Saturday 13th February 2021
I was uncertain whether this week’s ‘word of the week’ is ‘Darcy’ or ‘uncertain’. I plumped for the former as there seems to be so much uncertainty about the latter, especially when it comes to whether Cabinet Ministers reckon we should all be booking our summer holidays. Turns out we shouldn’t, unless it’s in Cornwall.
And we shouldn’t really need reminding by the media that as it is winter it’s not surprising snow and freezing temperatures have been a thing this week with ‘Storm Darcy’ bringing the “lowest temperature recorded in the UK for 26 years, as low as -22.9C in Braemar during Wednesday night”. Social media exploded with wintery images showing slipping and sliding vehicles along untreated icy roads. Most dramatic I spotted was video footage of a First Essex Streetlite gingerly negotiating an untreated hill in Essex ending up broadside.
One of my favourites from the hundreds of photos circulating was this bus on Lynx route 36 at Brancaster Staithe along the north Norfolk coast captured by Sam Larke. After all, who doesn’t love a beautifully presented Grade II listed preserved AA phone box? Sam teased social media watchers asking readers to identify the location before revealing the answer.
I also particularly liked Network Rail Scotland’s image taken from the NR helicopter showing the effectiveness of Rannoch’s snow shelter protecting the West Highland Line.
One photo circulated by ScotRail on Thursday had a ‘wow’ factor to it – showing the “huge blocks of ice that can form underneath our trains as they travel through snow. Here’s one of our Inter7City trams back at the depot last night“. ScotRail use enormous heaters to melt the ice “but it can take hours”.
Although parts of England including East Anglia and Kent suffered badly – three Southeastern rail lines remained closed throughout Tuesday – Bromley North, Medway Valley and Sheerness – Scotland suffered the biggest impact with Xplore Dundee and Prentice of Heddington, as well as others I’m sure, unable to run any services for at least most of one day.
It reminded me when freezing snow and ice hit Brighton and Hove in a bad way in January 2010 forcing a complete withdrawal of services with the hilly terrain that dominates much of the city making conditions treacherous. My friend, Commercial Director of Stagecoach Midlands, Pat Stringer, who was at B&H at the time, reminded his Twitter followers this week how we came up with a novel solution to keep some semblance of service going by deploying the coach fleet equipped with snow chains – more accustomed to freezing conditions on school ski trips in the Alps.
Aside from the weather, Monday brought an invitation from the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) to its members to get in touch if they “wish to express an interest to bid” for the upcoming work from Monday 15th February of taking passengers arriving at UK airports needing to quarantine in hotels for ten days. “Depending on capacity and demand some passengers may need to be transported to hotels further away from the airport they fly in to”. There’s been a lot of discussion in the media about the timing and organisation of this new mandatory requirement and CPT’s email explained “we understand the Crown Commercial Service will soon begin requesting expressions of interest from Coach operators located in the vicinity of these airports to provide shuttle services …. the exact requirements operators must meet have not yet been finalised, but CPT are continuing dialogue with Government”.
It all sounds very last minute dot com but nice to see a bit of work for hard pressed coach operators, but I do wonder if the “requirements” when finalised (especially cleaning/sanitation) may well be onerous for the remuneration offered.
Unwelcome news on Wednesday for aspiring Open Access operator Grand Union. Its application to run a service between London and Carmarthen, planned for December this year, was turned down by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR). ORR reckons it will abstract too much money from DfT funded regular services along the same line operated by GWR as far as west as Swansea. Ironically First Group, who run the GWR ‘franchise’/’contract’/’direct award’ gained permission (pre Covid) to run a similar open access competitive service on the London to Edinburgh route which will abstract revenue from DfT funded LNER. It’s obviously all down to application timing. Mind you, if things don’t pick up for a few years, which looks quite likely, I wouldn’t be banking on any profit from any open access operation any time soon.
More positive news from Transport for Wales this week is a confirmed date for the long planned introduction of Mark 4 coach sets (ex LNER) hauled by Class 67 locomotives (from D B Cargo) on the enhanced Cardiff to Holyhead service. These will start running from the upcoming May timetable incorporating first class seating and a catering service. The ‘Gerald’ train just got better and a must repeat visit if travel restrictions are eased by then. Let’s hope so.
The TfL funding soap opera continued this week with Mayor Khan joining forces with the London Assembly’s Group Leaders writing to Grant Shapps on Monday asking for the £500 million vehicle excise duty collected from London residents with motor vehicles to be allocated directly to TfL. I’m sure at least one of the writers must have watched last week’s Transport Select Committee when Shapps gave the idea a total no no. This is surely going to go right up to the wire again.
One tangental upside of Covid has been the lack of any industrial action on public transport over the last twelve months. Sadly that seems to be coming to an end with news this week Unite the Union is planning three days of strike action the week after next at RATP owned Quality Line on Monday 22nd and Tuesday 23rd February and London Sovereign on Wednesday 24th. Both disputes are over pay and conditions. Unite also reported they’ll be balloting members at Metroline over proposals to introduce remote signing on. Meanwhile in Manchester, Unite reported on Tuesday its members working for Go North West have voted for strike action over another terms and conditions dispute.
In the current circumstances, I can’t see any of these threats being followed through with an inevitable lack of any public sympathy. It won’t be a good look withdrawing labour leading to no buses operating …. essential services for essential workers and all that.
Friday brought news the current three month shut down of the Island Line will be extended for “about six weeks” lasting into at least May. Why was this all but inevitable? Project timescales, deadlines and railways just don’t seem to go together these days.
Luckily the poster did vaguely say “spring 2021” which May is.
Positive news from Southern Rail this week: the first Class 377 to go through GTR’s £55 million fleet modernisation programme, now 20 years old is now back in service.
The makeover includes a much welcome introduction of USB/power sockets as well as information screens (to include current up to the minute London Underground status) and LED lighting. Only 269 more trains to do.
Talking of makeovers, Durham’s dreary bus station closes today for an eighteenth month rebuild and refresh; and a good thing too. Built in 1970 it’s long needed updating and refreshing having outlived its attractiveness at least a decade ago.
The £10.4 million project (£3.6 million from the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund) will see the current building demolished over the next three months with the replacement expected to open in September next year.
Durham County Council proudly explain: “the new bus station has been designed to increase the overall space for passengers in a light and airy setting, with increased visibility and safety for buses leaving the station. This includes increasing the reversing area for buses leaving bays and widening the exit onto North Road to improve visibility, with additional pedestrian access also being created”.
Inside, there will also be increased facilities including parent and child toilets and a changing places toilet, as well as increased seating and space in the passenger waiting area. The plans also include a two-storey area with office space.
Why does it not surprise me to see the different approaches by the bus station’s two major operators, Go North East and Arriva North East to let their passengers know what’s happening.
Here’s Go North East’s comprehensive information online:
And here’s Arriva’s:
Arriva’s famed useless website demonstrates yet another aspect of its uselessness with a default ‘service updates’ setting as a comprehensive countrywide list in date order, but (see below) starting from the earliest date at the top of the list (eg early January) before displaying a small number of entries below which you need to click on a “search all service updates” icon to find the latest news. Useless. At least you can filter a specific region (if you know your Arriva region), but as shown above, it doesn’t help you much in the north east.
More positive news from Go North East on Friday is the long awaited roll out of their ex Oxford Bus coaches on routes X9/10 between Middlesbrough and Newcastle from Monday. And very smart they look too.
Also on Friday came news Crossrail’s Tottenham Court Road station reached “an important milestone” commencing the process of handing the station over to TfL. Work is now focusing “on the extensive testing and commissioning of systems ahead of the line’s opening”. I’ll resist making any comment on timescales and deadlines (just think ‘all set for a December opening’ as confirmed by Crossrail in Summer 2018).
Many thanks to JD who passed on news last week that Scottish Borders Council’s Planning Committee have just approved plans for a new station on the East Coast Main Line at Reston. The planning documents describe the station as a “new rail halt facility” which gives it a ‘quaint factor’ and how appropriate if it was called ‘Reston Halt’ when it opens.
Located between Berwick-upon-Tweed and Dunbar, it’s another of those stations closed in 1964 and subject to local campaigning for some years to get it reinstated to the network. Network Rail began drawing up plans for its return in 2015.
Reston itself is a tiny settlement on the A1 which wouldn’t justify a rail station in its own right but it’s hoped the station will (quote) “revitalise the rural communities of Berwickshire and further afield and will enhance and open-up transport links and improve connectivity”. the nearest major settlement is Eyemouth on the east coast, about five miles away. Naturally a car park is included in the plans, but for only 70 cars, although there’s potential for “possible extensions to accommodate up to 110 and potentially up to 195 spaces”. Seventy car parking spaces doesn’t sound very viable to justify a new station to me. As JD observed “if the experience of Tweedbank on the Borders Railway is anything to go by, it would be as well to provide the 110 spaces from day one” all the more so, as although a bus turning area is also incorporated, the low population density in the area is hardly going to encourage bus operators to serve the station to connect with whatever trains are going to call there.
Let’s be realistic, rail passengers are only going to arrive by car especially as Reston’s bus service can hardly be considered comprehensive – five journeys a day on Border Buses route 253 between Edinburgh and Berwick-upon-Tweed (see above) and four journeys a day on Travelsure’s route 34 between Dunn and Tweedmouth (see below).
As ever, the planning application papers enthuse about “interchange hubs” etc … such as… “the proposed site layout, access road and new junction have been designed to form an interchange hub between train, bus, cycling, walking and private car. The site, by its very nature will be highly accessible by public transport and will form a hub facility for transfer between transport modes”. Come on, get real guys.
Costs for the new station were estimated as £3.2 million back in 2015, so on current form, we could at least double that and add a couple more million, but wait for this gem, “operating costs in the region of £68 million” were estimated at that time. That’s because the idea is to introduce a new Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed local service stopping at Reston, another new station planned at East Linton, and other existing stations along the line. Imagine what Borders Buses could do with an annual subsidy of £68 million …. for just one route.
Claire Bhugowandeen, Network Rail’s sponsor for the Reston station project said: “now we have clarity on the planning decision, we can now move to get onsite as quickly as possible and work with our partners to deliver this new station for our customers and the wider Reston community”. Local campaigners optimistically hope the new station “will be open by the end of 2021”. Yeah, right.
Another proposed new station further north along the same line, East Linton, is currently awaiting planning approval from East Lothian Council. East Linton is marginally a bit bigger than Reston, but its nearest town, five miles to the west, Dunbar, already has a station, so I can’t see large numbers of passengers being generated.
News of another new station on the horizon now the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) have approved funding of £15 million from the Transforming Cities Fund is to reinstate a long closed station to serve Golborne (in the Borough of Wigan) north of Newton-le-Willows. It’s one that’s escaped my previous new stations on the horizon list and I see follows “years of campaigning to bring a railway link back by residents, community groups and businesses”. GMCA’s Transforming Cities Fund ‘tranche 2 grant’ from the DfT totals £69.5 million all told, and the other £54.5 million is going on quality bus transit (£10 million), a bus pinchpoint fund (£10 million), a travel hub at Tyldesley (£2 million), electric charging infrastructure (£10 million), other rail and Metrolink projects including Greek Street bridge works (£27.5 million). Nice to see a varied list of projects.
If you’re inspired by the soon to reopen Reston (and almost certainly East Linton) Station and have your own pet idea for a rail line reopening, never mind the UK’s record 9.9% slump in GDP in 2020 (worst since 1709) announced on Friday, now’s the time for full on ‘sunlight uplands’, ‘prosper mightily’ optimism with the DfT’s ‘Ideas Fund’ once again open for bid submissions for a third round of funding to ‘Restore Your Railways’ – but the closing date is not far away on 5th March, so you need to get a move on. The DfT will fund 75% of costs up to £50,000 to “help fund transport and economic studies and create a business case”. The DfT are interested in projects such as “upgrading a current freight line” or “restoring track and services to an old alignment” or “modifying an old route” and details of how to apply can be found here. Details of the 25 “Ideas” which made it through Rounds 1 and 2 can be found here. I wrote about them here (Round 1) and here (Round 2) and many of you kindly commented with your thoughts on many of them too. I’m looking forward to seeing what hair brained pie-in-the-sky schemes they come up with from round 3.
Another planning application approved last week was one involving radical proposals for the front of York station. Always a bit of a congestion hotspot, not helped by being on the city’s inner ring road and space being restricted by Queen Street bridge. The £14.5 million plan (Leeds City Region made a successful bid to the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund) includes the removal of the road bridge opening up space for much improved facilities.
There’ll be an increase in the number, and length of, bus stops which move from being immediately outside the station to the west in some of the space made available by the removal of Queen Street bridge. The masterplan reckons “buses will play a vital role in growing York’s transport capacity” which is good to hear although it also believes “long-stay parking is an important part of the station infrastructure … and remains at its current level” (720 spaces) and in the “longer term, a multi storey car park could be constructed to the rear” although updated plans show this further to the west of the site.
Wednesday saw another Transport Select Committee hearing, the third session in their Enquiry entitled ‘Reforming public transport after the pandemic’ which opened on 24th July last year and had its first and second public sessions on general matters on 2nd December and 20th January . This third one was the first ‘sector specific’ and was devoted to ‘the bus market’ featuring six ‘expert’ witnesses across two hour long sessions. Up first were academia and ‘think tank’ specialists …. Professor Michael Watson of University of Warwick (and Research Associate at the Centre of Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy), Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities and Sarah Kendall at the Independent Transport Commission. Fascinating.
The second half featured Confederation of Passenger Transport Chief Executive Graham Vidler, Alistair Hands, Commercial and Marketing Director Arriva UK Bus and Norman Baker, now acting as Advisor to the Chief Executive at Campaign for Better Transport.
Committee Chairman Huw Merriman opened the morning’s session by listing the objectives of the Enquiry …. “to examine the challenges the pandemic raises for buses for the long term as the country recovers from the pandemic and the short term; to examine the immediate steps the Government needs to take to ensure the recovery of bus services; how the pandemic has affected the ability of Government to deliver its existing commitments such as the commitment to deliver 4,000 zero emission buses during the term of this Parliament; the priorities and policies that need to be reflected in the National Bus Strategy for it to be a credible response to the immediate and long term challenges now facing bus services outside of London“.
And if that remit doesn’t do it for you, the ensuing questions and answers would definitely have left you underwhelmed. There was the usual talk of … changed patterns of commuting … working from home …. High Street changes …. online shopping …. no-one really knows what the future holds …. recovery partnerships … integration …. zero emissions …. blah blah blah …. but what really really frustrates me about these so called ‘think tank’ experts and some of the Committee members is their obsession that everything’s a bunch of Valentine roses in London but outside it’s a quagmire of flea infestations.
Take this unashamedly leading question from Committee Member Greg Smith MP (North Buckinghamshire) “…. it’s very easy to just hop on and off a bus in London, they’re very frequent, often, certainly in central London, bus stops are very close to tube stations, whereas in my patch, in rural North Buckinghamshire you have to really think about it if you want to catch a bus and time it right and really put a lot of effort in”. Arghhh!!!! Has Mr Smith not noticed there aren’t many tube stations in rural North Buckinghamshire so there’s not much need for frequent buses to stop outside them, let alone a comparable density of population to do the hopping on and off? His question went on to assume “there is a two tier system where the big cities … London, Manchester, Birmingham have good bus services but will these trends” (home working online shopping) “really challenge rural services?”
Interestingly Committee Member Chris Loder MP (West Dorset) with his quiet demeanour and extensive public transport knowledge and experience (he worked for South West Trains before becoming an MP) astutely pointed out that London is subsidised whereas many of the rural routes in his area of Dorset are provided commercially, which is the opposite of what you’d expect and most people perceive.
There was talk from the Committee and ‘think tank’ witnesses of the apparent success of municipally owned companies and franchising. Chairman Huw Merriman explained a previous report from the Committee had recommended a hierarchy of structure starting with franchising, then partnership and also including the option of municipal ownership which he reckoned is coming back into favour with Government as an option. As Graham Vidler pointedly observed “I don’t think there is a hierarchy; I don’t think it’s necessarily the case franchising delivers a better outcome than partnership. There is plenty of evidence across the country of voluntary partnerships achieving improvements in passenger numbers” giving the West Midlands Bus Alliance as an example of success. Huw Merriman pressed him on reaction if the Government changed its stance on allowing new municipals back into the market. As Graham Vidler rightly explained “ownership doesn’t take the need away to work in partnership” citing Nottingham City Transport as an example, pertinently adding “I’m not sure what particular issue it would solve” .
Norman Baker made the excellent point on franchising: “there’s a huge cost to it just in terms of the processing and the preparation and there’s a risk afterwards in terms of the farebox and what that will produce” adding that Government’s have given local authorities various options since 1986 including, for example, Quality Contracts which “weren’t taken forward often because the bureaucratic hurdles were thought to be too high. So if the Government believes franchising is an option that ought to be available to local areas it needs to make it easier to achieve. If it doesn’t like franchising it shouldn’t be there at all. There’s no point offering franchising as an option which is difficult to achieve”. Which made total sense to me; and as we all know franchising is only around as an option because George Osborne and the Treasury offered it as a sop to Manchester as part of that city’s devolution deal. It makes no sense in terms of delivering better bus services. Thanks to Norman too for his praise for the long history of successful partnership working in Brighton during the session.
Wednesday’s Transport Select Committee session left me none the wiser for how public transport will be reformed after the panedmic; I’m not sure the Committee had their preconceived views of bus matters changed either.
Finally for this week bus seat moquette obsessed viewers of Good Morning Britain on Tuesday will no doubt have instantly spotted the uncanny resemblance of presenter Charlotte Dawkins’ outfit to …..