Saturday 16th January 2021
I should have guessed. Just as we were reassured on a Sunday morning primary schools were perfectly safe to open yet by Monday evening they’d become “vectors of transmission” necessitating their closure, so having welcomed this latest lockdown’s absence of Downing Street’s damaging “avoid public transport” messaging in last week’s round up, came yesterday’s launch of an even more starker, hard hitting Government campaign telling us “coronavirus takes the bus too” and “coronavirus takes the train too”.
It’s obvious for the foreseeable future this well and truly undermines the reassuring “clean and safe” messaging the industry has been painstakingly putting out over the last six months. Back to square one on the reassurance front; indeed even worse than that – six months reassurance efforts completely trashed.
Apparently this latest Downing Street campaign blitz, overruling the DfT’s objections about its demonising impact, includes similar messages for other public spaces, although I note the supermarket one isn’t so stark – it doesn’t even mention the word ‘supermarket’.
Why couldn’t a similar “a seat too close could be a seat too far” have worked? I’m told these hard hitting messages are in response to Government concerns we’re not heeding lockdown regulations to stay home and stay local enough.
But hang on; Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty told us at yesterday afternoon’s Downing Street press conference “we are seeing some levelling off everywhere as far as we can see including the areas which entered lockdown more recently. This is thanks to enormous efforts by so many people and this is because a very high proportion of the population, virtually everyone in fact, if you look at polling data, is adhering to the guidance and staying at home and minimising the number of contacts they have and this is leading to this impact and we were not sure this was going to be possible with this new variant but this demonstrates with the actions everyone’s taken we are now slowing this right down and we hope in due course will start to drop. Next slide please.”
If “virtually everyone … is adhering to the guidance” what’s the purpose of demonising public transport once again?
Maybe it would help if we had just a morsel of credible leadership from an aspirational “world king” in Downing Street cycling seven miles for a ride out to Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Country Park on Sunday rather than exercising in the perfectly accessible nearby St James’s Park or Hyde Park and travels 120 miles to a Bristol vaccination centre on Monday to pose for a 15 second TV clip and media photoshoot. It might just set a better example we could all follow of “stay home save lives”. (At least he didn’t “shake everybody’s hands” while he was there, I suppose.)
It’ll be interesting to see what these images do to DfT statistics for public transport travel next week. On Monday of this week the scores on the doors show bus use outside London at 26% (down from 29% the previous Monday which was immediately before lockdown but well up on the 12% on the first Monday (30th) of March’s lockdown); TfL bus use was 32% (down from last week’s 36% but up from 17% in March); Underground use was 16% (down from last week’s 19% and up from just 5% in March) and national rail estimated at 13% (down from 18% last week and up from 5% in March). So quite a long way to go to get down to March levels, but as we all know, this lockdown isn’t the same as March despite all the statistics (infections, hospitalisations, deaths, virulent spread etc) being worse than they were in March.
Images circulating on social media on Thursday of a peak hour Canning Town Jubilee line platform packed full of passengers heading to work caused consternation in the wider media and you’ve got to feel a tad sorry for our good friend Sir Peter Hendy, already busy chairing Network Rail as well as leading an independent review to “explore ways to improve connectivity between our four nations” and fresh from sorting out any potential Christmas travel peaks who got embroiled in the issue.
Peter seems to be Grant Shapps ‘go to’ man for getting him or Johnson out of a fix. Shapps was back out on the morning media round yesterday and when challenged about the Canning Town footage on ITV’s Good Morning Britain told viewers it was all OK as never mind it was a TfL issue, “immediately I saw it I got on to Sir Peter Hendy, the Chair of Network Rail, and asked him to spend yesterday finding solutions”.
It turns out that meant telling TfL to get its finger out and run Thursday’s three consecutive missing peak hour Jubilee line trains it hadn’t run because of staff absence, getting British Transport Police down there yesterday morning and pressing construction sites in central London (where many of the workers were heading) to vary their hours, as well as adding the rather bizarre reassurance that “c2c trains that run into Canning Town …. their timetables are being moved”. That might just be a feat of miracle engineering even Sir Peter struggles to achieve in 24 hours, especially as c2c nor any National Rail lines serve Canning Town.
Shapps was sent out yesterday to explain why his supposed reassuring announcement on last Friday’s media round of new requirements for a negative Covid test for international arrivals promised for introduction this week will not now come into effect until Monday of next week.
He explained this will provide a further grace period for passengers to get used to the new requirements (and for the DfT to work out what tests are acceptable tests) but by yesterday afternoon’s Downing Street briefing Johnson announced all travel corridors would be ceasing from Monday, which makes you wonder why Shapps couldn’t have announced that in the morning. Surely it can’t be they just thought of adding that bit during the day yesterday?
Either way the virus must be laughing all the way to the infection bank, enjoying a few days more “grace period” to get on with its super spreading work. I wonder when we’ll be seeing stark images of the interior of an aeroplane with the slogan “coronavirus takes the plane too” ?
Still, at least there was some honesty when asked about booking holidays for the summer on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The Secretary of State for Transport when questioned about summer holidays in 2021 admitted “I’m the last person you should take travel advice from ….” adding what could well become a classic ….. “…. don’t take travel advice from me”. Never a truer word, especially when it comes to how to travel from Canning Town.
As this week’s progressed more news has filtered out on reductions in service levels across both bus and train networks; some scheduled and planned and some due to staff shortages, and in the last few days some due to snow and weather conditions.
As always bus operators are far more agile and nimble when it comes to scheduled adjustments but some train companies aren’t far behind including, at least, c2c, Northern and West Midlands/London Northwestern Railway where I see the latter has once again given up running trains on their St Albans Abbey/Watford and Bletchley/Bedford branches with buses riding to the rescue, and now Nuneaton to Leamington Spa is added to the bus replacement list, meaning the £13.2 million station in Kenilworth, only opened in 2018, is currently lying dormant.
Re unscheduled service cuts, Arriva’s bus garage in Wrexham hit the news this week after an outbreak of Covid among staff led to the depot being closed and special timetables instituted on some of its routes run from locations in neighbouring towns. This followed many sporadic cancellations in previous days as shortages hit the network.
Hopefully bus and train companies will be diligent in letting passengers know what revised timetables are in operation and make it easy for passengers to find them. Comments from readers added to last week’s round up blog indicate some companies need to make urgent improvements in this regard.
News from Gatwick Airport: Network Rail’s contractors continue to beaver away expanding the station’s platforms, track layout and passenger concourse ready for the glory days to return while upstairs in the Terminals one of the remaining piers at North Terminal was closed limiting the airport to around two dozen flights per day – this being the UK’s second biggest airport. And on Thursday, in another blow, Gatwick based Norwegian announced it was pulling out of long haul flights impacting over 1,000 jobs.
Not previously recorded among the recent express coach service withdrawals was the full hibernation of the Oxford Tube back on Christmas Eve making for a rather unfortunate debut for those expensive new coaches, now presumably all parked up earning no income to offset their costly depreciation charges.
I know I’m getting slightly obsessed with this, but I also see Hulleys of Baslow are keeping their not-long-ago-launched Snake branded X57 between Sheffield and Manchester going despite it almost certainly carrying fresh air, and notwithstanding difficulties caused by snow closing the Snake Pass too, as it did on Saturday and Thursday, but I noticed no update appeared on Twitter which seemed odd. The short X56 journeys between Glossop and Manchester have succumbed as have all Hulley’s services on Sundays, so that must at least be saving a few pounds.
I can only assume the DfT’s CBSSG Restart support payments are funding the X57’s continued operation, and, once again, if so, can I put a plea in for that to continue during the spring and summer when hopefully we’ll all be back out travelling again.
The major event this past week was undoubtedly the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT)’s online Bus & Coach Conference 2021 on Tuesday and Wednesday which impressively saw over 600 delegates ‘attending’. Some of the presentations provided a fascinating listen with much talk of “collaboration … partnership … proud of our staff … collaboration … partnership … proud of our staff” and included a ‘keynote address’ from Baroness Vere followed by CPT Chairman, Martin Dean, putting the Minister on the spot with some of the many questions submitted by delegates.
Three points struck me from the Baroness’s contribution.
First, for all bus strategy fans out there currently fretting how to run their bus companies without the help of this much hyped document that was being talked about even back in the glory days before we’d ever heard of Wuhan. The Baroness had a reassuring progress update: “over the Christmas period and before, and obviously since, we are working full steam ahead on the bus strategy. It is progressing very well; and of course what we need to make sure is that what we propose works practically and not just from a theoretic ‘oh it looks like a lovely strategy on a piece of paper’. But actually when it lands, will it practically work and that is what we’re just going through at this moment in time. But it is our goal to make sure our bus strategy puts the passenger at its very very heart. And I don’t mean passengers who just currently use the bus, I mean passengers who never use the bus to try the bus because it’s not I think what people think it is, it is way better than that So we will focus on passengers; we’ll focus on restoring lost services, and as Graham said, road space reallocation is really really important and as part of the local partnership working we’ll be looking to local authorities to consider how they can achieve transformational changes in services by looking at bus priority and looking at their road layout to make sure service times are more reliable so that people can get to their destinations mostly more quickly but also at a time when they know they’re going to be there.”
I’m not sure why it’s taking so long to work out something you come up with is something that works in practice, as surely you wouldn’t come up with something that doesn’t work in practice, so it will be fascinating to see what it actually says; and of course, “passengers are at the heart of everything we do” as every good strategy would say. I mean, it’s not as though it would start off …. ‘This strategy ignores the needs of passengers….’ is it? It looks to me that it’s work in progress (still), but on the plus side I reckon at least it’ll see the light of day before DfT colleagues working on rail reform and the infamous Williams Review conclude their deliberations. (More from me on the upcoming National Bus Strategy will appear in the next issue of Buses magazine dated February 2021 and due out next week.)
Secondly Baroness Vere was delighted to be announcing ‘an announcement’ as Ministers always like to do at events of this kind. And this ‘announcement’ related to the DfT’s £20 million rural mobility fund (part of the ‘Better Deal for Bus Users’) and will especially please those who love spending money on rural DRT schemes. There could be 17 of the darn things before too long – all backed by taxpayers money. “I’m delighted to be able to announce” a visibly excited Baroness Vere announced “that 17” (she even repeated 17, so we could all savour the excitement) “17 of the bids for the rural mobility fund are going forward, which is fantastic. I think we had about over 50 bids in total and of course we want to make sure that the funding goes as broadly as possible across the country; lots of different types of ideas for how these demand responsive transport’s going to work. So 17 bids will be going forward and we’ll be asking them to develop a business case, a fairly light touch business case, but just to develop their ideas a bit further; we’re providing a small amount of funding for that and hopefully we’ll be able to firm up the funding very very shortly. So, I think that’s a good step forward and certainly for the future of bus demand responsive transport I hope has a good and strong role to play”.
I bet software techy type ride-sharing companies are already celebrating their forthcoming financial windfall … and no doubt assisting with those “light touch” business cases.
Thirdly Martin Dean asked Baroness Vere to address directly the question of financial support for the coach sector; something which has been a running sore with coach operators since last March with no end of campaigning and honking for hope to raise the profile of their cause. It’s been a tricky one for CPT which, over the years, has struggled to shake off the impression it’s dominated by the big bus owning groups. Indeed I got the distinct impression as the Conference unfolded, the messaging that coaches really are as important as buses became less subliminal and more blatant; it almost was a case of too many mentions.
So having given a rather bland unhelpful comment in her address, and being pressed by Martin to face the issue upfront, uncharacteristically for this Government, whose Ministers all seem to be suffering from a rabid case of ‘over promise and under deliver’ syndrome, Baroness Vere did face the matter head on saying “I am not going to gold plate this, it is the case that the coach sector is incredibly diverse. Some of its services that it provides are essential – home to school; rail replacement – those are the things that we absolutely cannot as a country function properly without. But it is also the case that there are services provided by the coach sector that are non essential and therefore it’s in a very very difficult situation and this is exactly the same, and I will draw a parallel here, this is exactly the same as earlier in the pandemic I had enormous representations from hauliers who suddenly found that they had no business . Now one has to look at this, this is taxpayers’ money and you have to look at this and you have to say what is so essential that the Government must step in to support it because it will not return when demand returns. And so where we see those things for example, the hauliers; had it been the case that we were seeing food not being delivered to supermarkets. medicines not being delivered, we would have stepped in. However that did not happen. And so this is the point that the difference that we have to make here. There are sectors all over the economy, in transport and beyond that have not had a sector specific deal. There is a significant amount of funding available across the economy: the job retention scheme I hope would have been really really valuable and certainly we’re trying to ensure that those people who can get loans to get them through. I want as many coach operators to get through this as possible. I want us to be stronger when we come out but I cannot promise a sector specific deal at this stage”.
So there we are. And this may seem harsh to any coach operators reading this, but actually, you know, I think she’s right. There really isn’t a justification for additional taxpayers money, additional to the general schemes for job retention or bounce back loans etc to bail out coach companies. Those renegade coach companies thinking of leaving CPT to join the Road Haulage Association’s new coach division thinking that organisation will fight harder for their cause need to be careful what they wish for. Hauliers haven’t secured a deal either, as the Baroness pointed out. And transporting human cargo is a very different matter from carrying goods, which is what the RHA specialises in.
It’s been interesting this week to see some operators already teasing us with better times ahead for a post lockdown spring and summer. Exciting times are promised down in Devon and Cornwall with First South West announcing a new Dartmoor Explorer route between Plymouth and Postbridge via Princetown and Tavistock (that’ll have to go on the ‘must do’ list) as well as rebranding First Kernow’s popular Atlantic Coasters open top routes. The A1, A2 and A3 routes which provide a two-way circular route around the coast between Penzance, Lands End, St Ives and Penzance will be known as the Lands End Coaster which should help to raise its profile among the expected boon in staycation holidaymakers and ‘does what it says on the tin’ (or bus, in this case).
Also looking to better times ahead are the DfT, Network Rail and Transport for the North who all got together on Thursday to launch a consultation about three options they’ve come up with to sort out the congested Castlefield corridor in Manchester. One involves more linking of terminating trains at Victoria, TfW rerouted via Victoria to Stalybridge instead of the Airport (not quite sure the former will be quite the draw of the latter but it gets a train path out of the way) and Buxton reducing to hourly; the second involves one of the trains routed through the hugely expensive Ordsall Chord to the Airport cut back to Victoria with only one stopper per hour form Warrington Central; and the third severs through trains from either Sheffield or Liverpool to the Airport. Whichever is chosen it’s a far cry from Grayling’s and Shapps’s pledge it’ll all be sorted with ‘Thameslink Core’ style automatic train operation so no need to reduce services or build the recommended additional two tracks. And it’s sunk without trace the original business case justifying the building of the Ordsall Chord – completed in 2017 – at a cost of £85 million.
Whilst DfT and TfN might be collaborating on that consultation, relations became strained this week when a letter was published from TfN complaining at the significant cut in funding for 2021/22 announced by the DfT. TfN’s budget has been slashed and more than £100 million funding for contactless and smart ticketing cancelled. Not quite in the “levelling up” spirit, but I’m not sure that smart ticketing project was going anywhere and had already sunk millions into an impossible dream over the last few years.
Back in TfL land, news comes of proposals for new fares from 1st March and how it aims to become financially self-sufficient in the long-term. The new fares see the £1.50 flat fare increasing by 5p on the buses and the daily pay-as-you-go cap increasing by up to 3.3 per cent. The zone one fare will be frozen at £2.40 but for zones 1-2 increases by 10p to £3 (£2.50 off-peak). In the long-term if TfL can’t get a slice of Vehicle Excise Duty motorists will face a £3.50 (£5.50 for non-ULEZ cars) charge to enter Greater London across the boundary with a 4% cut in bus and off-peak tube services and an extension of zone 1 fares east to include Canary Wharf. The bus cuts would see frequencies of 25 central London routes reducing from eight buses an hour to six.
Other news snippets this week included: Arriva’s long standing Bus and Coach Dealership will be closing down at the end of March; D&G Bus began its new Chaserider branded operations in Cannock having taken over from Arriva; The Big Lemon in Brighton took over bus operations in East and West Sussex operated by Seaford & District; TfL reported 3,646 staff (representing about 10% of the workforce) are isolating and shielding; Transport for the North’s rail committee confirmed its support for TransPennine Express’s second hourly service north of Darlington in the December 2022 timetable (even though there’s doubt whether the line has space for this as well as LNER’s planned expansion and First Group’s open access plans); London Underground won’t be bringing back the ‘night tube’ until at least the Spring; RATP Dev announced the closure of its Quality Line branded operations and Epsom depot with three routes and a contract moving to its garage in Tolworth and three routes to be handed over to Go-Ahead London this summer; while over in Greater Manchester Arriva announced from tomorrow they’ll no longer accept on bus contactless payments for GM’s System One AnyBus Adult Weekly ticket (which seems rather strange as contactless continues for all other tickets); and rather more positively some operators began allowing concessionary bus passholders to travel before 9am to attend vaccination appointments – well done to Compass Travel and Go North East (and probably more) for that initiative; congratulations to Doug Claringbold who will soon be joining First West of England as its new managing director – he’s “an experienced commercial and operational leader within the ground transport sectors” which I understand means Addison Lee; and lastly good to see some common sense prevailing in Maidstone with news the pop-up cycle lane in King Street which careered right through a bus stop waiting area is to be removed….
Finally for this week … receiving requests from local sports clubs for sponsorship support is a regular feature of running a bus company. I lost count of the number of appeals I received to fund a youth team’s football strip for a local club during my time as a managing director. You knew there was never a ‘business case’ for such help, but it was often a good thing for community relations and generated unquantifiable goodwill. So well done to Arriva for sponsoring one of the hospitality suites at Merseyside based Marine A.F.C. which reached unforeseen worldwide media coverage last Sunday.
Due to a lack of facilities at the North West Division of the Northern Premier League Club’s ground for visiting teams, the ‘Arriva Suite’ acted as the dressing room for Tottenham Hotspur players in the BBC1 much watched FA Cup 3rd round tie. I bet that wasn’t in the sponsorship benefits package when the deal was originally pitched.
And I doubt Gareth Bale and the others noticed the promo stuff was all in Arriva’s old branding.
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.