An Uncertain New Normal

Anxious. We’re all anxious. Whatever Covid has done to us, or what it is still yet to do, we’re all still finding our feet. Boris wants us all back at work, plague or no plague, some have found new ways to work that doesn’t involve the commute. The Government message to avoid public transport went on for far too long and has stuck in many a person’s mind.

I work on the front line in the railway world. I see anxious commuters, travellers and staff finding their way through this real life nightmare, trying to avoid the invisible enemy. I recently went out for the first time to recreate one of my favourite past-times – random bus riding in my locality. If you’re going to try to understand what it’s like on public transport, you need to be out on it, experiencing what is going on.

I’ve been doing this long before covid. In fact, most of my life, which amounts to a half-century of lurking around buses, trains and trams. But I’m a tad concerned with what I found.

The face-covering “normality” is anything but. Whatever the science behind it, everyone on the front line – whether it be transport or shops – knew it would be a flashpoint. My initial experience on the railway was, if anything, a pleasant surprise. People, mostly, were donning some sort of face covering. But in more recent times, those times are-a-changing. I would seriously suggest, during this last week (first week in September), up to a third of all passengers on my train were not wearing a face covering. The overwhelming majority being young adults. I accept, of course, that there are exemptions – many of which are not visible. But I would also contend that there are, by that definition, an incredible number of people with hidden health issues – and most of them young people! I have given up trying to gently encourage use of a face covering, having been met regularly with abuse, laughter or ignorance.

My trip out on my local Black Country bus network appeared to be even worse. The good news is that passenger numbers are on the rise. The bad news is that, I would rudimentarily suggest, is that up to half of all bus passengers I witnessed had no face covering on – and those that did often had it half-heartedly not covering their nose. Again the demographic being young adults.

I don’t expect front line staff to police this. I could literally have dozens of confrontational moments on the railway if I chose to, every day. It isn’t good for your mental health. But I also notice something else. Those that do play the game are increasingly frustrated and anxious. Some tell me. Others tell me with their eyes. And this, I fear, is undermining – in the longer term – return to using public transport. Not only do we have a reluctant workforce, happy to work at home wherever they can, we have people who are actively seriously unhappy with travelling on a form of transport where they see the the refuseniks doing their thing, getting away with it, and – more seriously – potentially infecting them.

It’s an excruciatingly difficult problem. If you flood the buses and trains with more police, you will create more ugly scenes. The YouTube video of the guy getting into a punch up with a British Transport Police Officer is the stuff of nightmares for those of us who wish to see more people returning to public transport. Yet the increasing numbers of people who won’t adhere to the rules is a timebomb, for sure. We all know the commute to the office pre-covid was often not the best experience in the world. Now people are getting seriously anxious about it, given the threat to their actual health by seeing people without face coverings in increasing numbers. Trusting the British people to “do the right thing”, as Boris puts it, simply doesn’t work. And the hard work done by Britain’s transport operators to create a safe environment to travel is being undone by the image of these refuseniks.

What did I find on the ground during my busathon? Within minutes there was a young guy sitting directly behind me, no mask, yabbering into his phone. No amount of eye contact changed a thing. I avoided a confrontation purely because I didn’t want a scene within the first 5 minutes of my first journey. My next bus yielded 8 passengers, 3 of whom had non-face maskers. All under the age of 25, I would estimate. Later my journey was interrupted by someone banging the perspex screen of the driver’s cab shouting some some of obscenity at the driver, followed by him filming the driver with his mobile phone whilst continuing to threaten him. Lord knows what that was all about, but my fellow 2 passengers looked on with a mixture of bemusement and anxiousness. You can bet the topic of conversation at some point later would be along the lines of “I’m going to try and avoid the bus in the future”. Our “friend” needless to say had no mask on.

Later, I try something positive. A new limited stop express service between Wolverhampton and Walsall, introduced by National Express West Midlands. it’s a useful addition to the local bus network. I even pop my headphones on and listen to Janice Long on Greatest Hits Radio playing a classic bit of Freddie Mercury, on what would have been his 74th birthday. Yet just before Walsall bus station, I hear a voice above the great Queen vocalist’s dulcet tones shouting “last stop”. I make my way downstairs, where the driver informs me that this is indeed the last stop.

“Aren’t you going over there?” I point at the bus station.

“We have to unload here mate. Centro’s rules”.

I thank him and disembark. To get to the bus station, I now need to cross 2 roads, both using crossings, one on a bend. Within the bus station, I find a Supervisor. “Ah yes”, he tells me, “it’s the Combined Authority’s decision. It’s so we don’t have too many people on the bus station. I ask him, maybe unfairly (it’s not his fault, after all) what if I had mobility issues? What if someone ignores the red light on the bend on the crossing and knocks me over? He sheepishly grimaces and doesn’t really give me an answer. I thank him for his answer anyway. But whether this is “health and safety gone mad” or a well thought-out measure, it again gets me thinking. If you weren’t great on your legs and you came across this impediment, maybe, if you had a car, might you be thinking it’s all too much hassle and you might as well just drive into Town?

Then it’s a jolly romp all the way from Walsall to Merry Hill on the 4M. Ordinarily a single-deck operation, these days it’s a double-deck route ostensibly for social distancing. I take an upper deck seat as our elderly but decent enough Trident meanders through West Bromwich, Oldbury, past half of Sandwell queuing in cars for McDonalds , Blackheath and a mostly deserted Cradley Heath. I count a total of 11 upper deck travellers, 6 of whom don’t bother with face coverings. 2 late-teen girls plonk themselves opposite me and one joyfully recites a recent encounter where she was asked to put a mask on in a shop and told the assistant to “**** off”. Her friend giggles. I despair quietly.

In Merry Hill, I wait for my final trip home. The bus is parked up in the waiting area and is due in 5 minutes. Departure time comes, and our bus is still there, driver chatting to his mate and messing with his phone. 5 minutes later, he’s still there. Then another route – on time – correctly assumes position on our stand. A gaggle of elderly ladies – all masked up by the way – sigh profusely. “This happens all the time”, says one. “Then they speed off because they’re late, flinging us everywhere”, adds another.

It’s a familiar tale of woe. Our man eventually pulls onto stand and departs 8 minutes late. Then predictably does his Formula One driver impression. Another sigh inside. I’ve complained about this and other issues to the company involved. They didn’t even reply pre-covid. What’s the chance now?

Our elderly lady shoppers probably have little choice, but the experience, whilst of course a “first world problem” nevertheless adds up to other niggles on public transport. Nervousness over covid. The increase in people not wearing face coverings. The feeling that the Government messaging on using public transport has stuck longer than it should have.

These are incredibly difficult times for transport operators. We should be in recovery mode now, looking at the long, winding road to get back to where we were at the start of the year, where, ironically, it all seemed so rosy with a decent future for buses, and some reform for the railways.

Now, while we’ve all been dining out for half price and trying to get the massive recovery going, public transport seems almost like it’s been left at the starting block. Yes, the Government has pumped vast amounts of money in to keep it afloat, but a combination of negative messaging going on too long, the lack of a really positive Government message to promote public transport effectively, a growing number of refuseniks not wearing face coverings undermining the whole environment, and individual operators shooting themselves in the foot when they should know better, all adds up a transport sector that feels like it really is a mode of last resort.

We all have to do better, and that includes Government.

The Curious Case of the 582…

Green Bus 582_1 pic

Who doesn’t love a jolly romp around green fields and country villages aboard a double decker bus, peering over hedgerows at unsuspecting horses and other startled country folk?

It’s worth getting up early on a Saturday morning in August experience The Green Bus 582, which is running for one month only. Connecting Wolverhampton with Kidderminster via narrow lanes and bits of road that haven’t seen buses for many a year is a joy indeed.

Let’s be clear. This is commercial bonkers. I’m, pondering this as I’m awaiting said service in Wolverhampton city centre early one Saturday morning. There’s no indication where it goes from, apart from “The Art Gallery” – a collection of on-street stands. To be fair, Transport for West Midlands has removed timetable information for all of the services leaving from said stands – covid-19 strikes again. There are two other likely lads lurking around, peering down the road, awaiting the, let’s be frank, in-your-face livery of The Green Bus.

The Green Bus primarily is an operator of college services. It’s dipped its toes in service work before, but hasn’t largely been successful. The emergence of the 582 is curious indeed. Why? Is it a shopper’s service, intended to give people a couple of hours in Kidderminster? Is it aimed at enthusiasts? People who like to meander around country lanes, letting someone else do the driving?

It feels like something of a bygone age. The halcyon days of Midland Red, where you’d find the operator literally everywhere across great swathes of middle England. What doesn’t feel like something from a bygone age is the appearance of the large green monster at the traffic lights, then turning in the opposite direction, and disappearing off down towards Wolverhampton bus station. One of the likely lads bursts into a sprint, then decides it’s largely pointless as the elderly double decker in it’s eye-catching shade of green rolls out of view.

“You waiting for the 582?”, I offer, knowing full-well he is. “Yeah”, he replies, breathlessly. The three of us stand around, me constructing a complaint in my head already.

And then it reappears. We then sprint back towards the Art Gallery, flagging it down. “Sorry about that”, our friendly driver says, greeting us, saying something about having to drive around the block in order to charge something up. Sounds promising.

It’s £3 single or £5 return Kidderminster. My new-found colleagues opt for the return, and offer their cards, as “this bus is cashless”. But the kit isn’t tap and go. It’s a more rudimentary affair, linked to a mobile phone. Last time I’d seen this set up was when buying a rather large gin at a food fair last year, after spending out on my real money on an outrageous burger that would had fed a family of four for a fortnight. But this bit of kit isn’t working. Our driver sighs and declares to fiddle with it. We all mosey upstairs. A few minutes later, we are summoned by our bellowing driver that it’s now working, and can we all come and pay?

The kit throws another hissy fit, as does our human driver, but in the end finally accepts our cards.

And we leave the sprawling city of Wolverhampton, three of us on board, first via the charming South Staffordshire village of Wombourne, with it’s quintessential cricket pitch in the middle of the village, then further out into the wilds, where no service bus has laid a tyre on proceedings for many a year. The delightfully-sounding Halfpenny Green is next, with it’s airport, infamous for an accident which killed the Queen’s cousin Prince William of Gloucester, then on to Six Ashes, and then the village of Kinver, which does have a regular bus service. To prove that no one ever looks at the destination display of a bus, a small gaggle of intending passenger shuffle forward, and the groans of disappointment are heard clearly from the upper deck as our driver informs them that the bus isn’t actually what they think it is – it’s going to Kidderminster.

 

Green Bus 582 pic_2

rural fields of South Staffordshire

From here, it’s on to another rural outpost, Caunsall, then into Kidderminster itself, looping around the Swan Centre for the shops, then terminating at the faceless Crossley Retail Park, where myself and the two others hop off, point cameras at the vehicle, then disappear off to negotiate several lanes of traffic that are part and parcel of car-orientated shopping parks.

The 582 is that most curious of operations. It’s only running for five Saturdays in August. The timetable wasn’t even on the Green Bus website for the first Saturday of operation (it is now), so hardly time to build up awareness. And, nice as it is, it isn’t even really an “excursion”-style route to somewhere “touristy”. Awareness seems largely the preserve of the local enthusiast fraternity on Facebook.

 

Green Bus 582_pic3

low-hanging branches haven’t seen a double decker in years

And yet…. As I make my way home, I ponder a few things.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing the local countryside from an angle I’ve never seen it before. Maybe with covid, and more people considering “staycations”, simple, inexpensive jollies like this may be part of “the new normal”? If the idea is to recreate a rural facility for a shopping service for the locals, might they consider life without a car? We used to have loads of routes just like the 582 before years and years of cutbacks left rural and semi-rural areas decimated when it came to public transport provision. Whether rural dwellers liked it or not, the car had to become the default transport option.

The 582 clearly is bonkers. Delightful bonkers, maybe, but commercial bonkers. But it opens up a much wider debate – post covid – about what we want “the new normal” to look like. Pre-virus, the environmental argument was starting to gain traction. There may still be large numbers of petrolheads, but the words of Greta – and others – are moving up the political agenda, slowly. And this all includes public transport. Lots of our beautiful countryside and rural areas are lost to us, if we don’t drive. Employment and education opportunities are made more and more difficult if you live in these areas and don’t drive.

Clearly Green Bus aren’t going to rake in the dough by operating the 582 with a double decker running along country lanes with very few on board. But should we think more about provision to rural areas and Shire County locations that opens up opportunities for both locals and other curious travellers, who’d like to spend time in rural villages? The local economy might benefit greatly from people who have decided a flight to Spain in a stuffy mask is just too much to risk, yet a pint in the local pub or some delightful cake in a local shop might be a nice day out  – and you can do it without the hassle of driving.

Opening up our rural areas to better public transport will require a long-term vision, commitment and funding from the powers that be. And it also will require some of the flair and ingenuity shown by commercial bus managers. These don’t need to be fixed bus routes, but could be Uber-style demand-responsive. They could link in with other options, such as other fixed bus routes in urban areas or taxi companies. We need to think outside of the box in “the new normal”.

The curious case of the 582 gives us all food for thought.

You can check out The Green Bus website here

 

On Yer Bike!

Ahh, good old Norman Tebbit. For younger readers, you’ll have to Google what the Tory “big beast” was on about when he uttered those words. But it’s a phrase that lingers, and one that people who dream of a less car-polluting world certainly dream of.

I’m approaching 50. Not being one for the gym and rather fond of any meal that has “and chips” as the title, I’m not exactly healthy. I’m the kind of bloke who would benefit greatly from regular cycling. I live around 3 miles from where I work, so a nice 6 mile round-trip I’m sure would benefit me significantly (coupled with a substitution of lettuce instead of chips on the odd occasion).

But, like many others, I’m put off by idiots. Idiots in cars. And not just idiots. People who don’t take driving seriously. They aren’t concentrating, but they’re in charge of a pile of metal that can seriously injure and kill if not driven with due care and attention.

And a short stretch of white paint doesn’t help. Nor green tarmac at traffic lights. A non-statistical survey in the pub (before the virus put paid to my ale-supping) revealed that many of my fellow drinkers either don’t know what the green section for cyclists at traffic lights is, or don’t particularly give a monkeys.

Yet giving over newly properly segregated space for cyclists has also seen that space reallocated from bus lanes. Boo-hiss, you may well say, and I’ll probably agree with you.

However, cycling and buses need not be natural adversaries. Buses need, more than ever now, to become part of the “alternative” to cars, where possible, and that alternative includes cycling.

In recent times, I was involved in something called “Whim”. It was a notion that you could live without a car, and all sorts of modes were integrated into one app. So, for a monthly fee, you got all the usual bus/train/tram, but also car hire if you needed it short-term, and taxis, and where there was a scheme, bikes. I still think it has tremendous potential, and I was even flown (yes, I know) to where it all started – Helsinki – to see it for myself. Whim even launched in Birmingham, and I was part of a trial that inevitably needed some ironing out, but nonetheless became a “thing”. What happened to the Birmingham trial, I don’t know. It went quiet. And the great Covid disaster will no doubt have repercussions for it. But I remain a enthusiastic convert to MaaS (“Mobility as a Service”) and I really hope it’s time comes.

I’m also enthused by something I spotted recently in the trade press, that is simple, but potentially really effective.

When we talk about public transport, we often come across the issue of “last mile” connectivity. Whatever you think of your local rail service, for example, taking the train is extremely popular. But people still drive en masse to their local rail station because buses can be confusing and taxis too expensive. Cycle storage at stations is often hit and miss – and people often aren’t willing to leave expensive bikes chained up to primitive cycle parking (although that’s not always the case – the rail world is getting better at this). The interface between bike and bus is even less connected.

Yet Cardiff Bus and nextbike have joined forces to provide a simple option – pop the nextbus information onto the Cardiff Bus app. Users now have the option to take the bus, then, if the bus isn’t going close to home or work or wherever they’re going, they can check the app to see how many nextbikes there are at hubs along the route, hop off the bus and grab a bike to their ultimate destination – “last mile” sorted, and no need to actually own a bike.

From this, you can see that Cardiff sees cycling as very much in their future vision, but by integrating it with buses, it utilises the strength of both.

This requires the buy-in of more cities across the UK, coupled with smart ways of making road infrastructure much more cycle friendly – and not necessarily removing that all important bus priority. Manchester too, apparently, is looking to get a cycle scheme going again, after the failure of it’s original one following thefts and damage. Birmingham too seems close to it’s own scheme.

Buses need to be central to the future of “Maas”. In Helsinki, the question was asked as to, if taxis were part of this “eat-all-you-can” scheme, wouldn’t people just grab cabs everywhere? Apparently, initially, there was some evidence of this, almost as a novelty factor, but it soon settled down to sensible use. People hopping on  trams, then using buses, hiring cars at weekends if they were taking a long drive out, and taxis if they were on a late night out. Imagine throwing cycles into that mix too. No need to own a car, which is parked up 95% of the time at home or at work, no polluting the atmosphere with your own vehicle, more money to spend without tax, insurance, fuel, wear & tear etc – and potentially getting fitter.

I know this won’t work everywhere, and large cities will be the initial recipients, but just getting into the heads of people that there really are other options has to be the future. When covid is just a horrible memory, attention will swing back to the environment. People may actually remember the months of lockdown where, actually, traffic levels went right down and the air felt cleaner.

At the risk of sounding like an overweight, 50-something bloke-like version of Greta, there IS a future where the car isn’t at the centre of everything. The bus industry needs to quickly integrate itself into that future vision, to have a future itself.

Franchise By Default?

There’s much to be commended about how the bus industry has gone about it’s business during lockdown. A quite decent skeleton service has been there since day one. But with very few passengers using it – many estimates suggesting usage down around 90% in those early weeks – it is quite clear that a rather hefty amount of subsidy has been required to keep the wheels turning. A near-£400m package agreed at the start of April between Government and the industry was for a three-month period, involving a mix of existing grants that cover fuel consumption rebates and new emergency funding, for which services were expected to cover up to 50% of pre-lockdown service levels.

And by golly they needed it. On my daily strolls, I observed a fair number of buses passing through my village. Barely any passengers were on board. Now further emergency funding to the tune of £254m from mid-May for the next three months will hopefully help to see buses play their part increasingly as the country slowly climbs out of lockdown.

Predicting the future of the bus world is worse than ever. Warm words and promises of lots of extra cash from the recent election campaign had led many of us to believe the bus industry really had a promising future. As environmental concerns rise up the political spectrum and Greta’s message resonates with increasing numbers of people, public transport could be the centre of a better world.

And now this. The stuff of science fiction movies. A real, devastating message. “Don’t use public transport unless absolutely necessary. Use your car”. This, from Government.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps even admits its an opposite message to what he should be proposing. But the science has spoken. If buses were ever the mode of last resort, they certainly are for the time being. And the longer this goes on, the worse it will be for the bus industry.

Down the road from me, in Worcestershire, local operator Diamond has taken the opportunity to revamp one of it’s poorly performing routes, and withdraw two others. These are your classic Shire County examples. The sort of routes that barely wash their hands commercially. Ten years of austerity has also seen the piggy bank of the local authority shaken empty, when it comes to topping up these marginal services. The locals doth protest, but, as ever, the issue is a far wider one – made all the more difficult by the invisible invader.

What of the future of buses? Not even Mystic Meg can predict for certain, but the industry must be guarded and ready for new challenges. Notwithstanding the social distancing nightmare, the long-term market may be scarred and dammed irreversibly. The issue of home-working may have been heavily accelerated. Even when Covid is over, is the genie out of the bottle that says working from home more and more is the new norm? The virus hasn’t stopped home deliveries – be it food shopping or stuff from Amazon. In fact, a whole new range of people have discovered how easy online food shopping has become. Yes, there may be a delivery charge, but in the same way that the likes of Uber appeared on the scene, folks are increasingly making a mental trade-off in the minds. Twenty minute wait for a bus with heavy shopping bags? Or £5 delivery charge dropped to your front door, no hassle?

So what might buses be used for in the future? I think a framework of services will probably always need to be there, long into the future. People who can’t work from home, people who aren’t pre-disposed to home shopping deliveries, and of course leisure will all require buses to be there. And I think large City-Regions will ride the storm. My concern, as ever, is for rural services, but also increasingly, those oft-marginal Shire county routes that serve mid-sized towns. It also depends on who is running these services. The large groups have large overheads. They have shareholders that require profit levels. Perhaps for these, big City-Regions work in the business plan, with high-frequency operations and enough users to justify investment. Does that model work in smaller towns surrounded by green fields? Or can it work better with smaller operations? Less expectation of profit, fewer overheads. Are they best suited to Independent operators? But where are these small operators? Many have gone to the wall already, and for those who, traditionally have been both coach & bus operators, the coaching industry is facing an even more dire future than their stage carriage sisters.

If society isn’t ready to ditch the bus lock, stock and barrel, is the future based more on local authority control? If the Government money keeps rolling to support these covid-times timetables, then it surely is more and more likely. There is a requirement with the current batch of emergency funding for commercial operators to agree the level with local authorities required, as demand increases following the easing of lockdown. And that, of course, is perfectly reasonable.

However, as lockdown eases and baby steps are taken, who knows how long social distancing will be required. Many are suggesting that we may have to live with covid for a long time. What if a vaccine is never found? Or it takes many years? Jo Bamford, who brought vehicle builder Wrightbus out of administration seems a confident chap. He is calling for £500m of Government funding to help fund the introduction of 3000 hydrogen-fuelled buses. All positive stuff, but he is also aware of the effects of covid on the long-term future of the image of bus travel, suggesting ways in which buses may be redesigned internally, including handrails manufactured from hospital-standard stainless steel, and ventilation systems that extract air rather than recirculate it internally. Some operators are making real efforts to ensure the internal appearance of buses doesn’t look like a war zone, with bits of seat taped off like a murder scene. There’s some real thought going into making it look more appealing to travel by bus.
The future battle will surely be all about wooing passengers back. But with much reduced capacity, and networks propped up with Government cash, where is the commercial attractiveness?

In those aforementioned Shire County and rural areas, is the future possibly franchise by default? Many industry watchers were keeping an eye – pre-covid – on what is happening in Cornwall, where a new authority-led operation including single branding, simpler integrated ticketing and long-term bus service tendering to one operator, with investment in new vehicles is emerging, although plans for completely free bus travel across the summer appear mired in confusion (see Roger French’s blog on the situation here). There is no doubt that the Cornwall operation has attracted funding above and beyond the usual scrimping and struggling experienced by other Shire/rural areas. Many years ago, Gwynedd Council in North Wales attempted a version of this, with buses visibly painted red on the front with “Bws Gwynedd” logos amongst other initiatives. Is covid more likely to bring an area where the current operator decides to throw in the towel completely, leaving an area bus less?

Meanwhile, in Manchester, where Transport for Greater Manchester has the Government piggy bank, some disquiet has emerged regarding what it is telling operators they must do in order to receive the subsidy. No comment as yet from the City’s major bus operators, but Julian Peddle, the Centrebus Director, and a well known and respected figure on the bus industry scene has vented his frustration publicly. He suggests (amongst other issues) that conditions TfGM are imposing on operators equate to them having total control of the network and a fixed sum of money that may or may not be sufficient. Manchester is the scene of a bid by the Mayor Andy Burnham to consider the first franchise system of a major city-region area in the UK for it’s bus network. There appears not (at least publicly) to be similar situations elsewhere but it isn’t on the face of it a good look.

Chris Cheek, the industry analyst, thinks that bus use is unlikely to recover to more than 55-60% of where it was immediately prior to lockdown. He goes on to say that, in the medium term, lifestyle changes and economic issues could keep demand between 18-26%below pre-virus levels.

All of this potentially paints a bleak picture for the future of the bus industry, but, of course, we still know so little about this virus, and how it will act in the coming months and years. Maybe, if we’re looking at long-term Government support for the bus industry, the operators need to get on the front foot and utilise their undoubted commercial nous ahead of what will probably be inevitable calls for the paymasters to call the shots – franchising by default?

Stagecoach appear to be suggesting such ideas (see previous blog Out of the Darkness? ) which involve deep, long-term partnerships with authority partners.
For passengers, long-term, well thought out, well-costed plan can only be a good thing. But it requires the commercial talents of the bus industry to play their full part. Government funding for all sorts of industries since covid emerged has cost the country an unimaginable sum of money. If that has to continue into the mid and even long term, a bus operation dictated by local authorities may well find itself competing for scarce funding with others. Far better surely to have a long-term, fully planned, well costed network that encompasses the commercial talents of the bus industry, and the civic responsibilities of the local authority.

Out of the Darkness?

My last bus journey before lockdown was unspectacular. It was a 57 from the village 2 miles down the road to mine. The only other passenger, an elderly lady, giggled nervously with me and we both wondered what was going to happen. Then, the next day, Boris locked us down and I haven’t caught a bus since. And I’m missing it terribly.

But, seven weeks on, as we seem set to move mouse-like into some sort of slight lifting of the lockdown, I’m not sure if I’m feeling some sort of miniscule relief that the end is beginning to appear in sight, or if I’m feeling very nervous at the thought of taking a bus ride – especially if it’s a busy service.

Like most other industries, Coronavirus has been devastating for buses. The Government has moved with admirable speed to arrange temporary funding to keep a decent framework going throughout lockdown, but it’s what comes next that is arguably even more important.

Before all of this, it seemed like buses were on the cusp of something good. Boris likes them, and Rishi had promised them all sorts of funding. Politicians were talking about buses, and not always in a negative light. The virus might have cruelly whipped the rug from under the inspection pit, but does this unprecedented time give us all a blank piece of paper to try something new?

We all know buses are important, and they will remain so long after Coronavirus has become an unpleasant memory. What is important though, is that the sector comes out fighting.

There are some interesting stats and research emerging from our time in lockdown. Urban Studies reports that over half of people surveyed are not missing their car commute. Can buses capitalise on that? Before we get too excited, Transport Focus also report that around 60% said they would drive more than use public transport once restrictions are relaxed. A similar percentage said they would cycle more than use public transport. Around 40% also expect to work from home more, going forward.

How much of all this is fear of the unknown? Probably a lot, given that social distancing has been drummed into us, military style for the last month. Keeping that up on buses and trains is, on the face of it, going to be extremely challenging. First in Scotland has commented that, whilst demand for it’s services during lockdown had fallen by 85%, going forward it was going to be “unsustainable”, given that social distancing would require more vehicles to provide capacity. I agree. At least in the short-term, once things start to pick up who is going to co-ordinate thousands of businesses in city centre locations so that they don’t all work office hours and recreate the rush hour? And we seriously can’t expect bus drivers to police social distancing regulations. All of this has the potential to dent confidence in bus services.

Stagecoach though, takes a more holistic, long-term view that is both refreshing and potentially exciting, as it appears to challenge the “either/or” argument over deregulated or franchised operations. In Tony Blair-speak, it is a potential “third way”. We’ve seen evidence of Stagecoach’s out of the box thinking in recent times too. Before Covid, it was proposing a profit-sharing scheme for Manchester, in order to challenge the idea of a franchising arrangement there. Is this evidence of some real mature thinking on behalf of the private sector that realises that, perhaps in Manchester particularly, the game was up? This too from the industry giant that ruthlessly set the standard for Thatcher’s deregulation era. Have the descendants of the Souter era gone soft?

Not a bit of it. With the withdrawal from America and UK rail (and seemingly Sheffield Supertram in the not too distant future), Stagecoach is focussed solely back on buses. As the UK’s largest bus operator, it is, perhaps, looking to the long term. Indeed, at least pre-Covid, the UK bus industry big boys were showing an inclination to get ready for the long haul. First effectively reversed their decision to flog their UK bus operation and now seem intent on staying here. National Express has bought it’s last diesel bus and intends to run clean and green for well into the future. Go Ahead has always been a group of consistent high quality, and only Arriva appear to have a question mark over it’s long-term future in the UK.

Given that buses still seem important to the big groups for the foreseeable, it is welcome that the biggest of all – Stagecoach – is looking to the future framework of how buses are operated in this country, and suggests with it’s latest proposals that true partnership is the way forward.

Based on a unique opportunity to emerge from Covid with a clear long-term plan, Stagecoach suggests;
1. A joint operational and investment plan developed by industry and government to ensure a sustainable transition of Britain’s bus networks from the emergency levels of lockdown to more comprehensive links which support the country’s recovery. Measures needed include steps to rebuild confidence in mass transit, a move away from peak-time commuting to spread demand, and investment in transitional support for transport operators as passenger numbers take time to grow;
2. Radical, permanent changes by national and local government to infrastructure and planning. Road and street space should be prioritised for walking, cycling and high capacity public transport over private cars, with a fundamental reallocation of limited space and steps to encourage first and last mile connections. Public mobility hubs rather than private car parking spaces should be requirements for planning new housing developments, offering public transport connectivity, electric charging points and cycling;
3. Wide-ranging measures to deliver on the government’s levelling up agenda for regions outside London, with many hit hard by the economic shock of Covid-19. This includes new place strategies for towns and cities to rethink high streets, promote local spending and create new attractions, as well as leveraging public transport’s capacity to bring shoppers and visitors to regions on a scale that will not damage the environment;
4. Lifestyle changes, particularly around travel, as well as a focus on technology to address the damaging impact of transport emissions. Pollution, already responsible for asthma and lung disease, is now being linked as a contributor to Covid-19 deaths. Many single-user car trips – the transport equivalent of disposable plastic bags – should be replaced by public transport in urban locations;
5. A “grown-up conversation” to re-examine fiscal policy as the government considers how to pay for the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary actions the country has taken. This would include a complete transformation in how transport journeys are taxed. A move to a system where the polluter pays and sustainable behaviours and use of buses, trams and trains, as well as active travel, are rewarded to make these modes more affordable and accessible to all; and
6. Targeted investment in decarbonisation, including sustainable transport and infrastructure, to help restart the economy, put Britain at the forefront of the green revolution and speed up recovery. Maximising the potential of Britain’s world class and world-leading bus manufacturing sector by accelerating government investment in electric bus fleets will deliver a cleaner environment, improved health and cement Britain’s position as a clean-tech leader.

It’s easy for those of a cynical disposition to pick any or all of the above apart. And it is, of course, true that a real partnership between the industry and the public sector relies, bluntly, on the people involved. But what is different about this is that, while of course preserving Stagecoach as a business in the long-term, it looks on a far wider basis at how, once we are out of lockdown, we move forward with issues such as infrastructure, cycling, rethinking High Streets, the environment and fiscal issues. It also cleverly creates an image around how single user car trips should be replaced by public transport in urban locations: “the transport equivalent of disposable plastic bags”.

It’s a start. And perhaps other bus operators need to get behind this sort of thinking, perhaps as part of their revitalised trade body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport.
Before Covid, there were increasing examples of really good bus operations, beyond the usual excellence. Reasons to be optimistic, you might say. And as we eventually emerge from lockdown, buses will be not only as important as ever, but part of the solution to revitalising our poor environment. The country has had to do what it did with the emergency lockdown, but the future requires serious planning, new ideas and new thoughts about how to do everything, given the huge demands hurled at us by Covid. The threat of another era of austerity should spur us to do things differently, to work together to embrace the skills of a vibrant commercial bus industry coupled with a public responsibility to create real, environmentally-friendly ways to get around.

Maybe the bus industry recognises the deregulation model of the last thirty years isn’t the long-term way forward, but the public sector similarly needs to recognise that clunky authority control isn’t best placed as a transport model in 21st century Britain. A responsible mix of the two however…

 

Watch The Flix

Not unexpected, but still intriguing is the now confirmed appearance of scheduled coach giant FlixBus into the UK.

Growing out of the liberalisation of European coach travel, the German giant has only been in existence since 2013, but it’s already all over the continent. It also has operations in North America, Asia and plans to move into South America soon.

But what might the UK operation look like? There’s no word yet on routes here, but expect a robust defence of popular corridors already well served by National Express and MegaBus. Indeed, FlixBus might find it more of a challenge here then many of the territories it currently operates in.

Scheduled coach travel here, though, still has room for a few niche operations. Despite its popularity, National Express has had to revamp its network, and that’s left some places unserved directly. Could FlixBus try to reinvigorate the market in these areas? Or will a price war erupt on major direct corridors? And is there still room for the innovative Sn-ap set up, that has recently reappeared on the roads, albeit in limited form – and still not greatly known to the wider public at large?

Or will FlixBus just be another coach brand stuck in the slow lane behind the inevitable roadworks? Interesting times ahead…

Buses…I Like The Idea…

94%. Is that enough?
Should be. Or shall we get a Go-Pod? The charge might not be enough if we’re out all day.
Yeah. Remember when these were called Uber? And they had actual people controlling them?
Blimey. I’m too young to remember that! Talia’s Mum Willow remembers though. She was telling me how people used to drive cars manually and get all uppity about it, because they all wanted to be first in the traffic!
Funny isn’t it, when you look back. Maddox has been doing some history project. He was on about “buses” the other day. Like some sort of ride-sharing thing. Really fascinating. You’d stand on the side of the road in designated areas, and this thing called a “bus” would come along at set times. It ran on a fixed route, so everyone knew where it would go.
Was that driven by a person?
Yeah. And they used to collect fares too. Or people would wave a bit of plastic at it, in the days before we had our biometric chips.
I love this idea though. I know the pods are great but you don’t get to see anybody.
Probably a good thing!
I know, but still….it’s the interaction thing. Everything is so…functional these days…
The thing about buses is that they weren’t reliable…
But how come? They sounded like a good thing.
You know when people controlled their own “cars”? It was like a status thing. Their car was their personality. I mean – who would have their own pod these days? So there was no way they’d make space for buses to go first in the traffic. And the politicians wouldn’t let the buses go first. The minute they suggested that, no one would vote for them, because another candidate would suggest the opposite.
That’s just bizarre.
Isn’t it? You think about how many people you could get on a bus. There’s one in the museum. About 80 people on one bus.
Ha. And now there’s 80 pods! I know we’re zipping around here and there, but there’s something logical about a “bus” on a fixed line at regular times. It’d mean so many less pods everywhere.
They weren’t always attractive though. Imagine a bus every few minutes. No problem. But then you’d get outside the city and there wouldn’t be one for an hour. That’s where you needed a car or a pod now.
True. But you could have had a version of a bus that was more like a pod, surely? If a few people needed it, it could have had a slightly different route every day, according to demand?
Yeah. “demand responsive” – a bit like how we book our pods today.
Funny when you look back. They used to say that, in the future, no one would need to travel – we’d all be using video links and the like. That never happened, did it?
I know. But we all need to get around, don’t we? Pods are good, but you have to wait ages to book one in the peak times. If you had big pods running along fixed lines at regular times, you wouldn’t need to worry about trying to book and having to wait to see if one was available.
That was the beauty of bus, eh? They were mad to get rid of them.
Yeah. Buses…I like the idea…

Use It or Lose It

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It’s always depressing to open the local paper (if you still have one) and be confronted with a picture of a gathering of (usually older) bus users looking a mixture of faux anger or sad resignation, gathered around a bus stop waving a petition. It’s usually the withdrawal of a bus service – and it makes for terrible headlines for the bus industry.

“Use It or Lose It” sometimes becomes the phrase, should the operator decide to have second thoughts, or the local authority find some money down the back of the proverbial sofa to keep it going – but what sort of phrase is that? It’s a bit like the Health Secretary asking you to make yourself ill in order to use your local GP or A&E – or it’ll be gone. We all use our GP surgery from time to time, but it is a community asset. Why don’t we see bus services like that?

Lightly used, but seen to be essential bus services being faced with the chop is certainly nothing new. But instead of this perennial run-around and bad news stories abound, isn’t time we had a bus strategy that begins to look at people’s basic mobility requirements and plan for it accordingly?

Let’s be honest. Having a bus rolling around country lanes on a fixed route, picking up handfuls of folk will never be a commercial proposition. Back in the days of post-deregulation, we seemed to be content to fund this through local authority tenders, although I suspect there was disquiet in certain corners of the Town Hall. Nowadays, the last of that coinage down the back of the sofa has been spent, and we’re all too busy arguing about Brexit to notice what is going on.

The people in the picture are complaining about a long-standing National Express West Midlands service. There are several of them in the west Dudley area, some of which cut across the invisible border into South Staffordshire. And here’s another problem. Folk in the West Midlands conurbation area have largely avoided large-scale cuts to vulnerable services because they had Centro – and now Transport for West Midlands – to ride in on horseback and save the day. Logistically, some of these routes cut across the oddly-shaped South Staffordshire border area, and it’s often caused issues. Before the universal England-wide concessionary pass, you had bizarre rules whereby you could get on in the Centro area, ride through the bit of South Staffs if you didn’t get off, but if you did get off, you couldn’t get back on again unless you paid. That’s all thankfully history now, but you get my drift. What do you do with a problem like an administration border?

This far corner of the Black Country border has long-been a commercial concern for National Express West Midlands. It’s nothing like the cash generator of Greater Birmingham. The problem for the operator is that if you drop the frequency, you make the service even less attractive. “Round the houses” services provide lifelines for some people, but they certainly aren’t attractive for people going to work, who pay good money, who want something that gets them there in the least amount of time with no fuss. NXWM are good at some of these, with high frequency, limited stop offerings covering large parts of the West Midlands conurbation. The other side of the coin is the more traditional estate services that need to be there, but increasingly don’t wash their face in commercial terms.

So we have the traditional photo, with local Councillor centre-stage. And often, we have the quote that includes something about how franchising would solve all of this, because the politicians would control the network for the good of us all. Sounds good? You bet! Except we’ve either got short memories or we’re too young to remember what used to go on, and would no doubt go on again if the Town Hall ran the show.

How long do you think the 4×4-driving neighbours of these semi-rural lack-of-bus protestors would take to open their council tax bills over the latte machine one morning to protest about how they’re paying for a bus service that is hardly carrying anyone in the traditional sense? I’d give it about ten minutes. And with little money in the piggy bank, the local politicians would be looking to shore up votes by spending it on other, more politically vote-winning projects. This week’s petition-waving pic of bus-less pensioners in the paper is next week’s fish & chip paper, as the saying goes.

So I have little confidence that franchising bus services in this sense would be anything more than a photo opportunity for the local Councillor – who has “saved” the bus service – only to be quietly withdrawn six months later, because people haven’t “used it” – they’ve now “lost it”. You simply can’t expect a commercial company to keep on subsidising loss-making services. You wouldn’t expect Hovis to carry on making peanut butter flavour bread because only me and half a dozen others liked it and no one else did – it makes no commercial sense. And this is the bitter situation that people in loss-making local bus service areas face. “Use it or lose it” may sound like a passive-aggressive threat, and everyone understands it, but it’s a basically empty phrase, because if people already “used it”, they wouldn’t be under threat of “losing it” – and are we expecting people to radically change their lifestyles to “use it”?

We need better solutions rather than cheap threats. Provision of bus services are radically different animals depending on where you operate them. Yet, we have bizarre views on how to do that. We see successful commercial operations in large conurbations, but seem to want to turn them over to politically-led franchised networks. But we see struggling set ups in marginal, often rural areas with no clue as to what to do with them. It’s the wrong way round. Leave the professional high-frequency city operations to the experts. Instead, why not look at the rural stuff and create a nationwide bus strategy that has minimal levels of public-based mobility available. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean full-sized buses trundling around country lanes, but other options, such as demand-responsive operations, or options that include merges with local non-emergency ambulance provision. Revise the contentious concessionary pass issue that often ends up with people having a “free” pass, but no service to use it on. How about providing a number of tokens for local residents to use on such demand-responsive operations every year, with more rides charged for at a low rate for pass holders and a commercial rate for others? Of course people will argue that most rural dwellers use their car, and whilst this is undoubtedly true, there should be alternatives available, should this suddenly not become an option. And what about choice? In this environmentally-concerned world, shouldn’t everyone have the choice of not motoring?

If our new leader Boris is such a bus-loving person as he makes out, perhaps an innovative bus strategy that benefits everyone, makes best use of commercial innovation and provides effective mobility in areas where it isn’t commercially viable, ought to be high up on his list.

Big Boys No More

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Ahh, the corporate identity. A show of business muscle. The brand image. It permeates every nook and cranny of every day life. From radio stations to dentists, veterinary surgeons to coffee outlets. And, of course, our everyday bus services.

Marketing folk and brand experts will argue till the cows come home (oh, I forgot the milk industry) about the success or otherwise of the brand image. It undoubtedly works for Coca Cola to be a world superpower, but does it work for something inherently “local” as a bus service?

Apart from buses, I have a fascination with radio. The radio industry has taken a somewhat similar route to buses in recent times. Technology has allowed what were local radio stations to “network” their output from studios far away, and clever software allows seamless input of “local” features, such as local news and traffic, and “voicetracked” voice links, that allows the presenter to sound like they are “local”. It’s extremely clever, the listener in the main cares not one jot where their Sugababes song is actually being played from, and the local snippets serve their needs. Some of my local buses in the West Midlands carry all over adverts for “Greatest Hits Radio”. Is this a “local” radio station? Does anyone actually care? It’s a triumph of brand image and business muscle.

What on earth am I babbling on about? Well, if other industries have learnt this lesson about the importance of how they present themselves, the bus world is patchy. And if the love affair between large corporates and local buses is over, might a truly localised set up benefit passengers going forward?

The likes of Arriva, First and Stagecoach went in hard during the nineties and noughties with the corporate might. Stagecoach’s “beach ball”, First’s “Barbie” and Arriva’s “aquamarine” became – and in many instances still are – ubiquitous. You might think it matters not, so long as the bus turns up, and there’s a lot to nod along to with that, but what people see really does matter, even if it does mean digging down into the psyche. Go Ahead didn’t pursue the corporate image, instead going for the more local, rooted in the community feel with individual group companies all “being themselves”. That, of course, is backed up by a culture that devolves local decision making down to local level. I’m no managerial expert, but it’s always seemed to me to be a sensible way to go for an industry that operates inherently at a truly “local” level.

The likes of Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions company has understood this for many a year. Way ahead of the curve, Ray has dragged many a bus operation kicking and screaming into 21st-century brand image. Just down the road from me in Worcester, the bland corporate First Barbie pink has been washed away with beautiful “Worcester” and “The Malverns” branding, as well as individual route branding like “Nimrod” and “Salt Road”, which portrays a deep understanding of a company rooted in it’s local community. Behind the scenes, it’s still corporate First, but it’s a million miles away from the corporate head office diktat of 15-20 years ago. Other, smaller operations like Wellglade (parent of TrentBarton) and Transdev (they of countless local brand images in the North) have also long understood the importance of local.

The current problems of Arriva, First and Stagecoach suggest that the make-up of Britain’s bus industry might be about to significantly change.

Stagecoach have retracted in recent times. America and Europe are no longer playgrounds, and the well-reported issues with rail franchises are pushing the company back to their roots – UK bus operations. There is talk of a new brand image for Stagecoach’s local bus operations – might that include a move away from almighty corporatism into something more locally focussed? Stagecoach has never really gone for the local image – remember Norfolk Green? That was pulled back into the corporate fold after a while. First has increasingly gone for the “local”. As mentioned, Worcester has all but abandoned the “flying F” going forward, and we can see similar in Leeds, with the very attractive green image. Arriva sticks doggedly to aquamarine, and despite a repaint programme that introduces a new shade and a new corporate logo, for me it’s still a cold corporate message. Why not learn from their colleagues in rail, who have all sorts of different brands and liveries, simply adding the Arriva corporate ownership underneath the name?

For First and Arriva in particular, change is rapidly arriving. First’s boardroom squabbles have led to the perennially under-performing monolith to finally admit defeat and offload UK Bus. Arriva’s parent company DB has a £3.6bn gap in it’s finances, so it looks like it’s all going to go. But is this an opportunity to move forward positively, both for local staff and passengers that use the services?

There’s no doubt that belonging to a big group offers some positives. Resources and investment are the two obvious ones, but being a smaller, locally focussed set up may offer alternatives. Would a less-focussed drive towards a set margin of profitability help? Might there be a chance of local ownership that includes all staff having a stake in the company? Could a smaller, leaner, fitter local operation be the sort of set-up supposedly envisaged by Thatcher’s Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley, when he ushered in deregulation of the industry over 30 years ago?

The bus world faces myriad challenges today. But, like the world of radio, this long-established industry has to change or die. Video would apparently kill the radio star, and the likes of the Sony Walkman, and now the tech-driven Spotify would all supposedly render the ancient world of radio irrelevant. Today, despite many changes and unsettling times, the radio industry is in rude health. The bus industry has got to learn lessons from other operations. Maybe a move away from large-scale corporatism into freedom to do what it does best at a micro-local level could be a blessing in disguise.

New Tricks with Old Tools?

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With the current uncertainty surrounding the future of “big boy” bus operators, such as Arriva and First, the news that National Express appear set to operate the West Midlands’ Ring & Ride mobility service is as welcome for current users who rely on the service, as it is curious to see a move into this field.

Ring & Ride is one of the largest and long-established mobility operations anywhere. West Midlanders are long used to seeing the red white and blue minibuses on the streets, and the system predates the internet era. The collapse of Ring & Ride’s parent company ATG (Accessible Transport Group) and sister operation Igo – which operated several tendered bus services – left over 15,000 registered users and more than 900 staff concerned for the future operation. As well as mobility transport, Ring & Ride were also responsible for a home-to-school operation.

Whilst emergency funding has kept the show on the road since March 2019, it has emerged that National Express are poised to take over the operation. This is interesting stuff on several levels. Ring & Ride is well established. Whatever caused the collapse of ATG, National Express are masters at what they do. They are based in the West Midlands, and if they can’t make a go of it, you wonder who could. The company has also been making some pragmatic moves in recent times – as others have struggled, NX has shored up what it does have – and made interesting advances, such as ditching UK rail and expanding into German rail operation. It’s Spanish and US operations are on a sound footing. West Midlands buses remain a challenge – as many UK bus operators face similar struggles – but it appears to have struck a good chord with the West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who appears to have no grand vision of franchising in big urban landscapes like his counterpart in Manchester. It will be fascinating to monitor progress of our 2nd and 3rd largest urban areas  the coming years, when it comes to bus provision.

Maybe the acquisition of Ring & Ride scores some political sweeties locally. NX’s West Midlands bus operation in recent times has seen large-scale investment, and the emerging unifying of the local transport “brand” alongside rail, tram and bike, is only part of the quiet revolution currently going on. It won’t do NX any harm politically to take on such an important operation.

And is there an opportunity here to create some synergy between the traditional side of bus operation and the more specialised mobility operation of Ring & Ride? We’ve seen demand-responsive minibus Uber-style operations pop up in a few parts of the country. It’s probably to early to say whether these are a long-term success or not, but I spy an opening here to do something involving technology, demand-responsive routes and the preservation of a crucial traditional mobility service. Could such a set-up also save the public purse some money and create a real alternative to money-draining traditional evening and Sunday tendered services, or maybe introduce new offerings that wouldn’t be half-empty buses trundling around housing estates, but a more dynamic operation led by demand through an app? if it creates new opportunities and a service people can use effectively, I can see a potential win-win for everyone.

For people who think the days of the bus are old hat and in terminal decline, something like this might just be the breath of new life. Maybe you can produce new tricks with old tools…