Saturday 20th March 2021
‘Better’ is definitely the word of the week, and I’m not referring to the continued much welcome news of improving Covid infection, death and hospitalisation levels and vaccination roll out (although talk of a third wave in Europe is somewhat concerning just as our irreversible freedom beckons) no, I mean ‘better’ as in “Bus Back Better”, the somewhat nonsensical surreal title given to the long anticipated “National BUS Strategy for England” published on Monday even if it met with a mixed reaction as to whether it really would be “better” but more on this after noting the usual bus and rail news snippets from the last seven days.
Passenger journeys on public transport have continued their gradual increasing trajectory now schools are back and oldies are jabbed, not least on buses outside of London with DfT stats for Monday showing numbers now up to 46% (from 38% last week) and on TfL buses now at 48% (from 43% last week). National Rail only increased from 19% to 20% while TfL Underground climbed from 22% to 24%.
The process of gradual rail re-nationalisation continues with Wednesday’s announcement Abellio’s tenure of the ScotRail franchise will end on 31st March next year with a Scottish Government owned ‘Operator of Last Resort’ (OLR) taking over. This follows a similar move in Wales last month when Welsh Assembly controlled Transport for Wales (TfW) ousted Keolis and Amey from the TfW franchise while in England LNER and Northern are run by a DfT controlled OLR. The smart looking ScotRail branding will continue unchanged, which is good to hear and let’s hope its smart thinking managing director Alex Hynes continues in his dual role also heading up Network Rail in Scotland. The Abellio franchise was originally set to run until 2025.
Meanwhile RMT conductors at ScotRail have voted for strike action in a dispute about rest day payments. Conductors have been called out on strike on six Sundays beginning from 28th March (followed by 4th, 11th, 18th, 25th April and 2nd May) and instructed not to work rest days from 26th March.
Also set for a return to public ownership is control of buses in Greater Manchester after a meeting on Friday of the Housing, Planning and Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) concluded “making a decision on franchising is now appropriate and would enable GMCA to support the long-term recovery of the bus market and the wider society and economy of Greater Manchester”. That means GMCA leaders will vote at a special meeting next Tuesday “to recommend the franchising scheme to the Mayor who will decide whether or not to proceed with the scheme at a later date, no earlier than 25 March”. I reckon it’s a dead cert Mayor Burnham will announce his franchise positive decision on Thursday or Friday before pre election purdah begins.
Meanwhile both Stagecoach and Rotala have submitted court applications for a judicial review of the franchise consultation process which they say was “unlawful” by not properly taking the impact of Covid-19 into account. GMCA are spending a budget of £135 million on franchise preparation and transition costs so presumably will be mounting a strong defence against such legal action.
And while we’re still in the land of public ownership on Thursday afternoon the DfT finally came up with a funding package for TfL which will apply from 1st April but didn’t exactly give much of a long term commitment – their cop out being to simply roll forward the current arrangements set to expire on 31st March for another seven weeks to now expire on 18th May.
Can kicking down the road doesn’t do it justice, but I suspect the impending Mayoral elections has something to do with it. Coincidentally the TfL Board held one of its regular meetings on Tuesday and spent two of the meeting’s three hours turgidly discussing the budget for the year 2021/22. It was a full on surreal discussion bearing in mind at that time no funding was in place to enable the organisation to continue beyond a week on Thursday. What a way to run a capital city’s public transport.
Good news for passengers using the Brighton Mainline (Interest declaration: that includes me) this week with Network Rail’s announcement a 25 year contract has been awarded to Celinex UK “to provide continuous connectivity on the 51 mile stretch of railway”. Wow, no more internet frustrations passing through Balcombe and Merstham/Quarry tunnels and, what’s more, Southern’s refurbished Class 377s are being fitted with usb sockets. The 21st century is finally arriving, well, arriving in “around 2 to 3 years”; the time it’s going to take to deliver the project. I love the quote from Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris who said: “Delivering full and fast connectivity on the Brighton Mainline will be a real boost for passengers returning to our railway, helping them work and stay in touch without interruptions”. Returning to the railway … but only 2-3 years to wait! You have to be patient if you’re a rail passenger.
Not such good news for the 12 passengers on the 18:35 Merseyrail service to Kirkby on Saturday evening when their train overshot the buffers and hit a bridge as it careered towards the platform on the other side for Northern trains to Wigan.
There’s a dramatic video taken from platform CCTV on the Liverpool Echo website showing the moment the incident happened with the train derailing. Fortunately there were no injuries although the driver was taken to hospital as a precaution but was just shaken up. Investigators have said they were “keeping an open mind” about the cause of the crash.
More summer trip planning this week with news from Yellow Buses about plans for the return of “Buster’s Beach Bus” in Bournemouth from Easter. Route 11 will run from Bournemouth Pier to Mudeford with route 12 from Alum Chine to Boscombe Pier with some journeys to Hengistbury Head.
Simon Newport, commercial director, contacted me with news of exciting plans to link these services with the rowing boat that operates across Mudeford Haven. He explained “we are trying to work up a way of creating an integrated ticket for people to have this experience which should be quite fun”. A bus and rowing boat combined ticket. I love it.
And on the theme of interesting integrated tickets for the summer comes news of the Waterside Wanderer – a great tie up through the Three Rivers Community Rail Partnership bringing together SWR, Bluestar and Unilink with Hythe Ferry (assuming it reopens) offering a joined up explorer ’round robin’ multi-modal ticket in the Romsey, Chandlers Ford, Southampton and Hythe area launching in late June. Looking forward to seeing more details in due course.
Exciting news for residents of the 5,570 new homes as part of the Whitfield Urban Extension development including the former Connaught Barracks site in Dover. On Wednesday Kent County Council’s planning committee approved plans for new road connections including a bus (and cycle) only bridge over the A2 which will form part of a new Dover Fastrack linking the expanding area with the town centre and Dover Priory Station. Construction should start early next year with “buses running from Summer 2023”.
Not such good news for bus passengers in Edinburgh this week who saw the city’s entire network of evening services withdrawn after 19:30 on Wednesday evening due to “escalating incidents of anti-social behaviour”. Reports of “months of anti-social behaviour” culminated in eight buses serving the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary being targeted by vandals on Monday night. It’s quite a draconian “zero tolerance” policy to instigate such drastic action across the entire city network which as the company states impacts “a critical service for key workers and those for whom travel is essential”. It must have caused huge inconvenience. Normal service resumed on Thursday.
Pre election Metro Mayor grand standing continued this week with Liverpool City Region Combined Authority approving a new project on Friday to introduce 20 hydrogen powered double decker buses. “The state-of-the-art zero-emissions vehicles will be directly funded by the Combined Authority and, like the new trains for the Merseyrail network, will be owned by the people of the Liverpool City Region.”
The project is receiving a £12.5 million “funding boost” from the Transforming Cities Fund and envisages construction of new hydrogen refuelling facilities later this year. Buses will operate on route 10A jointly by Arriva and Stagecoach which will be interesting to see on the road, as will the rather swish futuristic livery design concept from Best Impressions. (Love the seagulls Ray).
As Milton Keynes Council gears up for replacing its tendered bus routes with an expanded Via operated DRT scheme at the end of this month news has emerged from one Sussex based resident (guess who?) making enquiries about concessionary pass validity that passengers with passes from local authorities elsewhere in England will not be valid on the replacement DRT services making for a significant worsening for visitors to the city now faced with paying £2.50 per ride. Not a good way to encourage passengers – begin charging them £2.50 a ride instead of free travel as previously enjoyed.
This unwelcome development comes as the DfT awards funding to 17 other areas to introduce DRT schemes, which if they all follow Milton Keynes, will undermine the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme. Watford’s scheme run by Arriva Click doesn’t accept any concessionary passes – even those resident in Watford.
It’ll be interesting to see if Bromsgrove follows suit as it’s set to be the next location flirting with DRT with an announcement this week a new “Bromsgrove on Demand” service funded by Worcestershire County Council and operated by Via will commence in “late April”.
Meanwhile in Suffolk there’s more consternation among bus operators as the County Council saw its funding bid to the Government’s Rural Mobility Fund rejected while neighbouring local authorities including Hertfordshire (£1.5 million), Essex (£2.5 million) and Norfolk (£700,000) were all successful. Stephen Bryce, managing director Ipswich Buses, didn’t hold back on his criticism in a tweet on Wednesday.
A Suffolk County Council spokeswoman told the Ipswich Star “we are disappointed that Suffolk County Council’s rural mobility enhancement funding submission for demand responsive transport to the DfT Rural Mobility Fund was not successful. We still believe that our Rural Mobility Schemes present strong business cases for funding and we will pick this up in conversations with the DfT.”
The Hertfordshire scheme involves six electric minibuses for Buntingford and surrounding villages, in Essex there’s a scheme to connect areas south of Braintree with the town centre using two electric vehicles and another to connect rural areas in central Essex, while in Norfolk minibuses will connect villages with King’s Lynn and Swaffham. All will be app-based bookable DRT style services.
There’s a full list of the 17 successful bids from County Councils on the DfT website here. Cumbria tops the award table with £1.5 million from the total £19 million allocated.
More pre Mayoral election hype over in Cambridge this week with current Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority James Palmer launching “thought provoking” design concepts to show the “radical, innovative thinking” behind the ambitious “Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro” proposal.
The £2.67 billion project includes a tunnel under Cambridge city centre (costing £1 billion of that sum) and doesn’t stint on imagination.
Gilles Autuori, Executive Vice-President Head of Railways & Urban Transit Projects for Europe & APAC at Egis Rail (his business card must be quite something) explained “our roadmap to full driverless operation provides a logical progression allowing for efficient and safe transitioning to the ultimate vision of an on-demand, customer responsive, seamless journey experience”.
Can’t wait to try it out, especially those not-so-comfy-and-rather-basic-for-a-£2.67 billion scheme-looking seats.
Although I’m being a bit unfair as Mayor Palmer explains “the concepts developed by three groups of consultants are not intended to be deliverable designs, but will help ‘inform, challenge and inspire’ the development of a business case for the project”. So that’s all good.
Meanwhile the Greater Cambridge Partnership (as opposed to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority) released its plans for a major infrastructure project incorporating a busway connecting Cambourne and Cambridge (C2C) last May leading to the threat of legal action from the Combined Authority. The Partnership is “the local delivery body for a City Deal with central Government” and includes Cambridge City Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and the University of Cambridge but crucially, not Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority which thinks otherwise and wants its Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro rather than a C2C Busway. All is not well in the Partnership Department in Cambridgeshire, and ‘partnership’ brings us neatly back to the biggest news story of the week about buses, the launch of “Bus Back Better”, the National BUS Strategy for England.
I’ll level with you from the outset, especially as levelling up is all the rage these days. In true Johnson style I’ve written two versions of the next section of this blog. One full of praise and adoration for this wonderful new Strategy which will indeed provide a once-in-a-generation transformation of bus services across England delivering all the basics people like me have been banging on about for years as common sense necessities for a successful bus operation (think maps, bus stop information, promoting scenic bus routes, effective local branding, bus priority and bus lanes, sleek green powered buses, simple fares, “seamless” through tickets between bus, tram and train, frequent bus routes etc etc), and a second version lambasting and deriding it for aping ‘London style’ this and ‘London style’ that utility driven bus route mentality which as we have seen previously and again just this week not only means falling passenger numbers but consequential unsustainable funding demands that can only be agreed on a hand-to-mouth basis as the business verges on the brink of bankruptcy and is conditional on many of those much hyped turn-up-and-go frequencies being reduced to turn-up-and-gone in central London with the capital’s coveted cheap and previously frozen fares having to be raised.
In the end I decided to go for an amalgam of the two. So here we go….(by the way, if you’re not particularly interested in “Bus Back Better” that’s it for this week’s blog and I recommend skipping these final few pontificational paragraphs. See you next week for hopefully the final stay-at-home time).
First up in this “Bus Back Better” strategy review…. that title. It got me befuddled from the start. I guess someone (Johnson himself maybe?) thought it made for an amusing three-word soundbite for a strap line but for me, something like ‘Back Better Buses’ would have nailed it ….. better.
It might also have confirmed from the off there really is a Sunak style commitment that “whatever it takes” buses will be backed with the necessary funding. Instead the strategy is worryingly what I might call ‘funding commitment lite’. For sure there’s the promised and much welcome £3 billion which the Prime Minister dangled in front of us back in February 2020 when we were all naively in bullish pre-Covid mode but on reflection, 13 months and a hell of a global pandemic experience later, lets not get too dewey eyed about an amount previously unheard of in bus sector financial support circles because it’s got to last for five full funding years. And not just five unprecedented years of an inevitable slow recovery from the Covid shock of plummeting demand and changed lifestyles and travel patterns but a five year period of funding unprecedented aspirational improvements for buses that this strategy promises.
Funding detail is lacking but I understand there’s a pot of “at least £300 million” to enable Covid Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG) to continue until March 2022 to get us through the period while plans for the longer term are assessed. But CBSSG is currently burning around £27 million a week, which is soon going to empty that £300 million pot (in 11 weeks to be precise) so hopefully the Treasury has got a line on its spending spreadsheet to provide more without dipping into the £3 billion. Ominously towards the end of the strategy document where it discusses CBSSG it states “we understand operators and LTAs may need to make difficult decisions about the network they continue to run” which reading between the words presumably means reductions in service levels notwithstanding all the aspirations for the transformational future. It continues “further information will be published once we have greater certainty about any follow-on funding and have confirmed how this will be delivered” which isn’t particularly helpful at this time.
The five year £3 billion funding pot has got to purchase 4,000 zero emission buses as well as miles of new bus lanes and smart bus priority measures, flirtations with DRT in a whole host of rural areas including isolated villages and evening and Sunday services elsewhere, subsidising fare reductions so they’re cheaper, simpler, flat and capped and, of course, the all important funding for turn-up-and-go frequencies “so people won’t have to rely on timetables to plan journeys” with improved evening and Sunday timetables (15 minute frequencies no less). And all those lovely bus maps which “should” be produced for every town, city and rural area.
That’s quite some invoice and I have my doubts £600 million a year will be enough to pay for all these wonderful improvements. In which case who decides which schemes will go ahead with funding, and which will leave the Den with nothing …. like Suffolk have just experienced with their bid to the Rural Mobility Fund? It looks very much like it’ll be civil servants in the DfT which is about as far away from the commercial world of running buses with locally based market led entrepreneurial commercial savvy bus operators as you can get. RIP deregulation.
My long experience in Brighton & Hove taught me the combination of passionate commercially minded committed bus managers working hand in glove with dedicated local authority officers who knew their stuff when it came to public infrastructure, community well being, social need and political nous was unbeatable, not least with a trust based informal joint working regime that could be fleet-of-foot and all aiming towards a common objective of bus passenger growth through modal shift.
So it’s good to see partnership working to the fore in “Bus back better” but I’m aghast at the formality of a mandated Enhanced Partnership (or even worse, a franchise model) conditional on any public funding to continue. Not only that, the Strategy sets an impossibly ambitious timescale that Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) “commit to establishing Enhanced Partnerships across their entire areas under the Bus Services Act” within the next three months (by 1 July 2021) without which Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant will cease, and so too, in the current climate, would much bus service provision. Nice one. An even more ludicrous timescale calls on LTAs to publish “a local Bus Service Improvement Plan” which must be “developed in collaboration with local bus operators, community transport bodies and local businesses, services and people” by … wait for it …. 31 October 2021 and by April 2022 “we expect actual delivery of Enhanced Partnerships”. One bus industry colleague dryly observed to me it looks like DfT mistakingly left in these dates from an earlier draft when the strategy was supposed to be published a year ago.
I’m all for tight deadlines and I’m sure those involved will rise to the challenge, but local authorities are notorious for having statutory lengthy processes involving public consultation and due consideration (check out the aforementioned Stagecoach and Rotala legal challenge to GMCA’s franchise consultation) and it’s also noteworthy in response to major cut backs in funding over the last decade many LTAs have few experienced staff left – some don’t even have a public transport department at all. What’s more one or two bus groups come to mind who’ve been busy cutting back their locally based managers preferring a remote regional or even centralised approach to bus management so quite how meaningful discussions can take place in such optimistic timescales at LTA level is a tad puzzling. And remember Enhanced Partnerships require bus operator agreement.
I reckon it’s going to be boom time for consultants. One of the few detailed funding commitments in the document is £25 million to give “LTAs the skills and people they need to deliver this strategy” in 2021/22. Frankly, there’s only one thing worse than remote based bus company management designing bus networks for local areas, and that’s even remoter based consultants advising unskilled local authorities what their local bus network should look like.
Introducing a once in a generation transformation needs time and careful consideration. It’s no good cobbling together a funding bid to the £3 billion fund for a “street gracing” fleet of what might sound-good-in-the-press-release hydrogen powered double deck buses to glide along newly installed continuous bus lanes from early morning to late evening at rock bottom flat and capped fares if on board the buses so much room is given over to housing the technology to power the bus, along with spaces for two wheelchairs, a couple of cycles and the odd buggy and shopping trolley or two that there’s no room for any passengers to sit comfortably …… while the newly installed bus lane causes so much congestion from delivery vans double parking leading to a continuous queue of slow moving motorists who can’t be persuaded to shift out of their recently bought expensive electric powered cars causing buses to get delayed before even reaching the bus lane. It happens. And the whole caboodle will be financially unsustainable and do nothing to attract more passengers.
In my experience, bus lanes have their place, but in many locations there’s simply not enough room to install them and it’s often smaller highway management and traffic light phasing interventions which improve traffic flow and best help buses. I’m pleased to see this acknowledged in the document including the well made observation “intensive and granular focus on the precise conditions of each road can pay dividends, as some places have shown. Issues such as bus stop locations and spacing, residential parking policy, and removal of buildouts and pinchpoints should all be considered”. And, then there’s this gem …. “non-residential parking will not generally be an efficient use of roadspace on such routes”.
Achieving this objective needs well resourced locally based hands-on managers who understand these things. It also needs excellent communications and local public persuasion that giving buses prominence really is good for the community. This can only be achieved by painstaking work at local level to build community relationships with trust and understanding over a long period. It’s not going to be achieved by a July or October deadline, that’s for sure. Nor can consultants help.
Without it, there’ll be opposition. And you can be sure the Government won’t ride to the rescue, no matter Johnson’s publicly declared love of buses. Shapps has made it clear on a number of occasions he is not anti-motorist, and never will be.
Indeed, the glaring omission from “Bus Back Better” is not one word about the need for car restraint which is a necessity if buses really are going to be better along with a complete culture change towards use of cars and public transport. Yes, OK there’s that aforementioned quote about “non-residential parking will not generally be an efficient use of roadspace on such routes”, but that’s not exactly hard hitting and pointedly implies residential parking is an efficient use of roadspace, and aside from that … nothing.
This strategy should have been the opportunity to take a leaf out of the Rishi Sunak book of PR spin and admit the need for “an honest conversation with the public” that this well meaning aspirational utopian world of “sleek green powered buses” (to use a Johnsonian buzz phrase) coming to a bus stop whenever you need them, taking you anywhere you want to go at cheap and simple fares can only be achieved in a sustainable way in conjunction with a policy of active modal shift – or to put it in plain Daily Mail language – by waging a “war on motorists”.
How can we have a “National BUS Strategy for England” which fails to mention the need for car use restraint, the strict management by effective enforcement and realistic cost of parking, as well as complimentary land use pro-bus policies and the ending of the freeze on fuel duty for motorists?
If the Scottish Government can set a target of a 20% reduction in car use within ten years, why can’t my preferred entitled “Back Better Buses” strategy in England?
Now that’s what I call a strategy. And for those bus operators already in the vanguard of successful bus operation with forward thinking supportive LTAs “Bus Back Better” provides great opportunities for a fun filled five year boom time ahead for buses which will get even better than the better they already are. But what of those in the backwater? It’s not so clear just how they’ll be levelled up to the best practice examples we all know and respect if they don’t win the backing to be better.
One final thought, assuming the £3 billion does work out to be sufficient to pay for all these transformational and much welcome improvements, what happens in 2026 when it runs out. What happens to those innovative DRT schemes that have put previously isolated villages back on the map? The cheaper flat fares everyone gets used to with their capping and contactless payments? The luxury of enhanced evening frequencies and all those turn-up-and-go daytime frequencies which are nice-to-have but uneconomic-to-provide where population density is too low?
Boris Johnson will be long gone. But someone will have to pick up the lack-of-funding pieces.
Johnson’s characteristic whimsically worded foreword to “Bus Back Better” boasted “as Mayor of London, I was proud to evict from the capital that mobile road block, the bendy bus, and to replace it with a thousands sleek, green, street gracing New Routemasters”.
As any right thinking professional bus manager knows, not withstanding TfL did get a tad carried away with some route conversions to artics, the whole justification for the ‘New Routemaster’ at unbelievable expense being to “restore to the streets of London the open platform at the rear … you can hop on and hop off, like the hop-on hop-off hoplites who were trained to leap from moving chariots and then back on again….” (quote from a blog written by one B Johnson 19 May 2013 – check it out) was pure Alice in Wonderland Through The Looking Glass stuff and was quickly abandoned, but pointedly only after huge wasted costs.
And just as “Bus Back Better” was published on Monday 15th March, also known as the Ides of March … I’d say ‘Beware’.
And as if they knew, it was fascinating to see BBC1’s One o’clock News story covering the strategy launch illustrating it with one of those “mobile road blocking” buses still in service and enjoying a very successful after life in a city with consistent year-on-year growth in bus passengers through effective informal partnership working, as opposed to a capital city where……..
That’s it from me for this week.
Just one more news and comment round up week to go, and then it’s no more ‘Stay At Home’. Yay.
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.