Saturday 28th November 2020
Hi”‘Tis the season to be jolly; but ’tis also the season to be jolly careful” our jolly jape Johnson jested in Monday’s Downing Street press briefing launching England’s “Covid-19 Winter Plan”. The next day saw Grant Shapps, the Cabinet Stooge doing the early turn breakfast media round, quizzed about people making journeys the length and breath of the country to see family and friends over Christmas. People will jolly well need to carefully plan their journeys if travelling by train was his message.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Justin Webb on the Today programme: “I appeal to people to look very carefully at their Christmas travel plans because it may well be the case that very very long planned engineering works are scheduled. Now we’ll try and reduce and minimise those as much as possible but a lot of them take 18 months to two years to plan. In order to try and manage the flow of people and prevent overcrowding a number of rail lines are actually ticket only booking for the period so what I would do is appeal to people to think very carefully about their travel plans and consider where they’re going to travel and look at the various alternatives available”.
The rail line most impacted with engineering works is the East Coast Main Line with Kings Cross closed between Christmas Day (not that it would be open that day anyway) and Wednesday 30th December. Having heard the Secretary of State’s advice on Tuesday, I went straight to LNER’s website to ‘carefully’ sort out travel plans only to find tickets from Saturday 19th December onwards not available for sale until yesterday (Friday).
What was the point in that? As Shapps opined, these works have been on the books for well over a year, so surely timetables will have been finalised in time to put tickets on sale earlier than just three weeks before Christmas week? Seems a poor show to me, when we’re being extolled to carefully plan ahead and “consider alternatives”. And talking of alternatives, Avanti West Coast’s website was showing all Advanced Tickets to Scotland as “sold out” but the word on the Twitter was they also hadn’t gone on sale yet.
Then, come Friday morning, full of anticipation for a bargain East Coast ticket purchase I logged back on to LNER’s website only to find tickets not available to purchase from Saturday 19th December onwards (in just three weeks), reference to them going on sale from 27th November had disappeared….
Not particularly helpful, and so much for “plan ahead to avoid disappointment” as the message implores … how?
Then the power of Twitter kicked in. Following my Tweet about this yesterday morning, LNER replied at 09:57 explaining tickets would go on sale “at around 10am” which makes you wonder why the original messaging was changed.
Sure enough, some time between 10:00 and 11:00 tickets went on sale including a decent price of just £35 between London and Edinburgh for travel on Saturday 19th December.
Mind you, not quite such a bargain on Christmas Eve, although £74 is still not bad, albeit it’s pretty much the same as the off-peak flexible single – not that anything is flexible on LNER these days as every journey has to be reserved – but there again, LNER is running the ‘drop in the ocean’ ticketing reform trial whereby single fares have been reduced to be half the return price.
As at last night, Avanti West Coast’s website was still showing all Advanced Tickets to Scotland for Christmas week as “sold out”.
Thursday morning brought Health Secretary Hancock’s announcement confirming which Tier each area had been allocated and good for Cornwall, Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles landing in Tier 1. For the rest of the country it rather showed up the benefits of being part of a County split into Unitary councils with Slough being classified as Tier 3 but the rest of former Berkshire in Tier 2 whereas poor old Kent has been all whacked into Tier 3 even though it’s just Sheppey letting the side down. ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ really was ‘disgusted’.
Tier 2 and 3 travel guidance tells us “you can continue to travel to venues or amenities which are open, but should aim to reduce the number of journeys you make where possible”. Tier 3 residents should “avoid travelling to other parts of the UK, including for overnight stays other than where necessary, such as for work, education, youth services, to receive medical treatment, or because of caring responsibilities”. While Tier 2ers “avoid travel to or overnight stays in tier 3 areas other than where necessary”.
It looks like this guidance will be the name of the game until the vaccine arrives, which won’t do much for public transport recovery in the meantime.
So it’s just as well indications are Government financial support for bus, tram and rail will continue, albeit the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review on Wednesday indicated another review date at the end of the financial year in March 2021 when no doubt there’ll be more last minute shenanigans particularly regarding TfL’s finances.
Meanwhile more details of “The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution” emerged after the Chancellor’s statement on Wednesday. It includes “integrated bus and train networks in more places with smart ticketing, more frequent services, and bus lanes to speed journeys”. Next year will see “£120 million to begin the introduction of at least 4,000 more British built zero emission buses”.
It doesn’t end there… “early next year, we will publish the first-ever National Bus Strategy, funded through the £5 billion of new money for buses and cycling announced by the Prime Minister, including more frequent and cheaper ‘superbus’ networks and integrated ticketing between operators and modes. We will fund at least 2 all-electric bus towns, beginning this financial year, as well as developing the first fully zero-emission city centre”.
And it goes on …. “expand rail routes around regional cities …. in smaller places we will improve buses, introduce more rural on-demand services, and restore many of the rail links removed in the Beeching era”.
It all sounds mighty impressive, but how on earth is it all going to be paid for bearing in mind Sunak’s sombre statement on Wednesday? The national debt has just exceeded two trillion pounds (that’s £2,000,000,000,000) for the first time and the Office of Budget Responsibility assessed the UK economy is set to contract by 11.3% this year – the biggest fall in 300 years. So while it’s definitely pleasing to see investment in public transport the likes of which we’ve not seen from Government, it just doesn’t seem to ‘fit the narrative’ (as they say) of the dire state of the country’s finances and the bleak prognosis for the deacde ahead.
To me it seems incongruous there’s been unprecedented cut backs in rural bus routes over recent decades as local authorities have faced severe financial challenges yet now the country’s finances are experiencing the worst economic plight “for 300 years” we’re spending money on investigating plans to restore railways cut in the 1960s for lack of passengers and running expensive rural DRT schemes which will lose even more money.
Talking of “Restoring your railways”, in good news for transport consultants, the short list of ideas winning funding to investigate a business case more than doubled this week with the DfT adding 15 more kite flying schemes to the first list of ten published in the summer. Here’s the full list of funded “Ideas” as it now stands:
That’s a lot of expensive investigative work for schemes that any reasoned view of reopened lines would be they’ll add to the public funding requried to run the railways, and therefore mean a need to make cuts elsewhere. I wonder what the Treasury thinks of all this? It smacks to me of “oven ready deal”; “send the virus packing within twelve weeks”; “we can look forward to normality returning before Christmas”; etc etc more false optimism.
In other positive news for the here and now it was good to see not one, not two, but three launches of new buses and trains this week, albeit, sadly as I would normally aim to do, not close up and personal, but on screen and virtual.
Prize for the most razzmatazz virtual launch goes to Go North East for their nine Yutong electric buses which entered service yesterday (Friday) on circular routes 53 and 54 linking Saltwell Park with Gateshead and Newcastle. Branded ‘Voltra’ the buses have been given a classy grey with green piping livery to soften the brick like structure and a “game changing” interior including all the latest gizmos as well as novel grass coloured flooring as befits the route’s park setting.
If you want to enjoy the launch from your sofa including a ‘Stars-in-their-Eyes’ type appearance through the dry ice of MD Martijn Gilbert at the end, click on this link for the embedded video.
Second up for new bus launches: five of Stagecoach Oxford’s fleet of 34 brand new Plaxton Panorama bodied Volvo B11RLEs for the Oxford Tube hit the road today. These are the ‘on-off-on-off’ order – the order got cancelled at the start of the pandemic, then reinstated when Lockdown 1.0 ended, but as deliveries began a few weeks ago it was reported only around 20 or so of the £13 million order will now go on the Oxford Tube route with the other dozen or so to be allocated elsewhere within the Group.
It’ll be interesting to see where they end up – Stagecoach West Scotland use former Oxford Tube coaches on route X76 Glasgow to Kilmarnock, so might be a candidate although homes have also got to be found for the cast-offs from the existing Tube fleet. It’s said that the new coaches will return to the Tube once the Covid reduced timetables are increased back to ‘normal’ again and passengers return. That might be some time yet.
And third up for this week’s launches was on the tracks in Essex on Thursday when Greater Anglia introduced their much delayed Bombardier Class 720 trains; the first going on the Liverpool Street to Southend route.
There’s some disappointment these trains don’t incorporate level access boarding/alighting now standard on the Stadler Class 745/755 trains already in service but the Bombardiers were ordered before Stadler and I guess that innovation came later, albeit has been introduced in service earlier.
More of the 133 five-carriage train order will follow in the coming months for use on Greater Anglia’s other routes in Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Ipswich.
While new Class 720s take to the tracks in Essex, up in Greater Manchester sad to see the very last journey in passenger service by a Northern Railway Pacer took place yesterday (Friday) afternoon. The 16:36 from Kirkby to Manchester Victoria was the journey and unit 142004 was the train. Northern tried to keep it quiet so as not to attract hordes of enthusiasts to give these unique trains a fitting send off. What a shame.
In not so good news this week Eurostar was reported as “fighting for its survival” as it called for assistance to weather the coronavirus impact. The company said it’s being treated unfairly after the aviation sector was given tax relief this week – Government announced £8 million of business rate benefit was being awarded to each major airport in England on Tuesday. Eurostar is currently running a single train each way between London and Brussels and Amsterdam with two trips to Paris. Meanwhile it came in for criticsm from London Travelwatch (which bizarrely is the consumer body responsible for Eurostar even though no journeys can be made wholly within London) on Friday for not being transparent enough on its website about “passengers’ rights to a full refund when their train has been cancelled”. London Travelwatch’s Emma Gibson said “there will be people who have previously accepted vouchers when their train was cancelled, unaware that they could have asked for a cash refund”.
It’ll be all change for Cannock’s buses in the New Year as it was announced this week that Arriva will be selling its operations in the town to D&G Bus with all staff transferring over to the new owner from January. Meanwhile it was announced Arriva’s management structure in the southern half of the country is being reorganised yet again next week. From Tuesday there’ll be just two Area Managing Directors looking after operations with areas stretching from either Oswestry to Aylesbury or Southend to Gillingham (with separate arrangements for Sheerness to Guildford “to provide more focused support to these Depots at this time”). Good luck with that.
An interesting idea from ScotRail was promoted this week. Two free return tickets per month for travel to job interviews if you’re out of work as well as a generous one month season ticket when you get a job.
Impressive; well done ScotRail.
Down in Surrey news came this week the County Council – who already do a commendable job providing a tendered bus network with quality bus companies in a tough operating area as well as excellent bus stop information, printed timetables and online maps and timetables – announced “a new scheme backed by £49 million of county council funding to accelerate the introduction of ultra-low and zero emission buses in Surrey”.
“The Surrey Ultra Low and Zero Emission scheme will see the introduction of up to 80 ultra-low or zero-emission buses and 50 community transport minibuses by 2025 with the aim that all buses across the county will be ultra-low or zero-emission by 2030. Residents will also benefit from improvements to bus journey times and increased real time passenger information in busy areas.”
Impressive; well done Surrey.
Meanwhile a different approach ‘up north’ where ‘Take Back Control’ reared its head in Manchester again this week as a meeting of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) yesterday (Friday) agreed to undertake a (further) public consultation commencing on 2nd December on the “Proposed Franchising Scheme”. A report to the meeting confirms despite Covid, franchising will “still be affordable and still represent good value for money”. At least there’s some realism of the challenges ahead “the potential longer-term impact of coronavirus Covid-19 on bus usage may mean that GMCA is faced with difficult choices about the network to manage. This may impact on the revenue GMCA would receive under franchising”. I think that translates into less passengers = less revenue = bus service cuts and I don’t think there’s any “may impact” about it. And, somehow, I don’t see Central Government riding to Mayor Burnham’s rescue if it all goes wrong financially.
Interestingly the Report anticipates a possible scenario where commercial bus operators will be making reductions in the network before franchising begins “so the GMCA would potentially be taking over a smaller, less expensive part of the network”…. and let the bus operators take the blame. The consultation runs until 29th January 2021.
Finally as Lockdown 2.0 comes to an end on Wednesday and we’re allowed to venture out and do some serious non-essential shopping trips again, abeit being “jolly careful” in so doing, at least we might see an improvement in daily passenger journey comparisons with pre Covid. DfT’s updated spreadsheets show, in the most recent week, numbers travelling have continued at around 45-49% for weekday bus passengers dipping to 33-36% at weekends in both London and outside London, with the Underground still languishing at 23-2$% on weekdays and as low as 18-19% at weekends with National Rail similarly on around 24% throughout the week.
That’s the last of these round-ups (until a possible Lockdown 3.0 after the Christmas and New Year binge) and meantime I’m hoping to do some ‘travelling out to help out’.