Transport turmoil

Saturday 13th August 2022

Let’s take stock.

The battle for TfL is ominously sliding towards a possible nuclear option of bankruptcy and Government “taking back control”…… Rail strikes are continuing with more trains in the sidings than on the tracks today with ASLEF drivers’ turn to stop work and RMT and TSSA members out again on Thursday and Saturday next week…… Strikes are also impacting London Underground next Friday and some London Buses on Friday and Saturday while a number of strikes have seen bus networks in Yorkshire and the North West disrupted for weeks with more ballots in other areas underway…… Avanti West Coast has scaled back its timetable, alleging drivers are pursuing “unofficial industrial action” because they have the audacity not to volunteer to work a rostered rest day…… As the countdown to the withdrawal of Bus Recovery Grant heads towards next month’s deadline more bus routes are being cut back or deregistered……Last week brought news of two bus companies going bust while another was sold…… A takeover bid for First Group has been given more time, for Stagecoach has completed and for Go-Ahead has been recommended to shareholders while Arriva still can’t attract any bidders…… Long standing experienced managers are leaving First Bus, demoralised by the misplaced reorganisation I blogged about last month …… and on top of all this the impact of inflation is hitting the industry with a predicted recession just around the corner inevitably leading to people travelling less and a consequential reduction in passenger numbers. Against this background Buses Back Better brings Government money to fund a number of ‘innovations’ in 34 lucky areas including improved frequencies and extra evening and Sunday services, cheaper fares as well as DRT services which have no chance of long term survival. And there’s still the proposed £2 maximum bus fare from October, now subject to sign off by the new Prime Minister no doubt.

All this turmoil makes the two year pandemic period seem like a calm interlude in the business of running buses and trains when, aside from the devastating impact of Covid on people’s health, what seems now almost like halcyon times when there was no shortage of funding support for public transport and everything ran reliably; it’s just there were precious few passengers to enjoy it all. Now, in many parts of the country, at a time of still precarious recovery from the pandemic, passengers are being impacted with unpleasant and unreliable travel experiences which do nothing to inspire confidence.

If some of the aforementioned challenges aren’t resolved in the immediate future, the outlook for the bus and train industry looks very unsettled …. along with much else in the country at the moment.

Taking these issues in turn. I last blogged about funding negotiations between the DfT and TfL on 14th July, the day following the eleventh deadline for funding support inevitably got extended for another can-kicking-down-the-road extension for the twelfth time adding a further fortnight’s funding to 28th July. Even that deadline passed without agreement on a longer term deal, with another (thirteenth) deadline of Wednesday 3rd August agreed as being the absolute final deadline. On that day, DfT funding for TfL ceased, despite it needing another £927,000 to see it through until next April after which TfL reckons it will be self sufficient for day to day running expenses. I have my doubts on that claim not least with a recession around the corner.

A statement from TfL advised “we have today (28 July 2022) agreed with the Government that our existing funding agreement will be extended until midday on 3 August 2022 while we continue to discuss the draft funding proposal from the Government.”

Other than a tweet from Grant Shapps referring to “an additional £3.6bn worth of projects and matches the Mayor’s own spending plans from 2019” these “finding proposals” haven’t been made public.

It seems the DfT is playing hard ball on these “draft funding proposal” (which will only last for a period of 20 months in any event – hardly what I’d call ‘long term’) and has rejected TfL’s calls for the funding it says it needs. For the last ten days (since 3rd August) TfL has been using its own reserves to keep going. That situation clearly can’t continue.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. A special TfL Board Meeting was held on Tuesday to appraise the Board about what Board papers call this “pivotal moment in TfL’s recovery”.

Board papers confirm “TfL officers have been engaged in multiple collaborative clarification discussions with HMG officials. There have also been detailed discussions on multiple elements of the proposal, some of which are still ongoing. At the time of writing, TfL does not have a final draft proposal from HMG. Therefore, it is not possible to recommend a proposal to the Board at this time.”

So after all this time, with no funding currently being paid and our capital city’s so called “world class” transport rapidly running out of cash from its reserves, there’s still no “final draft proposal” on the table, let alone in the public domain. What on earth is going on? This all makes the sudden demise of Yellow Buses look like a proverbial tea party. The “multiple collaborative clarification discussions” about the “multiple elements of the proposal” sound fascinating and are almost certain to be code for cuts and “efficiencies” unpalatable to TfL. I don’t doubt they’ll also include commitments to reduce the burden of pension costs for London Underground employees, a matter stoking the current dispute with the RMT and leading to another strike next Friday.

Ominously the report to the Board refers to “the position that would apply if we no longer have certainty of Government support or other funding” explaining the process and implications of what’s known as “section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 (s114)”. This requires the Chief Finance Officer to prepare a report in which “consideration would need to be given to what services TfL is able to continue to run within available funds, taking into account our general financial obligations and our core statutory duty to provide safe and efficient public passenger transport services as well as those services specified in statute and the significant contractual and statutory consequences which would be presented to Members to consider.”

It is said the only services TfL have a duty to provide by statute are the Woolwich Ferry and regulation of taxis. Buses and the Underground are not statutory services. But it would seem highly unlikely we’ll see London devoid of its buses and Tubes, there’ll inevitably be yet another funding deal which must come in the next week or so, if not days, to prevent TfL effectively declaring itself bankrupt and dramatically cutting services. What price the DfT secures for securing that deal, or whether it reaches for the nuclear button, we await to see.

It’s not just TfL where the DfT is playing hard ball. One reason strikes are continuing between rail unions and the Rail Delivery Group/Train Operating Companies/Network Rail is because behind the scenes the DfT are pulling all the strings by controlling what the employers can and can’t agree. It’s no coincidence where there’s no DfT control, in Scotland, ScotRail has agreed a deal with ASLEF although RMT strikes are still impacting trains north of the border because its dispute with Network Rail continues.

The DfT’s meddling hand can be seen for sure in the public messaging being used by the Train Operating Companies, not least Avanti West Coast where its tweet on Monday linking reduced timetables from tomorrow (cutting London Manchester to hourly and ceasing ticket sales) with the repeated controversial allegation this is partly due to “unofficial strike action by ASLEF members”.

No coincidence this line was regurgitated by Secretary of State Grant Shapps after it first appeared from Avanti at the end of last month.

Rail industry legend Graham Eccles published a fascinating thread on Twitter on Tuesday referring to “the mess Avanti have got themselves into over rest day working and rostered Sundays” being “about management (and the DfT) not heeding the lessons of history”. He pointed out at privatisation “the more farsighted TOCs … renegotiated the working week … to encompass all seven days. Establishments were reset so they could cover all foreseeable needs and commitments made by management to recruit to establishment”. He continued “the wiser franchises had 15 years of IR peace with their drivers, others (like London Midland) were regularly in trouble over reliability. The secret was keeping the establishment under review and having a recruitment plan that kept the establishment full.”

The irony over this spat is seeing ASLEF reaffirm in a letter on Wednesday to Shapps “it has been ASLEF policy for decades to bring Sundays into the working week. It’s something our negotiators try to achieve, and have achieved, in many companies. It’s not ASLEF preventing this from happening, it’s the companies you have handed contracts to over the last couple of years”.

ASLEF points out “they’ve made the calculation that operating a railway on overtime is cheaper than employing enough train drivers to run timetabled services, even if that means services are unreliable”.

And so it seems, as it’s reported Avanti West Coast are receiving the same contract payments despite slashing its timetable and overseeing serious unreliability.

The DfT is keen to see what it calls “modernisation” and an end to inefficient restrictive practices as part of a pay deal. But it hadn’t counted on the RMT’s Mick Lynch proving to be a very effective communicator, outperforming politicians and interviewers on the media round which has boosted the union’s position with the public.

There’s absolutely no sign of an agreement between rail unions and the employers and in turn the all controlling DfT. Sadly the damaging strikes look set to continue into the autumn.

Meanwhile there’s also no sign of a resolution to a three week strike by Unite and GMB members employed by Arriva North West over a pay deal. This follows another four week strike in June and July by Arriva staff in West Yorkshire. Ballots for strike action over pay are also currently underway among Arriva staff in Kent and Essex and at Arriva London North. Meanwhile drivers at RATP’s London United will be out on strike this coming Friday (the day of the Underground strike) and Saturday (another rail strike day).

With inflation now in double figures further industrial unrest over pay claims is inevitable.

It’s also inevitable rising costs will tip more bus routes over into loss making ventures with bus companies unable to continue running them commercially. Cash strapped local authorities in many cases are unable to provide funding for their continuation and withdrawals are inevitable. These routes are being used by passengers, albeit not enough, but it makes no sense to withdraw routes being used while at the same time kite flying service expansions are being planned with Bus Service Improvement Plan funding because that cannot be used to keep existing services going.

The whole Bus Back Better come Bus Service Improvement Plan scenario needs a rethink. The idea of a ‘bus strategy’ was dreamt up pre pandemic, launched a year into it, in March 2021, and called for plans to be submitted later last year. All this was before the impact of post pandemic passenger numbers was known as well as more recent experience of rising inflation and the predicted recession. Nice though it is to have £1.5 billion (or whatever the precise figures is these days) of new money for exciting developments, time has moved on and priorities need to change. And quickly.

Autocar’s Thursday only tendered route 293 Tunbridge Wells to Rye is under threat of withdrawal

I’ve ridden on enough new service initiatives over the last few years thanks to dollops of funding to know most simply aren’t sustainable and are a waste of such vital funding. DRT is the classic of this genre and there are many more which are going to hit the road in the next few months while at the same time bus routes actually being used by passengers are disappearing. A good example is in Kent where a raft of little used bus routes will soon be withdrawn for good (as I blogged about back in March) to save the Council over a third of its annual bus service support budget (£2.2 million from £6.1 million) yet these routes are much valued by the small numbers travelling. I’ll report further on this with specific examples from my recent travels on the routes impacted in an upcoming blog. Meanwhile Kent County Council are lined up for a windfall receipt of £35.1 million towards its Bus Service Improvement Plan. Try explaining that to those using the routes about to be withdrawn and being told there’s no funding.

Finally those takeovers and bus company failures coupled with management reorganisations. It’s sadly inevitable there are going to be further business failures while others looking at a bleak future decide now’s the time to sell up and quit. What concerns me is just at the time when industry experience and knowledge will be vital for companies to navigate the perilous economic conditions that lie ahead, some of the large Groups seem content and almost pleased to be reorganising and seeing long respected experienced managers prepare to leave the industry in favour of importing people in with absolutely no knowledge of what makes our industry tick.

Aside from the more recent recession (itself 14 years ago) arising from the 2008 financial crash you have to go back 32 years to 1990 and before that 42 years to 1980 when five consecutive quarters of falling GDP last impacted the UK economy. I recall both periods vividly not least inflation reaching 18% in 1980 (it hit 9.5% in 1990). It was a scary time to be running a bus company, not least in 1990 having not long entered a management buy out. Interest rates hit a high of 17% in 1980 moving down to 9.6% in October 1982. In 1990 they peaked at 14.8% at the start of the recession falling to 5.9% by the end. Passenger numbers went into serious decline as the need to travel reduced. Now is not the time to be ditching career long industry managers. To survive the coming months transport groups and their bus companies are going to need all the experience they can get.

Strategy awaydays just won’t cut it.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu

36 thoughts on “Transport turmoil

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  1. The cut backs to services have already started to happen as the October deadline approaches
    Arriva are closing their garage in Newcastle and moving the service to Ashington (17miles) and Blyth (14miles ) So far no news of them giving routes up but given they are moving to two garages remote from Newcastle it looks likely they will give some routes up

    Many other areas are now seeing significant cuts being announced

    The Enhanced partnerships seem to have turned into just council talking shops. Most have not even revised them after having received no funding and pretty much none of them have any budget or project plan so are unlikely to deliver anything

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    1. A report I found suggested 70% of the schemes failed within a few years

      Those that survive appear to specialised ones serving National Parks and voluntary run Dial A ride schemes targeted at Elderly and disabled providing a very basic service

      Clearly the scheme in Newport failed very quickly. At least one of the routes in Cardiff has reverted back to a normal bus service

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      1. The G1 in Cardiff reverted to a scheduled service in April, though I’ve heard reports that they’re still using the Fflecsi-liveried vehicle and Fflecsi is shown in the blinds!

        NT’s own DRT services serving the more rural parts of the city and run in the conventional way with no apps and phone bookings the previous working day continue.

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    2. With Newport Transport being the operator of Newport Fflecsi what are the odds on them using the Fflecsi vehicles on their restored evening and Sunday services. Or does the term “successful” refer to the fact that Newport Transport can confidently replace DRT minibuses with those shiny new Yutong electrics which have also been the recipients of lots of TfW funding?

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      1. I don’t think it would make sense to run separate fleets for daytime and evening services. You’d double up on leasing charges, road tax and so on.

        Possibly TfW will redeploy them (there’s a new Fflecsi service starting in Flintshire soon) or simply return them to the lessor.

        ‘Successful’ can only mean the pilot was successful in showing that urban DRT is not a good model!

        By the way, the Yutongs were provided by the UK Government.

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  2. Will TfL and the Government ever agree a funding package? Yes, Sadiq Khan has not helped by implementing a fares freeze and other measures, and we have had the impact of Covid. However, the Government cannot keep piling money into TfL, but maybe that’s the plan. When Ken Livingstone was a thorn in Margaret Thatcher’s side, she abolished the GLC. If the Government see Sadiq Khan as a thorn in their side, all it has to do is not increase its grant, take TfL back into Government control, then what is the point of the Mayor? The Mayor can easily be abolished saving taxpayers’ money for the Mayor’s staff etc. End of a thorny problem and savings to boot to invest in TfL. Job done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. TFL have already has several Billion of funding to cover Covid and another £3.5B is on the table but TfL don’t want to accept the condition’s that come with it

      Khan seems to have no plan to reduce the current TFL revue gap. Currently running at close to £1B a year

      No where else in the England are bus services getting this level of support

      In the rest of England service ae close to collapse as the funding runs out in October

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  3. What a brilliant blog as always Roger. Gary and I in Telford are still attempting to give the public what it deserves but are being thwarted by the local council and our brilliant bus operator Arriva. We are at present working towards revamping our website and will forward details as soon as it is up and running for you to kindly scrutinise if you will. We believe simplicity is the key. Telford is one area which should see services improving not contracting. Whilst we appreciate that driver shortages etc. is a national problem this cannot be said for the efficiency of the bus company. Telford which as you know has a relatively new bus station should be shortlisted for the worst in the country. Could Telford be used as T for alphabetical list of towns? We think it would amaze you in what you would find and just might stir the relevant people/agencies in to looking for improvements. Looking again at your blog it is refreshing to see someone telling the facts about the reality of it all. If ever there was a travel overlord appointed you would certainly get out our votes .

    Very best wishes Mike Edwards and Gary Llewellyn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about Telford! I lived there from 78 to 91 with my Mum still there until recently. We lived in Madeley and apart from the halcyon days of the 42/44 mini/midi buses the services by Tellus, Shearings, Arriva we’re generally terrible and expensive.

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  4. Khan is using the same playbook with TfL as Livingstone with LRT (LT) and it will end the same way. The only advantage would be the emergence of a purely bus and train operator and all the cycling/walking/sustainability/green cr*p hived off.

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    1. TfL have been offered £3.5B to fund existing capital projects(But not new ones)

      The issue no is TfL have now come up with they need another £900M for revenue support

      The issue here is TfL have come up with no real plan to reduce services to match current demand. Unlike most of the res of England TfL have plenty of scope to cut services and cost whilst having little impact on passengers

      TfL seem to think given long enough passenger numbers will recover but there is little to suggest that will happen

      Weekend travel numbers have improved but are still lower than pre Covid and much of he weekend services are loss making. Weekday Travel though remains well down

      Another unknown at present is the impact of the Elizabeth line. Are the revenues covering the operating costs and what is the negative negative network on other TfL rail services and of Network rail services ?

      TfL need to make about 8% of cuts which should b achievable. Currently though they are unwilling to make much in the way of cuts or to increase revenues

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  5. We can all ride our favourite hobby horse (as usual), but I’m still not sure that a personality change or restructure in any shape or form, will address the needs of an efficient, effective and affordable transport network. Not just in London (which may perhaps bring it into the sharpest relief) but we seem further away than ever!

    What do we actually want (except to do as we please)?

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    1. The problem at least in my view is the current system for buses in England is broken and it is in a slow and terminal decline

      Various surveys show the current services do not even meet the needs of the existing passengers and when current non bus users are asked about 80% say the currents services do not need their needs and are of no use to them

      There lies the problem bus service have been reduced to carrying around only school children and Concessionary pass holders and a few people who have no other alternative but that number is in step decline

      Por standard in the industry do not help. Just look at the endless scruffy buses and bus stops etc

      To turn it around it will need funding but at the moment no one want to fund bus services. Where dos that leave us. ? With services getting even worse so you get even fewer passengers

      I am sure some will disagree with me but all the data suggests that’s what is happening

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      1. Thats been the case since the 1960s, at least, hasn’t it?

        However much we may like buses, Britain as a whole doesn’t and is unwilling to pay for them through the farebox or the exchequer.

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  6. I doubt a future PM would abolish the office of London mayor, but if they “take back control” of TfL then Khan (or his Labour successor) can be left to wither on the vine.

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  7. And all this in the context of climate emergency and legally binding carbon reduction targets! Welcome to the failing state of Brexitania.

    What we really need is information about neighbouring European countries and the public transport situation there. Then we can make a comparison. Is Paris RATP in a funding crisis, is it cutting services. Idiot Shappes is crowing in the media about Paris Metro driverless trains as if all lines were so operated. I believe only three lines are, certainly not the majority. Tube drivers are skilled workers, it takes a long time to do the training. They earn good money. Why does Shappes want to take away their livelihood and especially in a cost of living crisis. The cost of converting the entire tube to driverless would cost billions, and take decades. That money would be better spent on UK bus service reform and expansion as required by carbon reduction targets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many of the lines could be converted at little cost. The main cost would probably be putting gates on the platforms

      The central section of the Elizabeth line could easily be made Driverless

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      1. The cost of converting any existing tube lines from having a driver to having an onboard train captain (like on DLR) is extremely high, and doesn’t reduce the number of staff needed. The cost of converting them to crewless is stratospheric bearing in mind all the mitigation that you would need in place. Neither are remotely plausible prospects for improving the financial position of TFL.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. We are seeing the complete implosion’:

      Bus service cuts leave many frustrated Hundreds of bus services across the north of England and beyond are set to be axed over the next three months. Colin Drury spoke to the people of Sheffield about what happens next

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    2. A sensible proposition from the Mayor who understands the issue. Still, in the report, are the words of the loud fringe pressure group who ignore the obvious and blame the current regulatory set up. Given what we know from the subject of Roger’s blog, the government have no desire to invest in sustaining current bus services…regardless of who is running them. We are going to somehow have to make these fringe groups see sense. When there are too many voices, government does nothing. The lowest possible spend of any possible option for bus (outside London) is to stabilise what we have.

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  8. Bus cuts across North Somerset could be ‘the tip of the iceberg’

    Community leaders fear more cuts to bus services across the district are on the way

    Bus cuts to services across North Somerset could be just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ community leaders have warned. The warning comes after it was revealed that First West of England is to cut three services across the district due to falling passenger numbers leaving them no longer viable to run.

    The changes will see the X2 Yatton to Bristol, the X5 Weston-super-Mare to Bristol serving Clevedon and Portishead and the 126 from Weston-super-Mare to Wells, serving Locking, Banwell, Sandford and Winscombe all cut. The move is due to come into force on October 9.

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  9. St Helens buses to be cut despite opposition from local leaders

    operators have confirmed that they will reduce the number of buses running from next month.

    In order to mitigate the withdrawal of funding from the Department of Transport and respond to reducing passenger numbers, the private operators have ploughed ahead with plans to cut routes despite backlash from residents and local politicians.

    However, several services considered to be ‘vital routes’ have been protected following public consultations, with the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority stepping in to provide funding support to save them.

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  10. More than 60 West Yorkshire bus services are at risk of being axed when emergency government funding is cut off in the autumn.

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  11. It’s depressing to see so many comments on a transport blog seemingly cheering on the possible demise of services in London, often it seems driven by a personal/political dislike of the incumbent mayor. Perhaps a policy of ‘leveling down’ would actually be popular?

    It’s worth repeating that in taxation terms London is, unlike most of the UK, a net contributor. This partly hinges on having a functional public transport system, especially when it comes to competing with other world class cities. None of that should distract from the idea that other areas of the country deserves decent transport too. Compared to the cost of certain government initiatives that seem to be mired in waste and fraud the cost would be a drop in the ocean and would actually return many economic and social benefits.

    As someone has already commented a comparison to see how other countries are managing the situation would be instructive.

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  12. Dear info provider
    What an unholy mess !!! If the Government freezes the retail price of electricity and, taxes the wholesale price of electricity, it will surely bankrupt the service providers – at a time that we all want our railways electrified !!!
    Graham Lilley
    Committee Member Railfuture Lincolnshire
    Committee Member South Lincs Connected

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  13. From my (limited) local experience, I’d say that trying to fossilise or set existing services in aspec, appealing as it is, not to upset anybody; is the wrong approach. As is trying to please everybody, and give everyone what they want.

    Rather we need to concentrate on removing the impediments to efficiency. My local operator has done a fantastic job, not without upsetting anybody, in halving services and increasing patronage. In a word, reliability. Yet, on a typical weekday, they have over 100 cancellations we are told about, let alone the short notice ones we aren’t. What’s the problem? Traffic, and driver and vehicle resources. There is no magic wand, but we have to stop making their job harder, if not impossible. We have bus priority, but never when it comes to immediate highway traffic management, which just throw the network into chaos, regardless. It’s not good enough. We have to help the buses, not hinder them on the excuse (not reason) we’re just doing our job.

    It’s no coincidence that as we’ve halved the weekday network, that on Sunday has been doubled, after 50 years. It’s the only day the highway network operates anything like as it should.

    Successful small operators are careful what they do, and as a consequence, if they are lucky, they can do it well. But it’s not an option for everybody, thank goodness, or most of us wouldn’t have anything like our level of service at all. But trying to do everything with too few resources is the classic road to failure. We need to think, and plan; and co-operate. Really, beyond the slogans. And pay for it, properly. Not as some cut price junk shop. Or stop complaining.

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  14. Swindon’s Bus Company is closing its town centre travel shop, citing the closure of Fleming Way (the main bus terminus) which is being turned into a “bus boulevard”. Apparently everything is on the app or Web.

    My thought is “why can’t they erect a portacabin somewhere for the duration? Given one of the core demographics of their customer base will be least likely to be app users they are showing a big disrespect to their customers.

    https://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/20661238.concerns-raised-closure-swindon-bus-travel-shop/

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    1. Dear Peter Brown
      Last Wednesday, 17th August I purchased a train ticket from Lincoln to Cleethorpes. The train terminated at Grimsby and both the following EMR and TransPennine were cancelled. These trains from Nottingham and Sheffield and beyond carry the very holiday makers that spend money in Cleethorpes businesses. Isn’t organisation wonderful ?
      Also, Cleethorpes coach station has been turned into a carpark.
      Graham Lilley
      Committee Member, Railfuture Lincolnshire
      Committee Member, South Lincs Connected

      Like

  15. On Avanti West Coast, their are rumours going around AWC are in crisis talks to move to operator of last resort, because the mess the current management have made of the TOC

    Like

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