Saturday 9th January 2021
There’s nothing like a pandemic taking a serious turn for the worse (numbers infected, numbers in hospital, numbers dying all rising exponentially); the alert level rising to highest status five (“a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”); and a new full-on, stay-at-home, Union-flag-in the-background, occasional-fist-thumping-the-table, grim-faced Prime Ministerial lockdown announcement …. to find all my Twitter favourites carrying on obliviously sending out pre-scheduled incessant inane marketing tweets encouraging us all to get out and about on their buses.
After yet another lamentable as-unstatesman-like-as-you-can-get Johnsonian “with a heavy heart” performance telling us all once again to “Stay At Home” delivered in prime time on Monday evening, come Tuesday morning Stagecoach’s South West Falcon was tweeting away as though we’re all still travelling around as normal, including no need to wear a face covering ….
Mind you, I note as at yesterday morning (Friday), the Twitter team at South West Falcon haven’t stopped counting down the celebrations for Christmas yet, as their Twitter feed and pinned Tweet demonstrate…
… but at least at 15:30 yesterday there was an update confirming a reduced timetable of seven journeys a day (every 135 minutes) will run from Sunday (oddly including am 01:00 Plymouth to Bristol journey) except the Twitter header is still celebrating Christmas – perhaps that’s to keep all our spirits up?
My other favourite, Arriva Click, was also at it on Tuesday with their usual bland messaging, but I’ll spare you the samples. When will these out-of-touch-with reality corporate Tweeters realise running buses and using social media is all about being responsive? I’ve given up pointing this out to them, as they’re so out of touch, they don’t even react to helpful customer feedback pointing out they’re so out of touch. Come on guys, make a belated New Year Resolution to only Tweet timely and pertinent messages which demonstrate you’re in tune with your market. We’ve got enough problems with a Cabinet of Complete Incompetents running the Country let’s not show the same ineptitude in the professional public transport industry.
I also wondered at the wisdom of Twitter teams at Thameslink and LNER celebrating ‘Hashtag National Trivia Day’ on Monday with tweet after tweet posing a myriad of inconsequential questions about their business when most of the population were more concerned about children returning to Primary Schools having been reassured with full confidence by the Prime Minister it was completely safe to do so. Which in the event lasted a matter of hours. Just long enough for our world beating virulent variant of the virus to do more rampant transmission damage. Yet another triumph of Government policy implementation.
And on that theme, I see Shapps was doing the media round yesterday (Friday) morning (complete with large Union flag in the background in his home study/office in Welwyn) boasting about the new requirement for a negative Covid test for incoming international passengers “from next week”. No rush; stable doors and bolting horses come to mind.
Talking of being in tune with your market, while Monday evening and Tuesday morning post the lockdown announcement, saw many bus companies taking to Twitter to reassure passengers everything was running as normal, by Tuesday evening unsurprisingly came news rail companies are being asked by the DfT to reduce timetables by at least 50% to a Sunday type service.
It won’t reduce operating costs much, as so many costs to do with trains are fixed, so maybe a few thousand litres of diesel and some saving on the leccy bill at most, but I guess it does make sense to better match supply with the inevitable reduction in demand as well as acknowledging significant staff shortages due to sickness.
Inevitable too Grand Central and Hull Trains would go back into hibernation, as their reason for being depends on the existence of a commercial market for travel.
By Thursday came news both National Express and Megabus are following suit by suspending services from 23:59 on Sunday….
… NatEx caught up with the news on itsTwitter feed on Friday morning; but at the time of writing, nothing from Megabus.
By the end of this week bus companies had joined in the slimming down regime and began announcing upcoming reductions in service levels for the next few weeks as backroom (or more realistically nowadays: at-home-on-the-kitchen-table) schedulers once again become the unsung heroes burning the midnight oil to get revised timetables, duties and rotas compiled in record time.
At least this time we’ve been spared the Government led “Avoid Public Transport” messaging and all the negativity that portrays. But it’s inevitable public transport use will once again be hit hard. DfT statistics on daily use are running a bit behind at the moment, with results currently only available for Monday of this week, immediately before lockdown began, but these show National Rail at 18%, TfL Tube at 19%, TfL bus at 36% and Outside TfL bus at 29%.
As passenger journeys reduce, risks for front line staff will still be there especially with the new virulent virus strain in circulation, no matter how safe the infrastructure is made and the reassurances given by operators. I’m only sorry the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation hasn’t prioritised front line workers across all public facing sectors in addition to health and social care, including transport, education etc to receive the vaccine before us oldies. I’d certainly be pleased to let these heroes be done before my turn comes round sometime at the end of next month or early March if current Government targets are met.
Back to this week’s news and the first weekend in January usually sees bus companies take the opportunity to launch new initiatives and 2021 has been no exception with Transdev Blazefield’s Rosso company launching a new Rossendale Rovers brand for locally based routes in the Rawtenstall and Bacup area on the back of improvements funded by Lancashire County Council….
….and East Yorkshire reconfiguring routes from Withensea and Goole into Hull using an expanding East Rider brand including new faster journeys on new routes X5 and X7.
It’s just a shame both initiatives with their smart attractive liveries will be somewhat ineffective at generating passengers over the next few weeks as we all stay at home.
Thursday saw regulations legally requiring bus companies to publish timetables, fares and location data to the DfT’s Bus Open Data Service formally begin. This will hopefully lead to much better information provision with third parties able to produce such information in accessible formats. Goodness, it might even mean TfL think about producing a bus map, and those bus companies that have ceased producing printed information reconsidering. On the other hand, pigs might take flight. So much for Open Data. Still, at least TfL finally managed to upload its updated ‘Tube with Thameslink Mess of a Map’ on Tuesday this week having launched it in a blaze of online news release excitement on 16th December.
Staying in London, Monday brought news that testing of Northern Line trains on the extension from Kennington Station to Battersea Power Station Station took place over Christmas. The extension, originally due to open last year, is now expected to begin carrying passengers this Autumn after work on signalling software upgrades and the fitting out of Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station Stations is completed. Something to look forward to.
And more catching up on train news from over Christmas was the changeover on Heathrow Express from the rather nice looking and lavishly appointed interiors of their Class 332s to the more bog-standard Electrostar Class 378s operated by GWR on HE’s behalf on Tuesday of last week which is a bit of a downgrade step but nevertheless was still hyped up as an improvement on social media.
Wednesday saw the Transport Secretary formally announce Coventry and Oxford “are set to the the UK’s first all-electric bus cities”, something widely known in the industry for some time. But note the “are set to” caveat as the £50 million prize money on offer is “subject to successful business cases”. It turns out, that just like a round in the BBC’s Only Connect quiz programme although Coventry or Oxford won’t be going home, they haven’t won the money yet. They have knocked out 19 other areas that bid and stand to replace 500 buses and install a whole load of plugs, sockets and wiring but now they must sharpen their bid submission pencils a bit more and give DfT the right answers in the final round for that £50 million prize.
Concerning news for heritage steam railways this week, but this time not Covid related. Planning permission was refused for a new opencast mine at Dewley Hill near Newcastle which would have produced the necessary smokeless bituminous lump coal the engines need. Current supplies come from Britain’s remaining such mine in Ffos-Y-Fran near Merthyr Tydfil which is due to close next year. The only other option will be to import coal from overseas which will be much more costly. Looks like it’ll be Pacers all round for heritage train trips in the future.
Talking of Pacers, in a never ending story, news came this week further dispensation has been granted for Transport for Wales to continue running their fleet of 15 Pacers until 31st May 2021. All trains which fail to meet accessibility regulations should have been withdrawn by the end of 2019, but consistent late arriving new train replacements as well as refurbished Class 769s means there’s no alternative. Other train companies with non compliant trains totalling around 450 carriages running under extended dispensations include East Midlands Railway, Greater Anglia and Northern.
Sad news this week aside from noting the end of the track for the Island Line’s 1938 Stock Class 483 trains on Saturday (and hasn’t that 3 month line closure been timed well, coinciding with a lockdown?!) was news of the sudden death of Brian Cox on Monday. Brian was a great bus and rail industry stalwart with an illustrious career spanning both sectors culminating in Executive Director UK Bus with Stagecoach until retirement in 2002. RIP Brian.
And finally for this week, we were fortunate to be blessed with a series of official informal photographs taken of our Prime Minister hard at work in 10 Downing Street as the Brexit trade deal was reaching the finishing line on Christmas Eve. But hang on, while lolling around waiting for the call from Lord Frost or Ursula wasn’t that the time he should have been studying the warning delivered at the 74th meeting of SAGE on 22 December of the immediate need for a UK wide lockdown? (Minute extract from that meeting: “It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.”)
Perhaps it was the model Routemaster bus on the side table that distracted his concentration? What an amazing transformation from an old wine crate – the man’s a genius.
Let’s hope Lockdown 3 Week 2 brings better news and real progress in vaccine roll out and I’ll try to not be such a Stay Home Grumpy Old Man for next Saturday’s round up!