Week 9: Still frozen

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.

Here’s a link to a video with Melissa and Sarah explaining what they intend to do now they’re taking over. They’ve even set up a Facebook page for the bus stop – Fowey Pretty Bus Stop.

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.

Roger French

19 thoughts on “Week 9: Still frozen

Add yours

  1. Thank you for the feature! Much obliged. I’ve made several similar maps but this one was by far my favourite. I can’t wait to see what SWR thinks of it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I despair for the future of buses and trains in England. We’ve been hammered by “DON’T TRAVEL” messages for 12 months now, often without justification, and whilst Government have paid the bills so far, that won’t last for ever. I see no sign, either in the Budget or elsewhere, of any understanding of the importance of buses and trains in keeping people moving . . . there are still plenty who don’t always have access to a car who will continue to need public transport.
    No increase in fuel duty coupled with a fares increase on trains around 3 times the current rate of inflation? It simply doesn’t square up with the desire to encourage modal shift . . . weasel words from Government indeed.
    I believe we may be watching a “wait and see” moment from DfT . . . how many people will return to traditional commuting, so that bus and train services can be gently cut back accordingly . . . we all know that it is the cost of that last peak-hour journey that holds the highest pro-rata cost.
    Certainly, unless there is a (Government-sponsored) travel campaign to persuade passengers back on board in the Summer, I fear that we’ve gone too far . . . the London bus strike of 1958 of only 6 weeks saw a huge drop in demand from which passenger numbers never recovered. I accept that this isn’t a direct parallel, but nonetheless passengers who MUST travel WILL have found an alternative by now, and we all know how difficult it is to persuade people to change their habits.
    I believe this will be bigger than deregulation and privatisation together . . . what the bus industry looks like in just two years time will be like nothing we’ve seen before. Irreversible . . .you betcha!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s worse than greenline727 says; the government has been deliberately encouraging people to drive rather than use public transport throughout lockdown and there’s no sense that there will be anything like a strong a campaign to get people back as there was to get them to stay away. People will remember that the goverment says that public transport is dangerous, so what is already a distress purchase for most users will become a thing used only as an absolute last resort.

      Don’t forget that to the Tory party public transport is still for losers – all those years ago Maggie was only saying what the party had felt for many years – and Labour doesn’t have any transport policy beyond “copy the Tories”. As for the DfT… They’ve made it clear for decades that their only interest is cars. So, as an industry we’re in real trouble.

      As a train driver I should – hopefully! – keep a job until I retire in a decade or so, but I suspect that many of my bus and coach industry colleagues will be looking for alternative employment in the next few years. But never mind, BoJo’s mates in the world of international business and high finance will see him right, so what matter that the ordinary people are utterly screwed?


  3. Well done Roger,
    An interesting read as ever. I thought I was the only person who couldn’t see the fuss about another artist impression of the London Underground trains. I suppose there is a limit to what can be done in the confined space. Looks as if the row above the line diagram will have electronic ads but I’d hope they include some info screens too as space appears to prevent the cross carriage versions used on Elizabeth Line or London Overground

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read that these trains “will come with the world’s first deep-level tunnel air conditioning system” – does anyone know how this will work except for the “own goal” of actually pumping more hot air into the tunnels? Or is this supposed to be cancelled out by the use of regenerative braking?


  5. Those “new” Piccadilly Line trains have had more “unveiling” press releases than Frank Sinatra had comebacks. Tiny passenger windows for a line that is mostly above ground..


  6. How is the government going to dig themselves out of the “Stay home” “essential journeys” Covid fear porn messages of doom deep hole they’ve been digging for the last 12 months? Last autumn a vaccine was the way out – the toot of the cavalry bugle coming over the hill. Now we are told a vaccination can’t stop you getting it, can’t stop you spreading it, and even if vaccinated “you must act like you’ve got it” (which actually means indefinite self-isolation indoors). If it’s not safe to use public transport now after being vaccinated, when is it ever going to be? Doesn’t help with mainstream media and the (so-called) opposition parties cheering it all on. Even adverts play on the fear promoting disinfectant, masks, and home meal deliveries for old people “worried about going out”. Sheer profiteering!


  7. Not happy yesterday with four teenagers, none of them wearing masks, who got on my bus. When challenged by the driver, one claimed to be exempt but had “forgotten his lanyard”. I didn’t believe a word of it. They then moved to the back of the bus, sat on seats Upon Which You Are Not Supposed To Sit, and talked loudly. Fortunately I was at the front, and several windows were open.


  8. Well done David. Great to see someone doing something positive.

    As for the prospects over the next few years, it is difficult to be positive. Reduced council funding will hit tendered services and coupled with reduced commercial opportunity, we could see substantial contraction outside of towns.


  9. Just wondering whether the future of Queens Road would affect the Transport museum?
    You can understand workers trying to defend their conditions, but the state of the operation is such that it’s accept new conditions or it closes and they move on.


  10. Is there a future for buses outside of the cities and very large towns?

    This may seem harsh but outside of the cities and very large towns bus service have declined to the extent that only those that have no other choice uses them. Infrequent , unreliable and expensive. At best you have a Skelton service operating from about 7am to 6pm with a few very infrequent services which serve very few places. Without serious investment the bus services face near total collapse in very many places. They were barely viable before Covid and most will probably be non viable after Covid as I don’t see them getting back all the lost customers. It is hard to predict how many but I would guess at 10% to 20%

    Buses need major investment in them and need to be operate as a single network rather than a number of bus companies competing with each other


    1. I have to disagree there, around the country we have many bus services between towns running through rural villages at impressive frequencies of every 20mins or 15mins etc for example a few near me are the x38/9/40 between Wallingford and Oxford or the S1/2 from Oxford to Witney.
      I think that different companies has actually brought a lot of positives to buses – companies are constantly innovating by updating their buses with new technologies such as free WiFi, new ways to buy tickets like apps which also provide a lot.of useful services to the average bus passenger. I dread to think what buses would be like if they were publicly owned – it would probably be a treat to go on a bus less than 10 years old! I agree that buses to some rural villages aren’t profitable, but they never will be and were always subsidised,, tho only reason they’re cut is because the Tory government hates public transport. But overall, many companies have shown with the right attitude to route branding and innovation buses are certainly part of the future.


  11. As I have commented before . . . the bus industry now has an opportunity to decide on its priorities. Should it try to be all things to all men, or should it concentrate on what it is good at?
    We’ve tried the commercial-contracted mix of services, and in general it has worked well . . . newer buses (not just driven by accessibility), wifi, contactless, vehicle localion technology have all come about partly because the industry has tried to innovate (and only with limited assistance from Government) and to attract new customers. I’m not saying it was perfect; in some areas it was far from perfect, but it did work.
    Now, though, the pattern is broken. Deregulation worked because there were LTA’s to catch the socially-necessary journeys and routes that the market wouldn’t provide . . . that started to end almost 10 years ago, when local government finances became over-stretched in the last recession and the industry in general tried to pick up the pieces where possible, through cross-subsidisation between good and bad services. Now . . . cross-subsidisation won’t be there, as passenger numbers have fallen off and are unlikely to recover in even the medium-term.
    It is harsh, but the time has come to decide . . . passenger transport for the masses, or commercial viability? It is almost a return to 1985-1986, when bus companies decided what they would operate commercially and what they would not. Then, the LTA’s were charged with picking up socially-necessary services, and would apply their own criteria as to what WAS socially-necessary.
    If that means that commercially viable services operate 0700-1900, so be it. Passenger numbers after 1900 are tiny by comparison, and the cost of provision is disproportionately high. Consult locally on the new plans, and state very clearly that this is what can be provided commercially, and that LTA’s have a responsibility to buy-in additional journeys or routes. Make the point that buses are built to last for 15 years, so a 2010 bus isn’t “old”, and that profits are invested into fleet renewal and new technology.

    And as far as wasteful competition between companies is concerned? I think we’ve seen the end of that!!


  12. Great to see Okehampton get a mention in your report. Tis true we expect an Exeter service this year. But later than May as there is much track to be relaid first. The now considerable stack of concrete sleepers in the yard at Okehampton being a glowing testament to that. Watch out for Network Rail/GWR press releases for more info.
    The company that went bust was Dartmoor Railway CIC. An outfit with an eventual American parent in Chicago. Hence they ran such events as Polar Express, Train to Christmas Town etc. Heritage services to Meldon Viaduct were staffed by DRSA volunteers. The very much still alive survivor is Dartmoor Railway Supporters Association (DRSA) who fully support the Exeter service and are currently working closely with Network Rail and Great Western Railway towards the Exeter service reopening. Also exploring the possibilities of restoring a heritage railway service from Okehampton to Meldon Viaduct. Okehampton will remain a heritage destination with all commited to retaining the current heritage ambience. DRSA will be reopening the station museum in due course and its railway shop.
    Best to keep an eye on the DRSA website for details of that http://www.dartmoor-railway-sa.org
    The Southern Railway in the west lives on!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Greater Manchester to take back control of buses

    A step in the right direction in my view

    A report that will be presented to regional leaders next week recommends they ask the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham to introduce bus franchising after two consultations found passengers overwhelmingly back the idea.

    At least 20 bus operators in Greater Manchester – which spawned England’s first omnibus in 1824 – currently set their own routes, fares, timetables and standards with no overall co-ordination and little oversight.


  14. I used to be a union rep at a large garage of a large bus company, (I left this position around five years ago, as I was fed up of being metaphorically attached to two horses heading in opposite directions) and am very happy and proud to be a member of UNITE.

    However, for the first time ever, I’ve found myself voting in a ballot against the recommendation of the union. For they have advised us not to accept a deal which, considering the financial pressure the company is now under, I think was reasonable and gave us something in these uncertain times.

    I’m normally quite left wing politically but the Covid 19 situation has surely changed everything! Oddly, looking at my rotas WhatsApp group, it’s mostly right wing colleagues who are saying it’s time for us to stick together and force the company to give us more!

    Given the situation at Queens Road, it appears that, generally, UNITE are itching for a fight it has no hope of winning!


  15. You were estimating new TfL route 456 to need 3 buses. In fact 5 buses are needed in the peaks (4 off peak). The new areas served by this route are few, and in the current climate (with TfL subsidy just agreed only until 18th May) seems rather extravagant.


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