Saturday 6th March 2021
First up this week a shout out to long standing family owned Bourne based bus company Delaine Buses, who proudly put their new ADL E200MMC single decker into service on Monday (1st March). It was the first (and only) ’21’ plate bus I’ve seen this week (and virtually at that too).
No help in the Budget for the country’s beleaguered coach operators, which probably didn’t come as a surprise to anyone, indeed, Graham Vidler CEO of the Confederation of Passenger Transport tweeted the following statement within an hour of the Chancellor finishing his speech on Wednesday afternoon: “coach operators have once again been left out in the cold by this government. Today the Chancellor has announced billions of pounds to help businesses across the country restart, including £5bn of further support for the retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism sectors but it inexplicably excludes coach operators. In 2019 over 23 million visits were made by coach worth £14bn to the UK economy. Today’s inexplicable omission will hamper the industry’s ability to kickstart UK tourism and help protect jobs and local economies across the country.”
Also as widely predicted, motorists benefitted from the continued freeze on fuel duty at 58p per litre set ten years ago meaning the Treasury has missed out on £50 billion to the benefit of motorists. The policy also renders worthy words about traffic reduction and modal shift in last year’s DfT Decarbonising Transport Setting the Challenge report completely meaningless having nothing remotely to do with actual Government policy. All the more so as Wednesday’s duty freeze announcement came the same week as rail passengers faced above inflation fare increases of 2.6%.
No surprise then car traffic on Monday this week was at 66% pre-Covid levels with National Rail hovering around 15%. London Underground was 20% while TfL bus was 36% and provincial bus on 31%, albeit the latter masks some significant variations around the country with passenger numbers generally much higher in northern England than the south.
My eye was caught by media coverage of Michael O’Leary’s Budget reaction on Thursday (yes, I know Ryanair is not the world’s favourite airline) saying Government support for the airline industry during the pandemic has been “lamentable” but adding “fares will be cut this summer to boost demand” and he’s hoping for up to 70% of normal passenger numbers from July. An approach I couldn’t help but contrast to the Government’s pricing policy for the railways.
News during the week has been positive about bus timetables returning to more normal levels to coincide with schools returning on Monday. It’s good to see.
News on Direct Awards for Train Operating Companies this week and it seems Northern – now run by the DfT owned ‘Operator of Last Resort’ – has agreed a deal with, er, the DfT for a five year contract beginning in March 2022. That’s handy then. Meanwhile Hull Trains announced they’ll be back on the tracks from non-essential shopping reopening day on 12th April with a “reduced timetable at this stage while we monitor customer demand and steadily build the business back up”.
Sad news this week from Llangollen that “the directors of Llangollen Railway PLC have had to take the reluctant step of inviting the bank to appoint a receiver”. Three years of losses in excess of £250,000 coupled with engineering contract disputes which “have crystallised in the last few days” with claims “in excess of £250,000” with “no prospect of meeting these liabilities”.
It looks like even Covid-19 didn’t do it for them then. What a shame, as it was a great railway to take a ride on in a lovely part of the country.
To brighten us all up came positive news from Rail Charter Services (RCS) who announced on Thursday they’ll be running extra journeys on the Settle Carlisle line again this summer between 19th July and 2nd September.
The aim this year is to use a former GWR HST in 2+5 formation with a revised timetable including an 11:30 Skipton to Carlisle and return at 15:00 plus a morning southbound run to Skipton from Appleby at 09:30 with a late afternoon return at 17:30. The service will run Saturdays to Thursdays with Friday as a rest day for any necessary maintenance of the train. RCS are also proposing a rather smart dark green livery.
Encouraging news also this week that Devon County Council’s long held ambition for the reinstatement of a daily train service between Okehampton and Exeter will be realised from the May 2021 timetable with five return journeys to Exeter Central departing Okehampton at 07:20, 09:24; 13:24; 15:24 and 18:20. Sadly the South Dartmoor heritage railway who look after the splendidly restored Okehampton Station (and ran heritage trains to Meldon Viaduct) went into Administration in February 2020 but I see is hopeful “will emerge in a rather different form”. Let’s hope so.
Further north in Exmoor came confirmation on Friday us scenic bus lovers have been waiting for … that First Bus really is going to run a regular Exmoor Coaster branded open-top bus service along the coast from Watchet and Minehead to Porlock and Lynmouth. What a truly spectacular ride this will be and one that’s definitely on the “must do” list for this summer. Quantock Heritage’s route 300 used to be a joy to ride on this route especially round the hair-pin bends climbing westwards out of Porlock and along the coast road. Take a view here.
Unite’s “all out strike” at Go North West (GNW) in Manchester didn’t seem to make much of an impact this week with the Company promoting an alternative “full service” operating on the road as well as releasing some interesting background to the dispute. GNW explain “the business is losing £1.8 million a year and unless we make changes it will continue to make unsustainable losses putting 600 jobs in serious doubt”. Which does make you wonder what First Bus was doing all those years letting such an “unsustainable” situation continue, and there again, presumably Go-Ahead factored all this into the price they paid First Bus for the pleasure of taking the “unsustainable” Queens Road based operation off its books.
I’m a great believer in the vital role trade unions play representing their members with employers; you only have to look at the exploitive practices adopted by the likes of Amazon and Uber to see how much unions are needed now as they were in the ‘old days’ of shameless factory owners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But, unions don’t do their members any favours by failing to negotiate the removal of outdated practices and I was aghast to read in GNW’s briefing an example being the payment of “blind time” still paid on shifts for drivers to wind manual destination blinds “despite the fact that we have not had manual blinds since 2002”. I dread to think what the rostering and duty compilation restrictions still in place must be. I’m even wondering if time is still paid for raising and lowering trolleybus poles to and from the wires.
GNW have offered a package known as “RESET” to its workforce which “comprises a series of productivity enhancing proposals … and return the business to breakeven within three years”. Drivers are “guaranteed inflation-linked pay increases for the next two years and a £5,000 lump sum” which sounds like a good deal to me. More than 80% of drivers have signed up to the new terms on a voluntary basis, so the question must be asked what are Unite playing at calling an “all out strike”?
Meanwhile GNW are being assisted by other operators to keep services going and as taxpayers we’re all funding the services being operated through Covid Bus Service Support Grant meaning GNW is currently in a financially secure position but the striking drivers are losing their wages. I predict it won’t be long before this dispute is resolved.
Consternation in Exeter last weekend with major disruption of the railway line as Royal Navy bomb disposal teams worked to detonate a Second World War bomb which was discovered last Friday.
The resulting explosion at 6:10 pm on Saturday could reportedly be heard for miles and caused some damage to neighbouring properties from where almost 3,000 people had been evacuated. Trains began running again on Saturday evening after around 8pm.
No word yet on an agreed financial bail out for TfL despite the end of March deadline for the Government’s current funding just three weeks away. Meanwhile TfL’s deficit is about to increase from next Saturday with the introduction of a brand new route over roads never before served by buses and no hope of ever being a profitable venture. I need to declare a personal nostalgic interest here as the new 456 launching on 13th March is bringing buses for the first time to the area I was born and spent the first couple of decades of my life.
In normal times I’d be a great advocate for such an exciting development, but the timing of this route’s arrival on the London bus map (a theoretical bus map, of course) surely indicates there’s no real sense of financial responsibility through TfL’s corridors of power? If so, you’d hardly choose to put on a new bus route where there’s never been one at a time when there’s serious questions over the financial black hole surrounding TfL’s finances. Unlike the peculiar timing of route 404’s extension to Cane Hill in Coulsdon with a new Sunday service which began the week of Lockdown 1 in March 2020 and probably benefitted from developer contributions, I can’t see any external funding helping to stem the losses that’ll be incurred on the new 456.
I’ll save you all a long road by road analysis of the route until I’ve taken a ride in a few weeks when we’re allowed out again, but for now, just to explain it’s superseding route W10, one of TfL’s least frequent bus routes – four off-peak journeys Mondays to Fridays (seven on Saturdays) – between Crews Hill and Enfield with a significant uplift to a thirty minute frequency, seven days a week, and extending the route beyond Enfield along unserved roads in Grange Park and Winchmore Hill to terminate at North Middlesex Hospital, probably, my guess is, with a peak vehicle requirement of three.
I’m struggling to work out the timing of next Saturday’s introduction of this new service, not only because of TfL’s precarious financial position but with passenger numbers currently a third of normal levels. However it’s come in record time for TfL since the consultation only took place eighteen months ago and there’ve even been some false start dates caused by delayed roadworks needed at key junctions, but I’m sure the approaching Mayoral elections in two months time is pure coincidence.
Still in London, there was an interesting London Travelwatch webinar on Thursday afternoon when the team launched their latest report The Journey Ahead – What do people want need from London’s transport in the future?. It’s based on an online survey towards the end of last year and has culminated in six priority areas for 2021 and beyond including improved streetscape, feeling safe, the bus, outer London, reflecting changing lifestyles and embracing new solutions.
I was pleased to see the bus get it’s own priority section, as too often emphasis is given to track based transport forgetting the majority of journeys are made on the bus. So, never to miss an opportunity I sent in my usual hobby-horse question about the lack of a bus map and it’s good to see London Travelwatch are still plugging away at this, and indeed it came up in their online survey too. As did the lack of orbital and express bus routes in outer London. Something that really does need addressing by TfL.
Talking of track based transport in London, social media went into full positive drooling excitement overload on Thursday with Siemens Mobility (they’re no longer just plain Siemens) “unveiling detailed design of new Piccadilly line trains” at a virtual press conference. I don’t know about you but the “detailed design” captured in the images circulated with the news release left me distinctly underwhelmed.
Sure, the trains will have air conditioning, a handy walk-through facility and wider doors meaning they’ll be “more spacious” while a “smoother ride” is promised due to “fewer bogies per full-length train”. Welcome developments I’m sure but hardly worthy of the “state-of-the-art” and “cutting edge” descriptors the news release crafters liberally scattered among the effusive prose. And I see they’ve even got a snazzy name: Inspiro London – whatever that’s supposed to mean.
It looks to me the seats will be much the same as now within a rather utilitarian white, grey and blue ambiance with a notable lack of luggage space for all those over-sized suitcases on wheels that bedevil any journey over to Heathrow Airport. And the windows look rather on the small size to enjoy the views along the considerable mileage above ground on this line.
To be more positive for a sentence though, they’ll be a welcome modernised improvement on the 1973 stock they’re replacing and I’m very much looking forward to taking a ride in four years time when they’re due to hit the tracks.
I’m struggling to work out what justified the timing of the news release and press conference on Thursday since it didn’t really tell us anything new – that artists impression from a station platform of how the trains will look with their snazzy LED lighting around the front cab – was doing the rounds in exuberant press releases almost three years ago – but I’m sure the approaching Mayoral elections in two months time is pure coincidence.
And that’s another thought, I’m sure a previous Mayor once pledged ‘no new Underground trains will be built with a driver’s cab’ and weren’t there more recent utterances from Government that TfL’s bail out funding will require automated trains on the Tube? It looks like Mr Kahn has won that argument …. but still no funding agreed.
Over in Milton Keynes more details emerged this week of the expansion of Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) to replace the town’s tendered bus routes from the end of this month. They’ll be operated directly by ViaVan the tech company that provides software to Arriva Click and others. ViaVan are already running a modest DRT operation in Milton Keynes so this will be an extension of this. I understand Arriva passed up the opportunity to bid as the Council’s conditions and penalties are too strict to make the scheme work for them. Local Facebook groups are full of unhappy passengers particularly with the prospect of having to pay for each single journey rather than have the benefit of a day or weekly ticket. Typical of the comments are: “apparently it costs £2.50 per trip. Can’t use any monthly or annual tickets on them either. I brought an annual ticket in October which is going to be wasted now. Just worked it out and it’s now going cost to me double to use this service. Ridiculous!”
Many thanks to Richard Cousins for passing on this and other feedback comments from Facebook and much more on this when I get a chance to make a visit to Milton Keynes in a few weeks time when we’re allowed out again.
A major embarrassment for TransPennine Express on Thursday afternoon when it rather got ahead of itself by displaying the following message on its app….
It does make you wonder what a rail ticket purchasing app is doing with such messages ready to upload in the first place, let alone how such an error could have been made. Twitter lit up with screen shots of the faux-pas before TPE raced to take it down and apologised for any offence caused.
Avanti West Coast faced a problem of a different kind on Tuesday evening when the 21:00 Manchester train was delayed in Euston Station due to a cat hitching a ride on the roof.
Passengers were transferred to another train while the moggy was encouraged down to platform level. The replacement train left 14 minutes late and it’s not known how the Delay Attribution Board will allocate the delay – thank goodness the Government are paying for everything at the moment making it academic whether it’s Network Rail or Avanti West Coast’s fault, although knowing the way train companies work I suspect there’ll still be arguments over who’s responsible.
A big shout out to young budding cartographer David Rock who has compiled this brilliant frequency diagram for the South Western Railway network which was brought to my attention this week by Uncle Andrew Halliday, the respected managing director of Guildford based Safeguard.
David is just 17 which just goes to show what fantastic contributions the upcoming generation can make to the public transport industry. David is sending his map to SWR and I hope they give him due recognition for a fantastic achievement. At last I understand the complexity of the SWR suburban train network around Hounslow and I see the Island Line is already showing its 30 minute frequency. Well done David.
Finally for this week comes news from Cornwall that Melissa Love and Sarah Worne have taken over custodianship of the UK’s most cared for bus shelter after Jane Tinsley stepped down after 20 years of dedicated shelter care.
Jane took on the project of keeping the shelter decorated in a creative way after it had been regularly targeted by vandals and has used her artistic talents to brighten it up with many wonderful designs.
But, hey First Kernow, do them a favour and clean up the bus stop flag, or maybe install one of your smart new branded ones?
Three weeks to go.
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.