Geoff Marshall advises ….
…. with red Gatwick Express trains which won’t stop at Gatwick Airport. And I won’t get started on whether tickets marked ‘not Gatwick Express’ can be used on them!
Meanwhile more on the mixed messaging front from Secretary of State Grant Shapps who gave a thumbs up welcoming back National Express coaches to the roads on Wednesday. “Helping Britain to get moving once again!” he enthusiastically tweeted …
…. while his own DfT’s Twitter feed promoting bus open data – “we’re opening up bus data …. to improve journeys for passengers. So next time … take the bus!” says the profile heading, while just above comes another shouty blue and yellow exaltation “If possible, walk or cycle or go by car”. Which presumably means, don’t take a coach either.
Just what is a prospective passenger supposed to make of that?
Promoting that relaunch was straight-out-of-bed early riser NatEx managing director Chris Hardy on Sky’s breakfast TV programme on Wednesday. NatEx have opted for a ‘window seat only’ regime not worrying about the alternate row layout adopted by others.
This means they can offer 50% capacity rather than languishing down at 25%, which most bus and train companies continue with, including Megabus who also hit the road again on Friday.
So how is it Grant Shapps is endorsing “covid safe practices” on NatEx coaches and continues to insist train companies are restricted to 25% capacity on inter-city routes? It doesn’t make any sense; certainly not to getting-fed-up-with-staying-at-home-while-all-these-inconsistencies-continue me. Shall I start travelling again on the ‘not-restricted-to-travel-for-essential-purposes-only’ National Express coaches; or perhaps even take a flight where my custom will be warmly welcomed by airlines starting back up, or follow those blue and yellow exaltations to walk and cycle everywhere, or drive?
Michael O’Leary was also doing the breakfast TV studio milk round on Wednesday promoting the return of Ryanair’s planes. They have no seat capacity limitations at all. O’Leary said with face coverings and forward facing high backed seats, side by side, the risks were minimal. That sounds no different to a train to me.
Susanna Reid pointed out food and drink will be sold on board and O’Leary acknowledged masks would be lowered for that to be consumed. Meanwhile on inter-city trains, food and drink is no longer available on board nor encouraged to be consumed – such abstinence is just not practical on a long “essential” journey from London to Scotland or Penzance.
The return of NatEx and Megabus also brings into sharp focus continuing contrasting funding regimes. While every passenger travelling on a train is being State supported by a substantial £100 subsidy per journey with a carriage to themselves, express coaches are providing an alternative at no cost to the taxpayer at all.
Not only that, but international coach operator FlixBus has now joined the UK express coach party beginning three new services on Thursday.
What a time to launch new express coach routes. I presume the equity backers of Flixbus do know there’s a bit of a global pandemic going on at the moment causing a devastating impact on travel habits? The German based company is now running two daily return journeys on three routes with six coaches (provided by outsourced operators) between London and Birmingham, Bristol and Portsmouth (with a stop in Guildford). I presume they also know First Bus gave the Portsmouth run a good going over with their high profile Greyhound brand ten years ago (overseen by the enthusiastic customer centric Alex Warner who threw everything at it he could get away with in First Group’s corporate strait-jacketed regime of the time – which actually was quite a lot, bearing in mind it was Alex)? It still failed. Bristol was also targeted by newcomer Snap until that operation became furloughed for Covid, while Birmingham is always a popular market, not least with hefty rail competition leading to some bargain basement fare offers. It’s not going to be an easy ride for Flixbus.
Many thanks to Gabriel Fong for the above photo capturing a former Whippet Coaches vehicle on the 11:00 from London to Portsmouth in Guildford on the first day, Thursday and to Scott Cooper for the timetable below.
It has to be said, Fixbus have expanded fast across much of Europe and even in the USA. And they’re ambitious. “This is just the beginning,” Flixbus UK managing director Andreas Schorling said in a statement. “We have great plans for Britain and want to become the market leader by 2025.” I’ve got a feeling NatEx and Stagecoach owned Megabus might see that a bit differently. Flixbus is using “local, authorised coach firms, which are often family run … with fares starting from £2.99. Initially, the offer will entail around 200 trips a week”. One to watch especially as some of their expansion has come from buying out other operators (eg Megabus in Europe). Hmm, there’s a thought.
Meanwhile over in Watford, the Borough Council’s generously funded DRT scheme got underway on Wednesday and Arriva Click even managed to update their website to confirm it was indeed all up and running by lunchtime that day. So that was a result.
Once I realised Arriva Click in Watford needs a different app to download than Arriva Click in Leicester and Arriva Click in Speke (and previously in Liverpool and Sittingbourne) – they use algorithm experts called ‘ioki’ in Watford rather than the more usual ViaVan, so you need your wits about you when downloading from the app store to choose the right Arriva Click App from the two available – I was all equipped at 13:04 to order up a minibus to come and pick me up from my imaginary location outside Watford Junction station. A minibus would be with me in seven minutes, which wasn’t bad, although I doubt the minibuses were exactly stretched with custom at lunch time on the first day.
There didn’t seem to be a facility to register a concessionary pass, and I thought the £4.50 price a bit ‘taxi-like’ for an approximate 16 minute journey, so decided against booking and instead to stay home, stay alert and save lives.
Three minibuses are providing a service limited to a Covid-safe four people per bus in these intial first few weeks, but that shouldn’t be a problem in the slim-pickings world of DRT. I hope to get to Watford to give it the usual “busandtrainuser once over” soon but am torn between continued abiding by the “avoid public transport” mantra and being tempted by all these exciting new services starting up.
Talking of new services, last week I highlighted Bracknell Express branded route 99 to Heathrow Airport starting in ten days and on Tuesday evening came surprising news of Grand Central’s grand return to the tracks from Sunday 26th July.
Three return journeys will run between Sunderland and London with two from Bradford. Except, you struggled to find that out as the company’s website had a glitch on Tuesday and Wednesday just as Grand Central tweeted out the “fantastic news” including a link to the broken website. Thankfully it soon got sorted and a kind knowledgable tweeter suggested I had to refresh the page which seemed to crack the problem.
It’s commendable to see the return of an open access train operator back on to the tracks at its full commercial risk with no Government financial support but I reckon Grand Central are going to have their work cut out to make anywhere near a financial return particularly while Government’s negative stance towards public transport continues.
Another welcome return is to Blackpool’s trams in a couple of weeks after the system was sensibly mothballed shortly after lockdown to save the high costs of running a fixed track system. Blackpool Transport also announced the ending of free travel for NHS staff applied from Wednesday. Another sign of normality returning and another reason why the upcoming avoidance of the ‘avoid public transport messaging’ can’t come soon enough.
Grant Shapps has pinned his faith on e-scooters becoming the next big mobility thing. Yes, we’ll soon be scooting our way up the A1 from London to Sunderland as from this weekend local authorities can allow companies to rent them out “to help ease the burden on public transport”. What burden? Did I miss something? The only burden on public transport has been the negative messaging and slavish social distance requirements.
As the move was announced, the Transport Select Committee began an evidence session on the subject ‘e-scooters: pavement nuisance or transport innovation?’
The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) are not quite so enthusiastic. They reported “from evidence around the world, it is now very clear the public benefits (of e-scooters) are illusory and the disbenefits substantial … very few car trips transfer to e-scooters … predominantly trips made previously on foot, cycle or public transport, or new trips.” They go on to say “e-scooters are not active travel, they involve no physical exertion and provide no health benefit to the user … they tend to reduce active travel”. They also point out the dangers for both users and to other road users.
Talking of e-scooters, Alex Hornby made the pertinent point on social media that along with cycling and walking, they’re simply not able to do the “heavy lifting” of providing a mass transit alternative to the bus. As car use continues to grow back towards pre-Covid levels, bus and train use continues to languish thanks to all the negative messaging. It’s that messaging which simply has to change. Or … #ChangetheMessage …. as they say these days.
All the more so on Thursday with Government announcing schools will be fully opening from September when it’s inevitable school buses will need the flexibility to carry children at normal on board capacity levels with no social distancing restrictions. So why not bring it forward and allow normal capacity now, to coincide with pubs reopening? I delved into the Government guidance on ‘full opening of schools’ issued on Thursday to take a look at what will be involved.
It’s going to be all about bubbles in school: “if class-sized groups are not compatible with offering a full range of subjects or managing the practical logistics within and around school, they can look to implement year group sized ‘bubbles’”. Then there’s this advice a bit further on ….
Measures for arriving at and leaving school
We know that travel to school patterns differ greatly between schools. If those patterns allow, schools should consider staggered starts or adjusting start and finish times to keep groups apart as they arrive and leave school.
So how’s that going to work? How are year group bubbles going to be kept separate on school buses? It’s just not practical as, presumably year group bubbles don’t necessarily live on the same bus route.
Luckily a journalist from a publication called Schools Week was on to it and asked Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, at Thursday’s Downing Street Briefing: “a lot of pupils particularly those at rural schools rely on public transport to get in to school, doesn’t your plan for bubbles full apart when children are crammed on to buses to and from school every day and given the importance of this why are you still evaluating your position on providing extra school transport services; why don’t you have a plan already?”
Steal yourself for the lucid reply from our Gav…
“In terms of school transport this is an issue we’ve been working on very closely both with the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and we’ll be working very closely with local authorities in terms of making sure, depending on where we are in terms of dealing with this virus, that the proper controls are properly in place on school transport and some of the information that we are sharing is making sure that the protection of those bubbles is in place as a result of home to school transport.”
So that clears that up then!
It looks to me those bubbles are soon going to burst.
Over at BBC Essex there was even talk that there’d be no school buses at all…
Lisa Purbrick seemed to know what she was talking about. Hopefully it was just one of those controversial topics beloved of local radio ‘mid morning matters’ programmes to ‘engage with their listeners’ and I’m guessing the “hints” are totally spurious.
Can you imagine school kids assiduously wearing face coverings, sitting in silence and keeping the requisite social distance apart on school buses? I can’t. Up in Scotland, there’ll be an interesting dry run for England as their schools go back on 11 August.
It was announced on Thursday that face coverings will be mandatory in Scotland’s shops (as well as already on public transport) from next Friday. That might help with community acceptance and enforcement which I see is a problem in some areas, not least in the Potteries where people got excited about it during the week.
There were reports First West of England are planning to introduce a whacky idea shortly whereby bus passengers in Bristol will be able to reserve a seat on socially distanced bus services in a trial this summer. “Subject to the effectiveness of the pilot, the project has the potential to expand onto other routes across the network where demand is expected to be at its highest and capacity at a premium,” Peter Mann, the West of England Combined Authority’s head of strategic transport, told councillors. He said the trial was expected to launch in late-July. FirstGroup’s current thinking apparently is the reservation system will be offered on duplicate services – the additional services provided to facilitate social distancing on a busy bus route. The normal services on the route would remain open access. A better idea would be to ditch the yellow and black tape.
The beleaguered coach sector took the initiative to raise its profile on Wednesday with a ‘Honk for Hope UK’ convoy of 90 coaches hitting the roads in the north east. Organised by Jenna Rush of Newcastle based North East Coach Travel. Jenna pointed out “social distancing prevents coaches from being filled to capacity, reducing revenue as a result.”. It was a good high profile stunt to raise the profile of the coach sector not really going anywhere which contrasts with Michael O’Leary just getting on with it and flying again.
Back in Scotland Michael Matheson the Scottish Government’s Transport Secretary announced additional funding of £46.7 million for bus companies with an expectation they will “progressively ramp up services”. But it was also reported this week Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) needs “urgent financial aid from Transport Scotland” as it faces a £12.5 million shortfall for the current financial year with expectations it could rise to £20 million. SPT CEO Gordon MacLennan said he’d written to Transport Scotland three times since March but “not a penny” of support has yet been received. Much of SPT’s income comes from the Glasgow Subway where passenger numbers have fallen by 97%. There are similar issues on Lothian’s trams in Edinburgh.
A Transport Scotland spokeswoman was quoted as saying: “we appreciate the important role that the subway and trams play in our two biggest cities and have undertaken detailed discussions with SPT and Edinburgh Trams to understand the implications of Covid-19 on their operations. We are currently exploring what appropriate support may be available in the context of the very challenging financial situation, our published Covid-19: Framework for decision-making, and the Transport Transition Plan.”
Talking of no rush, buses in London have been slowly returning to front door boarding week by week. Ten more routes swap back from today, but that still leaves 20 with middle door boarding meaning no fares being collected. Lucky passengers are those using routes 39, 80, 93, 108, 131, 151, 152, 154, 163, 219, 227, 232, 286, 355, 358, 365, 455, 476, 485 and 486.
On Tuesday we had the benefit of the Prime Minister’s much hyped ‘build build build’ vision for post Covid Britain (even though experts are cautioning we’re not, in any sense, in a post Covid position). I scoured the speech for references to a vision for public transport to build build build in the benefits we’ve all seen of improved air quality when traffic dramatically reduced. After the usual wiffle waffle and piffle paffle came this gem: “and more than ever the time has come when we must unite and level up in the most basic way possible not just with HS2 and NPR but with better roads, better rail unblocking the central Manchester bottleneck that delays services across the north and 4000 brand new zero carbon buses and a massive new plan for cycleways and we will build and rebuild those vital connections to every part of the UK”.
I’m guessing not too many listeners recognised the acronym NPR. I had to think for a while and then realised it was ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’. It will be interesting to see what the “central Manchester bottleneck” involves. Grant Shapps told the Transport Select Committee when questioned on this last week that his investment of digital signalling on a section of the East Coast Main Line was the answer. Personally I doubt that would make the 11:03 from Hazel Grove to Blackpool keep to time through Deansgate any time soon. Now it seems there’s £10 million going Network Rail’s way “for the design stages of works focused on Manchester’s railway system”. It’ll be interesting to see if this brings back the quadrupling of the track through Oxford Road and Deansgate proposal which Grayling reckoned wasn’t needed. It was.
Those “4000 brand new zero carbon buses” will be welcomed by the UK’s bus manufacturers who face a bleak short and medium term future, but they’ll need commercial bus companies’ getting their networks sorted for the new 80% (at best) of pre Covid passenger levels. Meanwhile the PM’s grand “New Deal” included 29 road projects so “we will not just bounce back, we will bounce forward – stronger and better and more united than ever before”. They comprise £4.9 million to repair two bridges in Sandwell, £5 million to make Liverpool’s road network more resilient, further maintenance on the Swanswell Viaduct in Coventry, and road maintenance in Tadcaster, £4.9 million for replacing poor quality pavements in Sheffield and another £4.5 million for improvement works on the A15. That’s quite some New Deal. I wonder if Roosevelt ever travelled along the A15 on a visit.
CPT’s Graham Vidler didn’t seem quite so convinced by the minimal mention of buses by our bus loving Prime Minister, reacting after the speech by saying “despite delivering £10s of billions to the economy each year buses are often forgotten in transport planning meaning they become stranded in congestion, which we know causes economic harm”. Let’s hope in pledging to do away with the red tape of “newt-counting delays in our system” we don’t forget the all important role of public transport as new developments spring up as we build, build, build …. luxury flats on a former printing works site, for example.
Never mind buses being ignored in future developments, the omens from some of these temporary schemes being ‘fast-tracked’ in towns and cities are not good. Tom Bowell pointed out this week how the London Borough of Croydon’s closure of parts of Katherine Street and High Street has a “terrible effect on buses – southbound journey times extended up to 5 minutes and parts of busy High Street have no southbound bus stops anymore”.
Croydon was in contrast to Salisbury where the city centre “is set to be cut off to all through traffic from September”. A move warmly welcomed by bus operator Salisbury reds who maintain the access it needs. So that sounds good.
Meanwhile, as a foretaste of whats to come it’s reported Transport for London is looking to reduce its office estate with many of its desk-based staff home working. TfL’s director of commercial development Graeme Craig told the finance committee how TfL “went from having some 12,500 people working in our major office hubs to having … only 500 people …in offices” He said the changes could be long lasting “we expect the organisation to work very differently …. this is a unique opportunity to move to a model of working that delivers substantial cost savings and efficiency gains”. And remember TfL is all about transport where “every journey matters”. Hundreds of companies not focused on delivering transport as a business are bound to be thinking similarly.
As another foretaste of things to come, over in New Zealand where they’re now a month on from public transport getting back to normal on 8th June, Andrew Dyer, my colleague managing director from Brighton & Hove’s neighbour Stagecoach South in the days when we both plied a living on the south coast, got in touch from his retirement pastures out in New Zealand to tell me:
“I thought you might be interested in our experience on the other side of the world. As has been well documented, the NZ Government went in hard and early with lockdown which seems to have paid off. The UK has 14 times the population of NZ but 185 times the number of Covid cases.” (OK, Andrew don’t rub it in.)
“During the first 4 week total lockdown, people were only allowed to use their cars to go out for food or medicine and public transport was restricted for essential workers only. Local buses and trains are all franchised here, so frequencies depended on regional council area. In Auckland, mainly Saturday timetables operated.
“When lockdown eased and required social distancing was reduced to 1 metre. Buses were allowed to carry about 40% of capacity, so everyone got a double seat with no one in the first row behind the driver. There was still an “avoid using public transport if you can” message being put out by Government.
“For the last 3.5 weeks we have been at the NZ Government’s ‘Alert level 1’ which basically means that all restrictions are removed but borders remain closed. Sadly, bus passenger numbers have been slow to rebuild and on my local route are still only about 40% of pre-Covid levels. I’m told that the best recovered route in the city is still only up to 70-75%. I sense that lots of city centre businesses are allowing large amounts of home working to continue and I have no doubt that three months of “you’ll die if you catch a bus or train” sort of messaging has taken its toll…..
Not a good omen for the UK industry.”
Not a good omen indeed, but we must keep positive. And believe in public transport. As it is the answer.
In other news this week Transport Focus published the results of its annual National Rail Passenger Survey on Thursday. Main fieldwork began on 27th January but was curtailed on 16th March due to Covid-19 so sample sizes are about 75% of normal levels, although it’s still based on almost 20,000 passenger surveys. Nevertheless caution is recommended in interpreting the results for Merseyrail, Great Northern, EMR, LNER, c2c, Chiltern, TfW and TPE.
Top of the satisfaction table is Grand Central with an impressive score of 95 followed closely by Heathrow Express on 94 and Hull Trains on 92. Which tells you something about small train companies focused on a specific market. Top ‘normal’ type of TOC is LNER with 91 followed closely by ScotRail on 90 – which is quite a turnaround from when it was in the doldrums last year and even had its contract cut short last December to end three years early in March 2022 instead of 2025. Close behind ScotRail is TfL Rail on 89 (GTR’s sub brand Gatwick Express also scored 89) with Chiltern Railways coming in on 88 and London Overground on 87 all showing the trend of smaller focused companies scoring high. Of the huge sprawling TOCS, GWR did well on 86 with Cross Country just behind on 85.
More DfT teasing on Tuesday from the Reverse Beeching campaign. There’s been a theme over the last few months of the Government over promising and under delivering. This will be a classic of that genre.
Meanwhile it was finally confirmed on Tuesday Newhaven Marine station will be closing, officially, “as early as September” after the recent consultation into its unofficial closure 14 years ago.
Good to see a number of operators are gearing up for an ambitious summer season attracting non-essential leisure travellers. City sightseeing operations are restarting in York next Saturday ….
…. while Seaford & District are hoping to be up and running to Eastbourne and Beachy Head in late July.
It’s also interesting to see some companies now positively promoting their services for leisure travel, with no reference to “essential travel only” and certainly no “avoid public transport”.
Once again, it looks Government will be in reactive mode playing catch up to ensure its messaging reflects what’s becoming the new practice, so good news in The Times on Friday that “public transport is likely to be opened up to thousands more passengers under government plans to drop official advice warning them to stay away. Ministers are preparing to tone down warnings over the use of trains and buses amid criticism from operators and backbench MPs that too many services are running empty”.
The Times has learnt that “Government will monitor use of public transport over the weekend and early next week before possibly abandoning the approach it has maintained since March. Over the past three months commuters have been told to use other forms of transport with buses and trains only used for essential journeys”.
I see Transport Focus Chief Executive Anthony Smith made the point very forcefully in a letter to the Secretary of State Grant Shapps on Friday calling for the negative messaging to end and it was good to hear Sir Peter Hendy confirming the likely upcoming change of stance ‘live’ from his homage-to-Dovey-Junction-store-room home during a keynote speech delivered to a webinar organised by Transport Focus and London Travelwatch on Friday.
And this all comes just in time as Google maps displayed the grim picture on Friday afternoon of central London’s traffic back to its usual gridlocked level … despite the return of the congestion charge at an increased price and the ULEZ … confirming a car led recovery is well on its way.
So, as ‘normality’ beckons and travelling for leisure on public transport looks like being back on the agenda very soon allowing more normal blogging from me to also return, it’s time to bring these weekly round ups to a close. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I have in putting them together.
I thought I’d end with a bang so have recorded a ‘vlog’ style presentation pulling the last 15 weeks together plus some action plans for the future into a fifty minute YouTube video entitled ‘How public transport survived a pandemic’. It’s launching at a special ‘live’ showing at 6.15pm on Monday (6th July 2020) as part of the London Transport Museum Friends recently established “At home with….” series of online presentations. So, if you’re reading this before the 6th July, do give it a watch and take the opportunity to join in the ‘live chat’. If you’ve missed it, don’t worry, it will still be on YouTube. Click here for the link.
A couple of spoiler alerts – re those action plans for the future, I make the point that if the DfT really are serious about rail fares reform, the time to do it is now – while they’re bankrolling the entire system and only 5% of revenue is at risk. I also make the point now is not the time to hand control of bus networks over to inexperienced (transport wise) metro Mayors – now is the time for well experienced transport professionals to show how to get costs to a manageable level and stimulate demand. Interestingly I see Mayor Burnham sensibly postponed a decision on bus franchising in Manchester last Friday. Every cloud.
Thanks for reading over the last fifteen weeks.
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.