Saturday 15th January 2022
As bus and train companies make service cuts to cater for reduced staff availability due to the continued impact of Covid’s Omicron variant I can’t help wondering whether the consequential slimmed down networks will become the “new normal” as passenger levels continue trailing 25-30% below pre-pandemic times and the Treasury plays hardball on funding support.
Even if staff absence levels improve over the next few weeks what incentive will there be to restore lost services and frequencies with passenger numbers still in the doldrums? All the more so with many bus companies still struggling with a structural shortage of drivers.
As a short term expedient it makes sense for operators to introduce revised schedules calling for fewer staff when faced with a significant shortfall in resources rather than try and deal with last minute unplanned cancellations as some are doing (eg TrentBarton as above). It causes a lot of extra work for operational staff trying to keep on top of a changing situation day by day and hour by hour and it’s hopeless for passengers not knowing whether they’ll catch a bus or train at the expected time. As we all know, there’s no better way to turn off passengers from the idea of using public transport than a strong dose of unpredictability and unreliability.
Far better to manage the situation by withdrawing journeys or services on an organised basis until the situation improves so everyone knows where they are. Except “until the situation improves” in the current scheme of things has a broader context, not least the continued uncertainty of Government funding support.
I’ve commented before on the ludicrous situation in London where TfL are having to run their multi billion pound business on a hand-to-mouth basis dependent on eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute conditional agreements with Government as funding deadlines are about to expire; the next drama already set for three weeks time on Friday 4th February.
I know the Government’s keen to move the public agenda from ‘partygate’ back to it’s famed buzz worded ‘levelling up’ (whatever it means) but I didn’t realise that meant the rest of the country’s public transport having to face similar cliff edge uncertainties on funding matching London’s modus operandi.
Colleagues in the bus industry tell me the mood music from the DfT is Bus Recovery Grant in some form will continue beyond its current deadline of the end of March thus avoiding mass de-registrations of bus services but discussions with the Treasury on the detail are still not finalised. Great. Once again bus operators have to put faith before facts when it comes to funding.
Concessionary fares reimbursement in England is already destined to reduce from April causing a financial headache.
A similar position is facing those Combined Authorities operating light rail and tram systems with no certainty of supportive funding beyond the end of March. Being public bodies they have to be more upfront about the likely implications.
Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the north east of England where Council leaders are wrestling with a projected £21 million deficit for Tyne & Wear’s Metro light rail system. And with echoes of what’s happening in London, the Newcastle Chronicle reported on Tuesday “devastating cuts to vital North east bus services are set to be signed off amid a deepening budget crisis and bosses now warn that the Tyne and Wear Metro could soon be in the firing line too.”
In what should serve as a stark warning to Mayor Burnham and his fellow proponents of bus franchising in Manchester, the Chronicle reports PTE colleagues in Tyne and Wear are planning to “protect the Metro from service reductions during 2022/23 on the grounds that slashing the number of trains it runs would result in a catastrophic fall in ticket revenue and ultimately force the system to shut down entirely”.
The timing couldn’t be more unfortunate for the Metro. A brand new £362 million train fleet is currently in build with new depot facilities in Gosforth under construction to house and operate the new trains as Nexus leaders stated on Monday “cuts to the Metro remain a longer term option for the years ahead”.
The North East Joint Transport Committee is being asked to approve a budget next week which includes: £7.5 million reduction in funding for concessionary fares reimbursement due to bus operators which will cause a knock on effect to the viability of bus routes; £2.4 million ‘efficiency savings’ from the Metro including a pay freeze which will go down like a lead balloon with staff and trade unions; £1.6 million from fare increases; £5.6 million from Nexus ‘reserves’ – something that’s not sustainable in the long term; and asking the five Tyne and Wear councils to increase their levy payments to Nexus by £4.1 million which won’t be popular with those authorities.
I can’t believe the situation is markedly different for Manchester Metrolink’s finances which makes you wonder how its budgets are shaping up.
Meanwhile on Wednesday the Guardian carried an article over two pages in its Financial section telling readers “bus services in England used by hundreds of thousand of people are poised to be slashed when emergency Covid funding expires at the end of March, transport authorities have warned”.
It points out the Bus Back Better strategy pledged £3 billion in funding to “transform services” but the autumn budget confirmed only £1.2 billion. CPT reckon the commitments in the Bus Service Improvement Plans currently being assessed require £7 billion investment. And that’s before BRG 2 is taken into account.
The article quotes Tracy Brabin, the first elected Mayor of West Yorkshire, “a better bus network is vital for us in West Yorkshire. My concern is that the £3 billion we were promised has been reduced and a lot of that money is being used to hold up the existing service rather than transform it was we wanted to do”. The stark financial reality is no doubt giving her cause to rethink the idea of “taking back control” of buses through franchising.
Cuts in frequencies on the National Rail network are also continuing (due to staff unavailability) and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of these timetable reductions become permanent to meet the Treasury’s demand for a ten per cent cut in costs. South Western Railway and Avanti West Coast are the latest train companies to announce reductions from tomorrow. Avanti’s new timetable sees frequencies reduced to hourly to both Birmingham and Manchester as well as Glasgow and Liverpool. Even at the height of 2020’s first lockdown, when passenger numbers were around 5% of normal, more trains ran.
To be parochial I continue to be mystified by Southern’s withdrawal of trains between Sussex and Victoria. A four-trains-an-hour shuttle between East Croydon, Streatham Common, Clapham Junction and Victoria began on Monday but there’s currently no sign of this arrangement ending any time soon.
It forces thousands of commuters to change trains at East Croydon at great inconvenience. The puzzle to me is how such an arrangement actually saves any staff resources with trains from East Grinstead and coastal destinations on the Brighton Main Line simply continuing to London Bridge rather than Victoria. As I wrote in a previous blog, it just doesn’t add up.
It really is a hassle to travel up and down the Brighton Main Line at the moment, especially when needing to get to Clapham Junction for onward travel with SWR as I did twice this past week.
Returning south in the evening peak, a 12 coach East Croydon bound train on the shuttle pulled into Clapham Junction already well loaded and then got absolutely “rammed” with standing passengers in many of the coaches including “first class”.
Of course, at East Croydon everyone has to get off the train on Platform 2 (which has been turned into the ‘turn back’ platform) and either exit the station up the slope at the south end or in most cases transfer over to Platform 3 for Sussex bound trains using the staircase and footbridge in the middle of the station which can barely cope with the peak demand each time a full to capacity train arrives and with passengers coming down the stairs too.
The whole arrangement is very unsatisfactory and this weekend sees yet another blockade on the Brighton Main Line between Three Bridges and Brighton/Lewes so suddenly trains are running again between Three Bridges direct to Victoria (six an hour) yet come Monday, they’ll be back to being diverted to London Bridge with Victoria bound passengers forced to change on to the East Croydon shuttle. Although I note Southern have announced the Bognor Regis/Portsmouth Harbour/Southampton Central trains will be restored to Victoria from Monday but as I write this on Friday precise details have yet to be loaded on to websites and journey planners. And passengers are advised to “plan ahead”. Fat chance.
Ironically a signal failure late on Friday afternoon between East Croydon and London Bridge caused considerable disruption to services and some Southern trains were diverted into Victoria instead of London Bridge, where they should have been going in the first place. It’s just such a totally bizarre situation.
Meanwhile residents in the villages of Swallowfield and Riseley in Berkshire lose their bus route after today as Reading Buses “suspends” operation of ‘tiger’ branded route 7 between Reading and Fleet. This is a good example of a Covid inspired staff unavailability cut which is unlikely to be restored.
It’s not just staff issues though. Reading Buses announcing the “suspension” on Thursday last week explained “long term roadworks between Hartley Wintney and Fleet are causing a significant fall in the number of people able to get to the service. We have also seen a vastly reduced number of customers using this service since the start of the pandemic”.
Route 7 has a fascinating history which goes right back to Aldershot & District’s route 12 between Aldershot and Reading. If you’re interested there’s a potted history here on the Hants & Surrey Bus Blog.
Suffice to say bus companies as disparate as Tillingbourne, Countywide Travel, Fleet Buzz and Stagecoach have all given the route a go prior to Stagecoach splitting the route in Fleet in April 2018, henceforth only operating the southern section to Aldershot, leaving Reading Buses to bravely take on the northern section to Reading.
Until today’s last day of operation the timetable had reduced to just five return journeys between Reading and Fleet operated by one bus with a couple of localised journeys as far as Spencers Wood in the morning and what I assume are three tendered journeys in the evenings as far south as Riseley, ironically to as late as 23:48!
I caught the 12:35 journey from Reading to Fleet on Thursday and in view of the imminent service suspension was surprised to see as many as 15 fellow passengers board with me, although four alighted as we left Reading and in nearby Spencers Wood where alternative buses are available. But that left 11 on board for who there will be no alterantives.
Five of these alighted in Swallowfield and one in Riseley with three more getting off in Hartley Wintney leaving two travelling on to the terminus at Fleet station with myself.
The driver got out the cab when we arrived in Hartley Wintney to explain to the man wanting a bus stop on the normal route down to Fleet that this was as far as he could travel as the road closure meant the bus was about to continue on a significant diversion to reach Fleet.
Similarly the two passengers wanting the shopping area of Fleet had to walk there from the station.
I also walked the ten minutes or so into Fleet’s commercial centre from the station and waited for the Stagecoach southern section of route 7 to travel onwards to Aldershot.
This takes a circuitous routing through Fleet having commenced in the residential area of Elvetham Heath. Like the northern section, the frequency is fairly low at just seven daytime journeys a day, two of which continue to Hartley Wintney.
I caught the 14:22 journey from Elvetham Heath down to Aldershot and sadly have to report only two other passengers travelled with me, both boarding in Fleet; one travelling just a few stops and the other to the northern part of Aldershot. Not very encouraging.
I feel very sorry for residents of Swallowfield and Riseley who use the bus regularly to get their shopping and other needs in Reading. They now have no public transport. If they’re key workers, they’re stuffed. But from Reading Buses’ perspective, it makes total sense when driver availability is under strain to maintain frequencies on busy town routes like route 17 used by thousands of passengers rather than an infrequent poorly used rural route (although 11 on board as far as Swallowfield is pretty good). All the more so when there is still no guarantee supportive funding from the Government will continue after March.
But I doubt those working in the Treasury are worried about such matters. They’re probably having a party.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.
Next blog, Sunday 16th January 2022: (the delayed) A is for Andover.