Saturday 6th February 2021
A truly amazing inoculation milestone was passed on Wednesday. What a remarkable achievement. Ten million people vaccinated within twelve months of news of a “new novel virus” originating in China is quite extraordinary. Last Saturday almost 600,000 received the jab. That’s the equivalent of the whole population of Glasgow vaccinated in a single day. Or all three of Brighton (and Hove), Reading and York. Quite remarkable.
All credit to the scientists, the Government, the Vaccination Taskforce, the armed forces and thousands in the NHS and wider health community and volunteers involved in delivering the programme. Along with other measures, it’s going to make a huge difference to bring normality back to our lives and of particular interest to this blogger, and readers here, getting our transport systems back doing the job they’re there for – carrying lots of passengers.
And it’s good to see transport networks playing their part in getting people to the large vaccination centres set up in various venues around the country, especially when they’re not located in an ideal spot for bus connections.
I particularly like Go North East’s mini network of three shuttles to the Nightingale Hospital which are clearly depicted in a bespoke map showing connections from Metro and other bus routes in the area. Well done for that – and a map too!
Maybe it’s more people out and about travelling to vaccination centres, but I noticed bus passenger numbers increased at the beginning of this week (ever so slightly) according to DfT statistics – from 26% to 28% of normal levels – with TfL bus also increasing from 33% to 34% although tube and rail use remained static at 17% and 13%* respectively, while motor traffic increased from 61% to 66% which was across cars, vans and HGVs. (*Early estimates for rail use actually show a dip to 12%, but confirmation is awaited.)
Talking of maps, which I always like to do, it was also heartening to see Matt Harrison at Go North West promote an update of the company’s colourful network map on social media. How refreshing to see not only a company producing a map but proudly promoting it too. If only more would follow this example.
Which brings me to London, and a shout out to Mike Harris who has been regularly producing a London wide bus map for many years, and last weekend brought out an updated version of his 38th map valid from today, 6th February. Quite how Mike manages to do this in his spare time when TfL say it’s far too difficult to achieve with all their vast resources remains a complete mystery to me.
During the pandemic this latest version is only available in a digital format online from Mike’s website, at a cost of just £1. Those who purchased the previous digital version have received a complimentary electronic copy. What a great service.
Talking of great service, the tech company Passenger has been sharing fascinating visualisations on social media this week of many of its clients to “celebrate the launch of DfT’s #busopendata service”. These show “a day in the life of AVL data” with a speeded up plot of each vehicle represented by a pink dot travelling along its route at break neck speed. Here’s a link to a tweet showing Bluestar’s fleet going about its business from Southampton across a whole day in just 35 seconds. Click here (and then on the visual) to enjoy.
A shout out to Doncaster Council where this week saw the completion of the “multi-million pound transformation” of the area around the town’s famous station. The aim has been to “make the station entrance more welcoming and accessible, as well as create a modern gateway to the growing town”.
The car park which used to dominate the front area has been moved to the old Royal Mail Sorting Office site enabling the frontage to be used as a rather attractive public space. Funding came from the Sheffield City Region (£7 million) as well as a contribution from LNER (£1.1 million) which included a new contemporary glass canopy on the front of the station building.
Images of the completed project look very impressive and I look forward to visiting and looking at the improvements up close in person which I’m guessing will be in even starker contrast than before with the dour images from the adjacent bus station and the somewhat car dominated road and tunnel under the shopping centre immediately outside which always seems distinctly unfriendly for pedestrians to me.
Another project going great guns is the transformation of the tracks approaching Kings Cross station as part of the East Coast Main Line upgrade programme. With the Werrington dive-under (north of Peterborough) now open, work is progressing “at pace” in the Kings Cross throat to finalise the reopening of the disused third bore of Gasworks Tunnel immediately north of the station.
I’m taking a keen interest in this part of the East Coast project for nostalgic reasons having strong memories of riding local peak hour trains as a lad from the Hertford North line on to the ‘widened tracks’ to Farringdon, Aldersgate (now Barbican) and Moorgate through that most easterly tunnel bore stopping at King Cross York Road station, which sadly has now been completely dismantled.
One project that’s not going quite so well is sorting out Hammersmith Bridge which has been closed to all traffic including cyclists and pedestrians and river traffic prevented from crossing underneath since August 2020. There’s a Hammersmith Bridge Taskforce chaired by Baroness Vere bringing interested parties together including the DfT, TfL, the London Boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham (who own the bridge), Richmond upon Thames, the Greater London Authority and the Port of London Authority. Part of last year’s DfT Covid funding agreement with TfL included the requirement on the latter to immediately introduce a cross-river ferry service for pedestrians and cyclists but this has proved more involved than expected.
Unlike purchasing processes for PPE, this has had to go through TfL’s proper procurement procedures so inevitably it’s taking some time to come to fruition. The latest update from the Taskforce came out yesterday (Friday) and confirms while the winning tender for the ferry operator is still awaited, stage 1 of the works to repair the bridge to enable a “limited reopening” for pedestrians and cyclists are estimated to take 11 months with stage 2 works taking a further 21 months to allow for “unlimited” pedestrian and cyclist access. Buses and other traffic are unlikely to be back using the bridge for a further 30 months after that, which by my maths means five years from now.
On a more positive note and capturing the air of optimism surrounding this “positive milestone” week, an updated Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 was published on Wednesday by Transport Scotland. The Review looks at all transport modes and “will help to deliver the vision, priorities and outcomes for transport” and “will inform transport investment in Scotland for the next 20 years”.
This is just phase 1 with a second phase report promised for later this year. Phase 1 aims to “help the development of interventions that can embed, support and extend the increase in travel by sustainable travel modes and takes account of the impact of Covid-19”. It includes 20 recommendations against eight themes. Phase 2 will be for the medium and longer term.
Headline grabbers from the 20 recommendations are “development of Glasgow Metro and Edinburgh Mass Transit strategies”, but also up there for public transport fans are “reallocation of road space for buses”and there’s also “reallocation of road space for active travel” so let’s hope there’s no conflict between those two. Also included are “enhancing facilities at major rail stations” and “infrastructure to provide access for all at rail stations”.
Edinburgh’s mass transit strategy “is an enhanced level of public transport provision in the city region including bus rapid transit and tram. It would complement and integrate with the current bus, tram and heavy rail networks, providing improved connectivity“. Initially it’s envisaged improving connections from the north of the city at Granton and through the city centre to the south and east extremities of the city boundary. Longer term it could include a “south suburban railway within the city and a cross-Forth light rail transit system to Fife”. The report points to the excellent bus service in the city but that journey times are long especially at peak times.
The Glasgow Metro is an “umbrella term or brand to describe a new level of public transport provision … within the conurbation. This may include one or more of bus rapid transit, light rail and/or metro rail, with the network complimenting and being integrated with the bus and heavy rail networks”.
For those who like neat colourful tables with lots of words, here’s a summary of what the report’s all about, including, as you can see in green, a sneak inclusion of “Investment in Demand Responsive Transport and Mobility as a Service” because they’re the buzzwords of the decade and you can’t have a report of this status without them.
Wednesday also saw Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps appear before the Transport Select Committee in what Chairman Hew Merriman described as a “catch up to discuss all things transport”. A packed agenda included the impact of the pandemic on aviation, active travel, TfL funding, taxis, railways, HS2, Eurostar, road haulage, driver and practical theory tests, the DVLA as well as smart motorways, congestion at ports and borders and the transition to zero emission vehicles and accessibility but sadly no time to discuss buses while coaches got a quick mention during the last ten minutes of the session which had to be hurried to hit the midday deadline for a minutes silence held in the Chamber for the late Captain Sir Tom and others who have sadly died from coronavirus.
We all know TfL funding needs to be sorted fairly soon with the fast approaching 31st March deadline, when the current Government support runs out, but there was no real update other than unsurprisingly Shapps ruling out TfL’s suggestions for a London boundary charge or hypothecating Vehicle Excise Duty to the Mayor; instead pointing to the continued generous concessions applicable in London (presumably referring to free travel for young people and those aged between 60 and pension age) making it unfair that taxpayers across the country should be paying for benefits specific to Londoners. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out over the next few weeks as there’s no publicly visible sign of common ground. Hopefully a deal won’t be left until 14 minutes before the midnight deadline as happened last time.
On Rail, we now officially have the newly christened “Williams-Shapps Review” as the Secretary of State explained he was adapting the recommendations of what used to be known as the Williams Review (set up in September 2018 and still not published) to take account of the coronavirus impact which he reckoned “in some ways has helped to accelerate what were the Williams Review recommendations because we do want that guiding mind approach to our railways” which left me wondering what the ‘unaccelerated’ timescale would have been without Covid. Shapps reassured (once again) “you won’t, I hope, have to wait too long for a ‘Williams Shapps White Paper’ on rail but again it is only because of coronavirus and needing to know broadly when this is going to return to normal passenger numbers that we’re waiting to publish but I hope it will happen presently”. So if I’ve got this right, coronavirus has accelerated things but we have to wait until its over before knowing how it’s accelerated things.
No waiting on HS2 though, as Shapps wouldn’t hear of any concerns about going full-constriction-ahead with the multi-billion-pound project notwithstanding those unknown long term impacts on passenger numbers due to Covid and new working patterns. He expected Royal Assent this week for Phase 2a (the Birmingham Crewe section), although at the time of writing this on Friday evening, I can’t see evidence that happened; and questions about the Eastern Leg (to the East Midlands and Yorkshire) will be resolved in the “Integrated Rail Plan” which like all plans and reviews, will be published “in due course, fairly shortly”.
On terminating franchises and awarding new Direct Awards, it seems progress is not going quite as smoothly as the DfT envisaged. The 14th December 2020 deadline to conclude negotiations with train operating companies had already been extended to 29th January, and it seems this has now been extended again, until March. Not surprisingly train companies are questioning DfT’s demands for significant termination payments, bearing in mind many of the franchises would have continued making losses (even without Covid), as well as arguments on the terms of new Direct Awards. Characteristically Shapps put a positive spin on the continued delays in bringing this matter to a conclusion, telling the Committee “the rail operating companies right now are involved in paying back tens of millions, hundreds of millions of pounds in termination fees. These termination sums have been agreed with, I think six operators so far, and it’s real money”. Makes a difference to the usual ‘pretend money’ which changes hands in the rail sector, I suppose. Like TfL funding, the uncertainty is set to continue for a few more weeks yet.
Committee member Lillian Greenwood addressed the Active Travel theme asking Shapps about the Government’s commitment to modal shift. She pointed out while the foreward to last year’s Transport Decarbonisation ‘Setting the Challenge’ paper included a commitment to ‘net zero’ in which “we would use our cars less” the DfT’s road traffic forecasts still predict “traffic growth of 17 to 51 percent by 2050” so asked when “you publish the Transport Decarbonisation Plan will it set a target for traffic reduction?”. Guess what Shapps replied…..?
“I want to be clear about where I am on this subject because I’m not anti car. What I want is cars that run around are green and don’t damage the environment by pumping out CO2 and other greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals but I’m not against the idea that people will get in their car.”
Which was pretty much what he answered to the same question Greenwood posed at Shapps’ last Committee appearance in June 2020, which I commented on at that time. So no change on the Shapps approach to modal shift.
As the session raced to a conclusion, Shapps acknowledged it’s been “a phenomenally tough time for the coach sector” but, as Baroness Vere had confirmed at the recent CPT conference, there’s nothing to add to the support the Chancellor has already announced as applicable to businesses in general. He hoped coach operators could once again help out with extra resources when schools return which should earn them a bob or two, so I’m sure they were pleased to hear that!
Scottish coach operators were delighted on Thursday with news from the Scottish Government of emergency cash support for the tourist industry. Coach companies can apply fo a share of a £10 million fund to support their businesses as part of a wider £104.4 million package for the tourism and hospitality sectors.
Another interesting event on Wednesday was a Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) webinar, this time from the Kent Group, with Joel Mitchell, managing director of Stagecoach South East. Joel had been a career railman including posts at SWT, Southern and C2C before moving over to the bus sector. Joel gave us a detailed look at the work he’d been involved in at C2C before he left and at Stagecoach South East since his arrival as well as an interesting comparison of working in both sectors, summarised below:
Monday evening brought another (CILT) presentation, this time from the Humber Group delivered by Go-Ahead’s Area Director in charge of Hull based East Yorkshire, Ben Gilligan. (I’m beginning to wonder when all this is over whether CILT will return to in-person meetings, bearing in mind I, and probably others, have been enjoying ‘attending’ fascinating presentations from all over the country over the last year of Covid, which I’d never have achieved in person.)
Ben gave an engaging presentation outlining all the developments that he and his colleagues had had to face over the last twelve months.
Among the many interesting points Ben highlighted was the agility with which the team had introduced revised schedules and timetables – two service revisions in the space of a fortnight – in those early days of lockdown last March and April; as well as the IT team facilitating people working from home; fitting screens to driver cabs across the fleet over a weekend; installing on board sanitisers; acceleration of contactless together with keeping the option of taking cash and giving change for those who need that; introducing flexible tickets – a five day ‘season’ now valid to use flexibly over a full twelve months. By mid April East Yorkshire’s passenger levels had reduced to 10% of normal on inter-urban routes and as small as 3% on rural routes with some drivers reporting they were carrying no passengers at all. East Yorkshire temporarily closed four of its depots to reduce costs, operating from just Hull and Scarborough during this period.
Ben rightly pointed out the critical importance of the Government’s Covid Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG) which has continued to be paid since last March. It’s the only way bus services have been able to continue, and was necessary even though Ben explained East Yorkshire had had a busy summer, especially in Scarborough where the pent up demand for people to get out and about was experienced.
Hopefully that’s a good omen for the future when we come out of this lockdown as the remarkable vaccination programme continues “at pace”.