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.

3 comments

  1. Kevin · September 6

    Depressingly similar to my commutes from Walsall to Birmingham and back. The Walsall Road routes are now much quieter in the morning, even now schoolkids are back. There are now fewer people travelling into Birmingham city centre for work and I am not sure if and when they’ll come back, despite Johnson’s exhortations.

    Travelling back around 8pm though I’m noticing the buses are busier. But the mask wearing I would say is at 40% or less. It is mainly younger people not wearing them. On the top deck of the bus home on Wednesday, I had the joys of sitting next to a young woman spending her entire journey describing all her travails at home and telling her friend what to look for in a boyfriend. And another, singing. At the best of times I don’t want to listen to this. When you are in the middle of a pandemic, you do wonder whether the use of mobile phones on buses for calls should also have been prohibited.

    Another group of teenagers a couple of weeks ago, off to the city centre for a Friday night out. Again, no mask. It should not be a surprise that the COVID infection rate for those under the age of 40 is shooting up.

    Anyone thinking the police have got time to going around enforcing the mask rules, and pulling people off buses and fining them is with the birds. Events in Birmingham over the last 24 hours suggest other, more pressing priorities. I suspect the police will be out on buses, to provide reassurance (and hopefully make some of those not wearing masks put one on) but you do wonder how long this will last, or can last. Some big decisions need to be made. One will be whether to axe social distancing as the longer it lasts, the worse it is for the public transport operators and there is only so long you can keep running half empty buses and trains.

  2. Roger French · September 6

    Agree Phil; mask wearing among young adults is very poor and off putting for us oldies. I’m seeing this on buses and trains all over the country.

  3. A Traindriver · September 7

    It’s not just on public transport. As you note, younger people (up to middle-aged, in my experience) are openly bragging about telling retail staff to do one when asked to put face coverings on, and whilst older people generally have coverings somewhere near their face, they’re also the group who simply don’t wear them properly.

    Policing it doesn’t happen regardless of availability; I’ve witnessed BTP officers turn and walk away when they see a yoof abusively refusing a staff request to put a face covering on, and Lincolnshire police have admitted that they’ve to date issued a whole one fixed penalty for refusal to comply with COVID regulations – that’s not just face coverings, that’s lockdown, group restrictions, bubbles, the whole caboodle. One.
    And now that pubs are open neither police nor “civil enforcement” have the staff numbers to deal with it anyway; Nottingham city centre on a Saturday evening has long been a free-for-all and with people celebrating “freedom” from lockdown, well, you can guess what it’s like.

    So, forget face coverings, I suspect they’ll be gone by the end of the year; the government never wanted to bring them in anyway.

    The bigger problem for public transport away from the railways is that bus travel is a distress purchase for those with a choice in many urban areas and an irrelevance in rural areas, and I have absolutely no idea what we can realistically do about that.

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