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Week 1: Alas.

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….

Photo courtesy Rosso

….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.

Photo courtesy TfL

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.

Photos courtesy Heathrow Express.

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.

Alas. Indeed.

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!

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

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.

24 thoughts on “Week 1: Alas. Leave a comment

  1. I do have to disagree with you about the Twitter teams doing questions for national trivia day – in my opinion, anything like that which the social media teams are making up in their spare time is great.
    I dunno if you saw the World Cup of bus routes (@TheWorldCupofE2) come to a conclusion too – this time the Ensignbus X80 from Bluewater to Lakeside took the crown. I’d love to see more bus operators get involved with this – or perhaps the train companies could arrange a competition between themselves on Twitter polls – I’m sure they have plenty of time since the number of complaints has fallen by a lot.

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    • Social media teams are paid to inform users about what’s happening with the company’s operations. Other stuff is fine and dandy when it doesn’t interfere with their main role, but it’s clear that the game playing *is* interfering, and also that some teams seems to be under the impression that they’re employed to pretend that everything is perfect and happy and bouncy, which isn’t the case.

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  2. That bus is probably a model of his much vaulted and failed Borismaster buses which replaced his sidekick, Red Ken,Bendy Buses.yes interesting Boris has a Union flag behind him always as each country of the UK is doing it’s own thing with coronavirus.also in the international figures it goes down as the UK but say Denmark, Greenland and the Faroes are put down as separate countries.perhaps he’ll consider a St George’s flag…. another crack in the armour of British nationalism?

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  3. Social media teams in the rail industry are a joke. They sit there playing pre-planned games whilst ignoring parts of the network collapsing and causing mayhem. Their attitude to the operational staff trying to keep things running can best be described as “utter contempt”, as if the operational staff are getting in the way of their cushy lives, and don’t ever expect the over-worked social media teams to do anything so useful as post updates n the effects of incidents rather than resending the same bland uninformative message out every 20 minutes.

    Meanwhile in the East Midlands platform information screens are still showing parts of special notices regarding a signalling failure over a week ago, and enforcement of mask wearing on trains is now entirely absent as BTP seem to have gone into hibernation. Oh, and apparently DfT have instructed TOCs that all on-train revenue protection/ticket checks are to cease again, so it’s back to free rides for the maskless chavs making their entirely essential journeys to meet their mates…

    It’s ridiculous.

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  4. Certainly agree about never-ending, tiresome and often downright juvenile “twitter feed”, although would rather stick pins in my eyes than have it on my phone. But please cut the government some slack. They do have quite a range of problems to deal with at the moment in a situation possibly as bad as the last world war. Transport is but one item on an endless list, so yes, decisions have to be made very much “on the hoof” and constantly adjusted.

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  5. Unless ‘Easy Yorkshire’ is a new EY brand I’ve not heard of, I think the photos of EastRider X5 and X7 are actually courtesy of East Yorkshire. Indeed, there has been some comment on social media that boarding the Caetano Levante used on X5 is far from easy for the less mobile amongst us ! But please don’t let that put you off giving the route a try when circumstances allow.

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  6. Remember that Shapps’ flag is the Civil Aviation Ensign as he is a plane nut. I have suggested to him more than once via Twitter that he places a BR ‘House Flag’ in the other corner. Obviously to no response. His entire transport strategy seems to consist of walking, cycling, road closures, electric cars and illegal scooters. I like to think the TOCs, bus companies and TfL each have their own “welcome back on board” campaign on the stocks and ready to go; but I fear they are all content with a future government-subsidised managed decline. Shades of BR, NBC and LRT in the 1980s.

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  7. Yes the “Avoid Public Transport” message may now be being played down but “essential journeys” are now “legally permitted travel”.

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  8. Bus Service

    Some companies have introduced reviced Lockdown services but many are still operating their normal services which can only imply that there is a lot of non legal non essential journeys still happening

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    • It can also imply that they are running empty which the ones I’ve seen have been.although telling people that they cannot go on trains and buses when motorists are going wherever they want is very much a double standard.of course they catch a token few like the two four wheeled covid-19 spreaders in Derbyshire a few days ago but 2 out of thousands?

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    • I can say that in Reading, all of the buses seem to be a lot busier than they were in the first lockdown, so I do think there’s more non-essential journeys.

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    • Around here, a lot of operators have made reductions on frequent services but most routes are still running broadly as normal. One operator is running a reduced service between 1130 and 1330 to allow drivers to take a lunch break but keep the same vehicle all day, to avoid the need to do a deep clean of the driver’s cab at changeover.
      But most buses are running with small numbers on board – partly to allow social distancing, but partly because below a certain level of service it becomes pretty useless. If you’re using the bus to go shopping but you’ve then got a 3 hour wait for the return trip when there’s literally nothing else to do but wander round Tesco then you’re only going to do that as an absolute last resort.
      I assume the govt funding grant to support buses during the pandemic no longer requires them to run pre-Covid levels of service?

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  9. Major Covid Outbreak at Arriva Wrexham

    Currently 28 drivers are off with Covid. It seem pretty certain that the whole depot will have been in contact with those 28. It is not clear as to what measures Arriva are taking to ensure the safety of their passengers. I would have thought non of them should be driving a bus untll they have had a negative Covid test but I suspect that will not happen

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  10. I have been disappointed with the online presence of some of the bus companies that are most local to me. Some have been very good; clear indications that there are changes, the setting up of dedicated COVID alteration pages, clear and concise social media…. rhetoric (not the right word – I know).

    Then it started to change.

    Some continue to advertise their ‘current timetables’ with services that have been suspended, referring social media users to their news page for updates, rather than updating timetables and their recently posted Open Data files. Of course, not everyone goes to Twitter for service information, preferring simply to go directly to the website.

    Another, seems to forget it even has a “COVID service” page, sometimes updating it, sometimes preferring a string of individual news posts. It does then usually filter through to the main page.

    At times, it no longer feels that the digital teams in the companies are directly connected to the company. At a time now when a single up-to-date and accurate source of information is critical for the few people that continue to be eligible to use the bus, people do not seem to consider the importance of keeping it so.

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  11. With lots of bus companies Web sites its a confusing with out of date and inconsistent information some parts still say service have not changed others say there are new timetables yet other have the old and new timetables just to confuse things
    Mind you the Airports do an even better job of making a confusing mess of information

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  12. Stagecoach rolls out low bridge technology

    Currently there about 50 bus a year that strike low bridges but that number is increasing. It uses GPS vehicle location and mapping data. If the technology detects t e bus is heading towards a low bridge it sounds an alert in the cab. The weak point I guess is it depends on the mapping data being accurate and up to date. Fortunately I doubt any new low bridges will be built

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  13. Cardiff Bus do a pretty good job. They are reducing services from this weekend (quite right too as they’ve been running a full service since Lockdown started before Christmas, and there are very few passengers).

    Now I doubt if printed timetables are available (and where would one pick them up?) Nor do I think paper timetables will appear on stops. But please note their website:
    – Well-signposted announcement nearly a week in advance (and repeated on screens in buses).
    – Full timetables for each route (as they always have on the website).
    – A request to get in touch if the changes will cause a problem (they’re pretty good at replying).
    https://www.cardiffbus.com/timetable-changes-from-17-Jan

    Our other local company, New Adventure Travel, have a much poorer website and there one does have to realise there’s a not-very-obvious Covid page.

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  14. I have had a look at the NAT bus web site its a mess

    If you go to the main page it says worried about bus travel. Click on the link below. I clicked on it and nothing happened. Scroll down the page and you find a link on Covid but that just generic stuff about face masks etc

    If you keep scrolling down to the very bottom you find a link to Service Updates. Click on that and you find a section called Corona virus which refers you to Social Media and their news page it also says where timetables are changing they will be under their Covid 19 page ass PDF’s. so far I have failed to find that . Social Media is just full of useless information most of it endlessly repeated and out of date
    Go to the News page link nd that full of irrelevant and out of date information a lot of it about the Christmas services

    Have any timetables changed ? Who knows as you cannot find them. Are the current timetables shown who knows ? It is just guess work

    It is a good example of how not to do things

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  15. If you go to “Bus Services” you will get a list of routes. If you then click on a particular service you will see a bus tracker and, below that, service updates. Keep going down and you will get timetables. However it is a bit clunky and, more to the point, the timetables aren’t dated. The Cardiff Bus software, which I know is used by other operators, is very much better and offers several different ways of getting the same information.

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  16. You are still left not knowing if those timetables are up to date or not. It appears to show their are no Covid 19 changes but it is not clear at all. If you go to the Covid 19 link and the only data there is almost a year old so you left not knowing whether you are looking at the latest data or not

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  17. StageCoach South Wales Covid Changes

    They are a bit better than NAT bus but not by much they have a service changes link where when you get to that you have to click on a further link and it comes up with a list of changes but to confuse things it shows earlier changes as well at later changes but no year is show so it is slightly confusing. It also refers you to their current timetables but the latest changes are not shown there. I suspect it is just sloppiness. The text seems to have been from the previous changes where the timetables were updated but the latest changes dated the 17th January are not there

    The sloppy standards on bus company web sites though is pretty widespread. I could go to almost any bus companies web site and find them full of inconsistent. Perhaps if they spent less time playing around one twitter and focused more on improving their web sites the quality and accuracy of the data would improved. They have a long way to go at present

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  18. The issue here isn’t with the social media teams. Someone hired to run a social media account will probably have no idea how to update a website – it is completely unrelated. Personally, while social media teams could, in some places, post more information, I have only had good experiences when messaging companies on Twitter asking for any type of information – also a quick, friendly reply. Therefore, please can everyone stop taking it out on social media teams for other problems for bus companies – these are different things.

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