Saturday 27th March
This week’s decision by Mayor Burnham to introduce bus franchising in Greater Manchester came as no surprise. After spending over £11 million in preparatory work over the last couple of years with two public consultations promising better buses alongside much “take back control” rhetoric it would have been a strange outcome if he’d announced on Thursday “you know what, I reckon the bus operators have been doing a fantastic job delivering frequent services at good value fares with some great marketing, contactless payments, smartcards, apps giving real time information and m-tickets as well as investment in new buses, including hybrid and electric powered, all while battling the scourge of congestion and aggressive price competition from Metrolink; so on reflection I’ve decided it makes sense to work in close partnership and collaboration with these highly experienced transport professionals to deliver successful public transport for the benefit of the whole community similar to what’s happening in the West Midlands and which has been successful at growing passenger journeys in Bristol, Oxford, Nottingham, Reading, Brighton, Hove, Southampton, Edinburgh, Harrogate, Blackburn, Rossendale, Exeter, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Gosport and many other places; and not only that but it’ll save me spending a whopping £135 million on transition costs to set up franchising, a sum equivalent to five years worth of funding TfGM spend on the 20% of the network that’s not commercial.” Nah? Never mind. Come 2025 I’m sure it’ll all be working out just fine.
Meanwhile Go North West’s difficulties with Unite’s “all out strike” in Manchester continue. The company admitted the by-now-almost-month-long-action is lasting “longer than we’d hoped” leading to the £1 flat fare, which has applied since the action began, increasing to £2 from Wednesday ….
…. as well as posting short video bursts on social media to put its side of Unite’s various claims. The company and Unite continue to try and resolve the dispute through ACAS and I’m told there were meetings every day during this week as reportedly around two-thirds of drivers remai on strike.
A number of operators are helping out maintain services including Midland Classic providing two buses and Edwards of Pontypridd providing National Express coaches making for an interesting variety of vehicles on the streets of Greater Manchester …. always a feature of long drawn out industrial disputes ‘on the buses’ over the decades. Let’s hope it’s resolved soon especially with route tendering coming along for the new franchised network where a competitive cost base will be the order of the day to win business.
Down in London, Unite’s dispute with part of RATP seems to be heading for resolution with Wednesday’s strike action called off. Unite stated in a press release “an eleventh hour improved pay offer has resulted in strikes planned tomorrow (Wednesday 17 March) by bus workers employed on the Quality Line and London Sovereign services being called off, to allow members a ballot on the employer’s proposal”.
However, the dispute and strike action continues at RATP’s London United.
Back in Go North West, notwithstanding strike action and the Mayor’s franchising plans it’s good to see exciting plans to revamp and improve services continue with a new Middleton Minis brand getting ready for launch on routes 129 and 415 operated on behalf of TfGM.
It looks very smart so what a shame initiatives like this will be lost in favour of bland utilitarian yellow everywhere – not exactly enticing.
And talking of non enticing liveries and “what a shames”, I was sorry to see the first reliveried Stagecoach coach in the rather confusing yellow (for school bus?) plain livery, which under the Group edict now designates long distance services …
… meaning the classy South West Falcon livery is disappearing. What a shame. (Still, I see there is a Falcon logo to the left of the Stagecoach name, so that’s alright then.)
CPRE (The Countryside Charity) launched a no half measures report on Tuesday. Entitled “Every village, every hour” it does what it says on the cover, and calls for every village in England to be served with a bus route running every hour, and not just that, but “from 6am to midnight, 7 days per week” too. Not bad eh?
Costing a cool £2.7 billion a year built up by using a model looking in detail at what it would mean for four rural districts – Eden (Cumbria), East Lindsey (Lincolnshire), North Devon and Cherwell (Oxfordshire). And on the principle of when you’re spending a few billion, what’s a couple of hundred million more between friends, the report gives two more options of a blanket wide £1 flat fare, taking the funding required up to £3 billion, or offering free fares bringing the total bill to £3.5 billion per annum.
The report draws parallels with a ‘Swiss-style’ bus network. It’s based on “a set of ‘arterial services’ on routes that have potential for full commercial viability once there is recovery to pre- coronavirus conditions. ‘Capillary services’ were added to complement the ‘arterial’ services, on routes designed to take in all villages of significant size” with a population “above 200-300 residents”. Examples are given in Switzerland and Germany showing where this concept actually works and dovetails into connections with train timetables were appropriate too.
Before you kick the idea into the rural long grass, it’s worth pondering the report’s suggested funding sources not least the money spent by Government on road building and maintenance. It makes the point “redirecting spending from road building across the Roads Investment Strategy 2 and the National Roads Fund could provide £3.5 billion per year” as well as floating the idea of “a public transport payroll levy” similar to the “Versement Transport” system used in France or a “visitor lodging levy charging a nightly fee to tourists, such as that used in Switzerland”. The report points out “rural communities across Germany and Switzerland enjoy excellent public transport because their governments treat bus services as a public good and fund them as such”.
Tuesday’s online launch featured Minister for buses, Baroness Vere who not surprisingly was in full on championing the ‘National BUS Strategy for England’ mode pointing out the Government’s £3 billion fund will bring wonderful frequencies, cheaper fares, a welter of readily available timetable information and maps as well as thousands of green buses. But as for CPRE’s ambitious objectives she rather dismissed them as a way “to carry around a lot of fresh air” and as for cutting back on expenditure on roads, well “buses use roads as well” she reminded the charity.
My takeaway from her remarks is never in 2.7 billion years will we be seeing “every village every hour”. When pushed for a modicum of support from one questioner at the launch, she did concede it is open for a local authority to include such a scheme in its upcoming “Bus Service Improvement Plan” and see if that particular flag flutters on the flagpole when DfT’s number crunchers pour over the funding bid.
Good luck with that one, but full marks to CPRE for raising the profile of the need to really be serious about sorting rural buses once and for all (which can only be done with funding) and smartly knocking back the Minister opining ‘DRT’s the way forward’ by forcefully pointing out uncertainty of when a bus might be available is no substitute for a fixed timetabled service everyone knows will be there. And remember, it does work in Switzerland.
It’s been a busy week for the Baroness as Wednesday saw another Transport Select Committee session looking into the impact of the pandemic. This time is was devoted to the coach sector and included witness contributions from Candice Mason of north Home Counties based Masons Minibus and Coach Hire, Michael Pearson of north east based TM Travel and Nigel Skill of Nottinghamshire based Skills along with CPT’s Graham Vidler followed by a session with Baroness Vere and Nigel Huddleston (Minister for Tourism).
The coach operators equipped themselves very professionally and told a very sad and depressing story of mounting losses – £1 million at Masons and £3.2 million at Skills – with Graham Vidler explaining 40% of the coach sector is now at risk of failing. It was pointed out the Scottish Government have provided support to the sector worth around £12,000 per vehicle with even more for companies with newer fleets needing hefty leasing payments with a similar scheme for England and Wales costed in the range £100-£150 million, which sounded quite a small sum compared to funding being paid to keep bus and train services going.
The Ministers were challenged by Committee members why the coach sector has been left out in the funding support cold but both maintained the line previously peddled, sad though it is, coach travel in a pandemic is not regarded as ‘essential travel’ and what about taxi and private hire companies also suffering as well as some hauliers. It was all rather sad to listen to.
My week’s zooming came to a very enjoyable conclusion on Thursday evening when the Rail Study Association (now within the auspices of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport) hosted Chris Loder MP as its monthly meeting guest speaker. Chris is the affable and very knowledgeable member of the Transport Select Committee (“one of our greatest experts on our railways in the House of Commons” – B Johnson) who before entering full time politics as Conservative MP for West Dorset in 2019 had an interesting railway career starting as a ‘booking office clerk’ at stations between Salisbury and Yeovil aged 17 to managing the recent Waterloo upgrade programme for South West Trains, as well as a spell working for Deutsche Bahn in Germany. Chris knows his stuff, and his quiet and engaging manner is highly effective.
Chris’s presentation was “The Future of Public Transport – the view from the House” and he kicked off with a fascinating interactive session using the online “menti” platform enabling us to all vote for various scenarios including whether we think different aspects of transport (London, Other cities, urban, rural, bus, rail etc) currently (Covid aside) have too little or too much funding and whether they need more, or less funding ….
as well as our thoughts on the future of demand and supply …
… and whether the taxpayer or farepayer should fund railway operations – which was pretty evenly split 50/50 when taking the mean average of everyone voting, but with some wide variations.
Chris made many interesting observations during the 90 minute session including fielding a long list of random questions from the audience ….. the £100 million “operating surplus” which had previously been paid to the DfT from successful franchises had now turned into an unsustainable funding requirement running at £3.5 billion per quarter; the Government’s overall Budget Deficit was an unsustainable £355 billion; that the much delayed Rail Reform (aka Williams/Shapp White Paper) is likely to be announced in the upcoming Queen’s Speech for the forthcoming new parliamentary session; one third of the Tory MPs elected in 2019 are first timers as are one quarter of MPs in the House of Commons – an all time record – and many have had careers as doctors, nurses, teachers (as well as a railwayman!) giving them a much more pragmatic approach; he’d like to see a national brand for the railways to cut across previous franchise limitations – eg why not an Okehampton to Waterloo service (through West Dorset of course!); previous thinking to squeeze commuters into trains with basic seating and plenty of standing room is no longer appropriate; nor, he thought, were standard hour timetables in many cases; TfL’s funding is simply unsustainable – it receives seven times the funding per passenger journey that Dorset can fund; “levelling up” could mean rural areas “left behind” since all are categorised by the Treasury as “level 3” defined as “least likely to receive funding” compared to “level 1” for deprived areas which are “most likely”; and many more fascinating thoughts too. A great evening.
A couple of oddments to conclude this week’s round up. Firstly, I realise I’m late to the party, but it’s only during this lockdown period I’ve stumbled across Bus Atlas UK – a fantastic online suite of maps compiled by Brendan Fox showing inter-urban bus routes in many English counties with more to follow as well as future coverage of Wales and Scotland. I strongly recommend a browse at Brendan’s brilliant work which so far includes 12 maps spanning from Cornwall along the south coast and up north as far as Lincolnshire. Routes are colour coded by operator.
And finally a Routemaster bus was spotted high above Fleet Street last weekend … being craned into the back garden of the Old Bank of England pub ready for a new life providing social distancing opportunities for customers.
A real high flyer.
After 12 weeks of news rounding up and commentary (following previous spells of 15 weeks in the spring/summer and four weeks in autumn 2020) (yikes; that’s 31 weeks lockdown in the last 12 months) I must admit to flagging a bit so how timely with the clocks going forward bringing lighter evenings and the “stay at home” instruction easing from Monday albeit “minimising travel” still the advice, it feels the right time to bring this series to an end.
Thanks for reading over the last three months. Let’s hope the road map continues its “irreversible” course. Better keep those flags flying; I’m sure that’ll help.