Saturday 30th January 2021
or … Lincoln
or … Wakefield
or …. Preston
…. completely wiped out.
In ten months.
Haywards Heath …… just since Christmas.
Five missed COBRA meetings … Shaking hands with everyone … Cheltenham Races … PPE … Testing … a protective ring around care homes (not) … send the virus packing within twelve weeks … Open borders … Barnard Castle … ‘Serco’ Test & Trace … free school meals … school exam results … Eat out to help out … return to work or risk being fired … September circuit breaker (not) … school meals (again) … inhuman to cancel Christmas … Christmas household mixing … late to lockdown (again) …
“What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could.”
Probably the most shameful, insensitive, disrespectful, untruthful remark from a Prime Minister in my lifetime.
This past “grim milestone” week, began for the public transport sector with consternation among rail commentators last weekend about a £760 million funding announcement from Government for the western section (Oxford to Milton Keynes) of East West Rail . The problem being there was no mention of a U-turn to reverse the 2016 U-turn which cancelled the route’s electrification, originally announced as a ‘game-changer’ in 2012.
To add to the dismay, the BBC’s on line news report included a photo shopped image of am Advanced Passenger Train; a project abandoned as far back as 1985.
The announcement also included £34 million for “initial work” aimed at reintroducing passenger services on the Ashington freight line in Northumberland.
Inevitably Saturday’s combined announcement had Shapps trotting out the usual platitudes “restoring closed lines …. helps connect ‘left behind’ communities …. puts them back on the map … build back vital connections … part of ‘levelling up’ agenda”. You’d think buses exist in a parallel universe way beyond the Secretary of State’s orbit and consciousness and do nothing to connect communities.
When challenged why no electrification, bearing in mind Government’s pledge to ban the sale of petrol and diesel powered engines within the lifetime of existing vehicles, Shapps came up with the line, the line “might potentially bypass the overhead wire technology altogether” which does make one wonder, if he’s so confident about viable alternatives to electrification within such a short timescale (which I assume means hydrogen or mega capacity batteries), what on earth are we doing building HS2 as an electrified railway at huge expense?
The DfT announcement for East West Rail also caused concern by making no reference to connecting Aylesbury into the east-west alignment, nor clarification whether any funding is earmarked for the central section beyond Bletchley to Bedford.
A target opening date for Oxford to Milton Keynes was given as 2025, thereby confirming a further delay from the previous most recent target of 2024, itself way later than the original plan for ribbon cutting for December 2017, when the line was first announced by George Osborne in his 2011 Autumn Statement.
Bearing in mind the £760 million was included and announced in last November’s Spending Review, you have to wonder what was behind announcing it again last Saturday. The reality is, the only new piece of news was the opening date being delayed by a further year.
Meanwhile up in Northumberland Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris says he is “very confident” trains will be running on the Ashington line “by 2024”., which presumably means some time in 2025 or later. There’s been talk of reopening this freight line through Blyth to passenger trains for many a year, but presumably the project has taken on new urgency following the election, for the first time, of a Conservative MP (Ian Levy) for the Blyth Valley constituency in December 2019’s ‘Red Wall’ election success.
The investment, which represents around a fifth of the total scheme cost, will fund “land acquisition, completion of detailed design and for Network Rail to commence early works prior to relevant planning approvals”. Expect another grand announcement of further funding in the coming months when another good news story is needed. And what’s to become of the successful commercially operated bus routes serving the area? Let’s hope the six proposed stations are not built with an abundance of car parking spaces and the opportunity is taken to truly integrate things.
Mention of HS2 reminds me to mention a snippet from Board papers released on Wednesday morning for the upcoming TfL Board meeting on 3rd February. The Transport Commissioner’s report contained more concerning news that “DfT has recently instructed HS2 to proceed with further design development for one of the options, which provides a solution based around 10 HS2 platforms….” at Euston. Experts who know about these things have been quick to point out cutting the number of HS2 platforms from 11 to 10 will likely limit line capacity to a constraining 14 trains per hour as well as giving no scope to deal with late running and disruption meaning late services being turned short at Old Oak Common to reduce ‘knock-on’ effects.
Some sceptics wondered if the reduced capacity was linked to the uncertainty over the line’s Eastern leg to Yorkshire, but Transport Minister Andrew Stephenson announced on Thursday: “we are committed to building HS2 phase 2b and to enable the East Midlands, Yorkshire and the North East to reap the benefits of high-speed rail services….we aim to publish the Integrated Rail Plan early this year which will set out our plans covering the eastern leg”.
Meanwhile at HS2’s Euston Square site bailiffs began the task this week of evicting protestors who’ve built tree houses and even tunnels in scenes reminiscent of road building protests of the 1990s, which does make me wonder what form of transport the protestors feel we should all be using. Still, if the tunnel proves robust, maybe it could save a bit of construction time and costs providing the underground walkway to Euston Square Underground station!
Still on the week’s rail news, full business cases for proposed new stations on the Walsall to Wolverhampton line at Darlastan and Willenhall have been approved by the West Midlands Combined Authority. That justification must have made interesting reading bearing in mind the originally assessed build cost in 2018 was “around £18 million” and has now tripled to a whopping £55.8 million. The opening date is now targeted for Mach 2023; which is only a couple of years on from the 2021 deadline set in 2018, so not too bad as new rail station openings go. Meanwhile it’s reported the three new stations on the Camp Hill line at Moseley, Kings Heath and Hazelwell currently have a £20.5 million funding gap. so I don’t think we’ll be seeing them any time soon. And while we’re on new station build costs, comes news from Devon that although work “could finally soon get underway” on a new station at Marsh Barton (between Exeter and Newton Abbot) “the cost has almost quadrupled in a decade”. Originally estimated to cost £4.3 million, rising to £7.3 million in 2015, the latest estimate has reached £16 million. News is awaited whether a bid to the DfT’s New Stations Fund for £3.1 million has been successful.
Exciting new track based schemes were also in the news this week in West Yorkshire where the Combined Authority revealed a “transformational mass transit plan”.
West Yorkshire hasn’t had a lot of luck with its “transformational” plans in the last decade or two for Leeds. First its supertram idea was scuppered due to rising costs and then its whacky idea for a ‘new generation’ trolleybus route was thrown out at a public enquiry. Now it’s planning “nine routes built in stages across the county over 20 years”. There’s even a map to illustrate its aspirations.
Click here to see the full 46 page “working draft for engagement” report explaining the thinking behind “West Yorkshire Mass Transit Vision 2040”. outlining the ambitious ideas which don’t yet specify whether the transformation will be to a bus based rapid transport, light rail, tram-train or ultra-light rail.
Let’s switch to buses with news on Monday, in one of the least snappiest news release titles: “Stagecoach sets out package of partnership measures in Greater Manchester to help post-Covid acceleration of bus use“.
Acting as a “trailblazer for other locations across the country” Stagecoach reckon the proposed “two-year programme of measures” delivered jointly by the company and the local authority “could help deliver the planned National Bus Strategy for England” as well as a blueprint to speed up bus use across Britain”.
Sounds enticing so I eagerly read on to see what the plan comprised. After the usual bumph in the first eight paragraphs about “…buses well over 4 billion journeys a year …. critical role of buses …. COP 26 climate change summit …. double deck bus .. 75 cars off the road …. pilot for an integrated package of joint interventions and investments …kickstart rapid growth ….” came some details:
There’ll be a ‘Partnership Board’ comprising the public and private sector, chaired by the Mayor, to develop bus improvement plans.
And we even get some specific examples such as improvements to named junctions including more effective traffic lights together with an accelerated roll out of more electric buses; expanding flexible ticket options; more demand responsive transport; and clear customer information.
But it had a touch of déjà vu about it for me. And I soon realised why as checking back, eleven months ago, in February 2020, came news of a “New partnership plan for Greater Manchester bus network” from Stagecoach.
Those “radical new alternative proposals” will “deliver a step-change in the region’s bus network, providing improved connectivity, cleaner air, better value for taxpayers and a stronger economy”.
The plan included £142 million investment “in around 500 new cleaner low emission buses” over a “10-year partnership plan” with a commitment to profits “above an agreed benchmark” shared equally with Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), Stagecoach and a “new Partnership Investment Fund” which could see a third of the total spent anywhere across the region and two-thirds to initiatives in south Manchester where Stagecoach operate. The Plan also states “up to £25 million paying for socially necessary services without subsidy”.
The February 2020 “ground breaking” Plan was quoted as “backed by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Transport for Greater Manchester and other key organisations” and “would deliver more comprehensive services, better value fares, simpler ticketing, an improved customer experience, as well as addressing issues around damaging car congestion which impacts bus punctuality”.
It’s not clear what became of the 2020 ‘New Partnership Plan’ but checking further back I see another high profile plan was announced by Stagecoach In February 2019 to “deliver one of Europe’s largest single investments in electric buses for Greater Manchester after winning £6.9 million in support funding from the Government”.
Like this latest announcement, and its forerunner in 2020, that 2019 announcement “would deliver more comprehensive services, better value fares, simpler ticketing, an improved customer experience, as well as addressing issues around damaging car congestion which impacts bus punctuality”.
It’s not clear whether Mayor Burnham ever took up Stagecoach’s Partnership Board offer from 2020, but with his own beloved franchising plans now passing their second public consultation (it closed yesterday, Friday), a decision is expected “by the Spring” on TfGM’s “bus reform proposals”. One things for sure. There’s no shortage of ‘transformational plans’ for buses in Greater Manchester.
In the more immediate future, the biggest priority for most of us is the continued roll out of the vaccination programme – a key factor in returning to a more normal life. Well done to Metrobus for working with Alliance for Better Care and providing one of its Fastway branded Volvo buses to act as a mobile vaccination unit enabling the NHS Community Vaccination Team to “get to harder to reach and vulnerable groups in our communities”. It began its new role in Crawley on Thursday.
Also taking to the road this week were First Aberdeen’s hydrogen powered double deckers, which are of course, a “world first” – even beating TfL to the hydrogen double decker accolade. First Aberdeen excitedly announced the buses will “mean healthy, happy communities with quiet streets” which arises because each bus “plays a major role in reducing Aberdeen’s carbon footprint by saving 84 tonnes of carbon per year” which I’m sure is an impressive result, even if I’ve no idea what 230 kilograms of carbon per day looks like, but apparently it’s the same as “removing 38 petrol or 42 diesel cars from the road”. Hopefully the same Aberdeen City Council that’s backing this project has learnt its lesson from its ban on buses from Union Street last summer which was hardly a way to encourage modal shift and save all that carbon.
The fifteen Wright buses will be used on route 19 (Peterculter to Tillydrone) as well as other services and are part of an £8.3 million project funded by Aberdeen City Council, the Scottish Government and the European Union (remember them?). It works out at an investment of about £500,000 per vehicle, so I hope plenty of motorists are getting ready to leave their car keys on the mantlepiece to justify such an impressive sum.
Finally, travel trends continue at a very consistent level during lockdown with passengers on both TfL Tube and bus slightly up on last week coming in this week at 17% and 33% respectively (last week 16% and 32%) while bus passengers outside London slipped 1% from 27% to 26% with train use static at 13%. Most bus companies are now on around 80% of normal service levels indicating a lot of spare capacity and near empty buses travelling around.
Transport Focus’s weekly monitoring of attitudes encouragingly shows among those not using public transport saying they don’t feel safe using it at the moment has decreased from 30% to 23% and among those who haven’t used a train or bus in the last two weeks, there’s been an increase in those who would feel safe doing so, if they had to, increasing from 33% to 37% by train and 27% to 31% by bus. I haven’t seen any of those awful scary “Coronavirus also takes the train/bus” adverts on social media, so perhaps they’ve dropped the idea, which, if so, is just as well with those mildly encouraging research results.
I’ll leave you with a cartoon courtesy of The Guardian which seemed to sum up this last poignant week.