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.