Saturday 14th November 2020
Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has obviously suffered a bad train experience some time in his past. He dampened down Monday’s euphoria over the much anticipated roll out of a Covid-19 vaccine at the 10 Downing Street Press Conference by using the analogy of a train journey . “Where you’re standing on the station, it’s wet, it’s windy, it’s horrible” (thanks Jonathan, but couldn’t it have been a nice sunny day instead, like at Berney Arms in the summer?) “and two miles down the tracks, two lights appear and it’s the train, and it’s a long way off. We’re at that point at the moment”.
He went on to “hope the train slows down safely to get into the station, and then the train stops and at that point the doors don’t open as the guard has to make sure it’s safe to open the doors” (sounds like he’s been talking to the RMT). When the doors open Jonathan hope’s “there’s not an unholy scamble for the seats. The JCVI has very clearly said which people are going to need the seats most and they’re the ones who should get on the train first”.
Maybe the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) could branch out and look into train overcrowding and priority boarding when it’s back to normal on the Victoria Line? That would be good.
So how are things going as today we reach Day 10 of England’s Lockdown 2.0? According to DfT’s latest statistics bus passengers outside of London were running at 62% of pre Covid levels up to Wednesday 4th November falling back to 44% on the first day of Lockdown, Thursday 5th, 43% on Friday 6th, 31%/32% over the weekend and back to 48% on Monday of this week. TfL bus passenegrs were slightly higher by 3-4%, but passenger numbers on the Underground have collapsed again falling from 43% of pre Covid on Wednesday 4th to just 23% on Thursday 5th, 22% on Friday 6th, 17%/16% over the weekend and 24% on Monday of this week. Figures for National Rail are not yet available but were languishing at around 32% of pre-Covid in the days leading up to Thursday 5th, so I’d expect results to be in the low twenties or high teens since then.
Car traffic fell from around 88-92% pre Covid leading up to Lockdown 2.0 to 67-70% in the first few days.
On Tuesday London’s new Transport Commissioner, Andy Byford, made a guest appearance at a London Travelwatch Board Meeting giving reassuring words on how those upcoming £160 million savings required from the six month funding deal agreed with Government won’t impact service levels.
I was impressed with Andy’s priorities as he gets to grips with his new responsibilities. He explained his background is “operations and customer service” adding “I’ve always had a passion for customer service, I cringe when bad customer service is delivered, whether I’m accountable for that or at the receiving end of it; I find it very frustrating”. That certainly resonated with me and all the more so when he added “I spend a lot of time in the field because I like to talk to customers, I like to see front line colleagues, and I like to experience for myself what’s really going on. Data is good, what your managers tell you is OK, but you need to be out and about, you’e got to use the system. I’ve never owned a car in my life. I ride transit. That’s what I do. I rely on public transport. I don’t think you can run a transit system sitting at a desk so I get out and about in the field and that’s how you find out what’s really going on, by talking to people and by seeing for yourself what’s really happening”.
Now that really is refreshing to hear. I wholeheartedly endorse his approach to ‘transit management’ as Andy calls it. You absolutely do need to be ‘out and about’ and ride the system and talk to customers and staff; so hopefully this bodes well for TfL and London.
On that £160 million which he reminded the Board was on top of savings already identified and to which they’re committed (“baked into our business plan already” to use Andy’s jargon), Andy reckoned “with careful fiscal management and some deferrals we can achieve that figure and we have to make it“. So make of that what you will.
He emphasised “I do not believe in slashing services. If you cut back on basic maintenance and slash services you’re on a slippery slope and it’s hard to recover”.
One Board member asked Andy what he’s intending to do to keep bus fares as low as possible going forward. Andy noted “buses in many ways are the workhorses of London’s transport system … and we’re well aware a lot of people rely on the buses including a lot of people from lower incomes and less advantage groups so certainly from a social perspective we’re very alive to the fact we’ve got to take that into account when we’re looking at fares policy. No decision has been taken on fare rises; that’s something we’ve not yet concluded with the Mayor and that’s a policy matter the Mayor will ultimately have to direct on but no decision has been taken on that as yet”.
Andy went on to explain having taken a billion pounds off the cost base of running the Tube and getting it to “almost break even” and making “a small operating surplus”, it was “massively cross-subsidising the bus service” but the impact of Covid on Tube finances meant this “has almost gone up in a puff of smoke”. The bus service “in no way, shape or form covers its costs and it can’t now rely on the Tube to cross subsidise it”.
“There are difficult choices to be made”, Andy added, but again emphasised “no decisions have been made on fares policy whether that be the Tube or the buses, other than in the funding deal one of the conditions was that rail fares should rise by an average of RPI+1% but how that’s made up has yet to be determined”.
I reckon it’s cutting it a bit fine, with just seven weeks to go until implementation day, and supposedly no decisions have been taken on fare levels. I would have thought it takes TfL that long to update software and prepare information and publicity especially as it’s inevitable the £1.50 flat fare on the buses will have to increase. It also seems odd that suddenly the Tube is cross subsidising buses. And not just any old level of cross subsidy but “massively” cross subsidising as Andy labelled it, but the Tube only made a “small operating surplus” but at the same time “almost broke even”. Those statements don’t quite add up to me.
Andy also said “we must move beyond this brinkmanship” (referring to the most recent funding deal, signed 14 minutes before the deadline at 23:46 on 31st October) “we can’t keep having these last minute six-month deals. That doesn’t work for anyone. Try running a £10 billion organisation and not knowing month by month what your money is. It’s ridiculous. So we are working with Government now to put together a long term funding settlement which will be less reliant on income through the farebox; it must be diversified. It’s wholly irresponsible to rely on 72% of farebox recovery when it’s so vulnerable to crisis such as this where ridership suddenly plummets”. An interesting observation for the rest of the bus industry!
Questions were invited from members of the public. There was only one – someone using the Twitter handle ‘BusAndTrainUser’ sent in a question asking why can’t TfL revert to producing a bus map so passengers can find out where bus routes actually go, rather like the Tube map does for the Underground. What a great question, I couldn’t have put it better myself. Andy seemed surprised there wasn’t a bus map, although thought a 700 route system would make it challenging to produce one, but considered area maps would be possible and said he would take that away and make some enquiries.
Interestingly TfL’s Twitter people must have been monitoring this as they replied, pointing out Spider maps are available. They have their place – in a particular place – that’s at the centre of the map – but are no good elsewhere. And on that 700 bus route point, you can reduce that to around 450 by ignoring school and night buses, and anyway, having well over 700 road numbers doesn’t stop Geographers, the AA and others producing road maps does it?
Andy extolled the virtues of TfL’s GO App reckoning it’s the bees knees. I’m still struggling to get TfL’s journey planner to recognise Finchley Memorial Hospital to where it extended route 383 two weeks ago.
Come on Andy; if you’re a customer service fan, do a much needed U-turn on bus map production.
Someone else in the news this week, a guy called Joe Biden, also seems to have an interest in trains with photos circulating on social media of him enjoying a journey or two with the nickname ‘Amtrak Joe’.
He earned the nickname after commuting between Washington DC and his home in Delaware every day for 36 years after the tragic fatal car accident which sadly killed his wife and daughter. In 2010 he wrote an article for Amtrak’s Arrive magazine entitled ‘Why America needs trains’, which was later republished by HuffPost. In it he described both his emotional connection to train travel, saying it had allowed him to be a senator in the first place, but also because of problems such as climate change and congestion.
So we’ve got a US President Elect who’s a fan of trains and a UK Prime Minister with a hobby of making model buses out of cardboard wine crates. Public transport has never been more high profile.
But it’s not high profile enough everywhere and you can never do enough promotion of the role of ths bus. So it’s good to see Alex Hornby and the Transdev Blazefield team publish a booklet for local stakeholders this week explaining how we need to “build buses back better”.
It’s a great read and very well presented (another triumph for the Best Impressions team) pointing out to stakeholders how “a collaborative approach is best for each locality. We don’t necessarily believe in a one model fits all situation for every town, city and region in the UK, or even across the north”.
The booklet explains the one method of working “that is arguably the best – the Enhanced Partnership – … gives all partners influence and stability and provides a great platform for growth”. It includes examples of Transdev best practice worldwide from Harrogate to the Netherlands, from Chalon-sur-Saône in France to Bogota in Colombia, emphasising the parent company’s international credentials.
There was more positive bus news this week from Scotland where Transport Scotland launched a £500 million Partnership Bus Fund to “tackle the negative impact of congestion on services”. That’s good to see especially as they reckon it will “enable local authorities, in partnership with bus operators, to work together to develop and deliver ambitious schemes that incorporate bus priority measures”. ‘Quick wins’ are encouraged but otherwise the “initial tranche of funding is expected to be used to resource the development of appraisals and business cases”. That always sounds boring to me, but is obviously a necessary pre-requisite to things actually happening.
Before applying, applicants are encouraged to look at four cases studies including the Leigh Guided Busway and Cross-City Bus Package in Greater Manchester, Fastlink along the Clyde Corridor in Glasgow, Eclipse Bus Rapid Transit in Hampshire and Gateshead Bus Priority. There’s also a natty PowerPoint presentation online on ‘Bus Priority Best Practice’ highlighting lots more good examples of what can be done (sample slide below). Applications have to be in by 16th April 2021.
In not such good news, this week has brought consternation in the bus industry as DVSA announced no PCV driving tests will be possible during this month’s lockdown in England – even those members of staff employed by bus companies but delegated to undertake tests on behalf of DVSA. I hear the blanket ban was lifted on Tuesday following pressure from CPT, much to everyone’s relief, only to be reinstated 24 hours later. This non sensical decision will leave many bus companies short of drivers with anticipated new recruits unable to take their test. You can hardly take a PCV Driving Test by working from home.
It’s quiet on the rail news front, mainly because the DfT are running the railway and they’ve got a lot on their plate at the moment (I’m guessing), but you can always rely on the RMT to fill the void with a strike ballot or two and on Friday came news ScotRail conductors will be striking every Sunday from 29 November to 3 January inclusive over abuse of disciplinary procedures; members at Caledonian Sleeper will strike on 22-24 December, 3-5 January and 24-26 January over rest periods; six 24 hour strikes at Alstom (working on the West Coast Contract) on 29 November, 3, 8, 13, 17, 22 December over a pay freeze; with a ballot at TransPennine Express re a pay freeze, and at Cross Country re pay over Christmas taking place.
In quirky news, and just to show that nothing’s new, not even DRT, an obscure TV channel called Talking Pictures broadcast a fascinating programme on Wednesday evening about London Country’s Pick-Me-Up Dial-A-Bus service introduced in Harlow in 1974. The documentary was made during the first year of the service and contained some wonderful contemporaneous film of life in Harlow in the mid 1970s.
It explained how revolutionary computer software was being used to help dispatchers allocate journeys to the three buses deployed on the service pointing out passenger journeys were in line with expectations for the service. As we know, despite this, it proved unviable and ended. 46 years later, we’re still learning the same lessons – with Milton Keynes the latest town intent on introducing DRT as a saviour to unviable bus services with all the town’s tendered routes to be replaced with DRT from April 2021. Madness.
Another ‘innovation’ in the news this week was Hyperloop (oops, sorry, Virgin Hyperloop) carrying its first passengers (well, two members of staff; surprisingly not Beardie himself) on a test run in the Nevada desert on Sunday. The company reckoned this was a “major step forward for the ground breaking technology” capable of transporting people at 620 miles an hour.
The company is working towards commercial operation by 2030 when floating pods packed with passengers and cargo will hurtle through vacuum tubes.
Yeah, right. There’s more chance of a DRT scheme in Milton Keynes still running in 2030, and even that’s pushing the boundaries of a sense check.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, some bus companies in England are slimming down evening and weekend timetables as a response to a dramatic fall in passenger journeys at these times during the current lockdown restrictions.
But, in contrast I had to admire the optimism of the Stagecoach team behind the SouthWestFalcon plugging away on Twitter the ease of travelling from the recently introduced additional stop in Wellington to Bristol Airport.
The last time I checked (yesterday) Bristol Airport was showing only around a dozen flights per day. Although to be fair the FalconTwitter team are promoting all the other journey possibilities too, except when we’re being told only to make essential journeys, it does seem a bit of a wasted effort at the current time.
Fancy owning an LNER HST nameplate? If you’ve got a spare grand or two, bids for these artefacts of a sadly now bygone era must be in today with Railwayana Auctions and will raise funds for the charity CALM (“leading a movement against suicide”).
Over in Reading there’s a bit of a rebrand in hand with a simplification of the ‘greenwave’ network with four buses now branded more simply as Mereoak park& ride while two others will shortly be painted into a new ruby livery for the bespoke service to Kennet Island.
Optimism at Three Rivers District Council in south west Hertfordshire. The Council’s Policy and Resources Committee passed a unanimous motion to write to Grant Shapps and local MP Gagan Mohindra (who just happens to also be Private Parliamentary Secretary to the Department of Transport) as well as to MP for neighbouring Watford, Dean Russell asking the Government to allocate finance from the ‘New Deal for Britain’ fund launched by Johnson on 30th June to “build back better” to get the stalled Metropolitan Line extension through Croxley to Watford Junction back on track . Councillors at Three Rivers (which includes Rickmansworth and Croxley but not Watford itself) reckon the scheme is an ideal “shovel ready project” for the fund. Previously Sadiq Khan, London Mayor, withdrew TfL’s funding commitment to the scheme as costs rose and TfL’s financial circumstances changed. And previously to that, in 2015, TfL took over responsibility for the project from Hertfordshire County Council, when one B Johnson was Mayor of London.
It’ll be fascinating to see if Three Rivers’ request gets anywhere, especially following Tory London Mayor hopeful Shaun Bailey’s recent posting of an incongruous clip on Twitter reckoning the existing station at Watford is under threat by actions of Khan. Somewhat ironic, as it’s Khan’s actions which has kept the existing station operational.
Politics moves in strange ways.
To end more positively, it’s nice to see a bus feature in the John Lewis/Waitrose Christmas advert this year. And a nice red one too. It looks like the creative team have taken their inspiration for the bus shape from Yutong’s electric brick-like bus and I’m pleased to see a timetable is posted on the bus stop B. Some pedants have already pointed out route 222 doesn’t go to Tooting (Hounslow to Uxbridge) but I’m sure most of us don’t mind.
And finally for this week, something to keep you amused over the weekend is yesterday’s tweet from @Time4Knowledge featuring an Underground train which changes direction just by the power of your concentration. Take a look here.
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.