The severe restrictions placed on the UK population may have legacy benefits

 

 
We are living in strange times in which a Conservative government is delivering a socialist agenda, complete with temporary nationalisation of the railways and wholesale centralised funding to retain jobs across the economy.

This has presented lots of challenges to traditional thinking, one major difference being that there are apparently vast sums of money available in times of crisis but with absolutely no idea how it will all be repaid. Suddenly HS2 looks like a bargain compared with the billions being showered around elsewhere.

In the UK, we have spent decades pleading for relatively modest funding for transport which pale into insignificance against the latest spending. It’s all a step in the right direction to stop the national economy collapsing but we still have no idea how long the crisis will persist and what the human and monetary costs will be.

Meanwhile, government’s Magic Money Tree has become a forest that keeps on giving.

Comprehensive change

Travel behaviour has changed violently and instantly with clampdowns on all but essential travel. It would appear that many people can work from home for part if not all the time. Maintaining expensive offices may become less popular after this period of enforced homeworking. Removing overhead costs is something that all business would like so here is an opportunity, not least because people working in an office don’t talk to each other anymore because they communicate electronically instead.

It also highlights the reliance on broadband and the differences between good internet access for some and the indifferent or absent availability for others. If everything is to be internet-enabled, this will put a strain on the system as it is struggling at the moment.

There are other problems of people finding discrete space within the household, particularly if there are others to take into account such as children.

There will of course be lots of occupations for which working at home is not possible but these too are changing. Retailing now doesn’t require shops or high streets but while customers can order from home, the warehouses that supply them need to keep expanding.

Both office-based and retailing account for large parts of the demand for bus travel so structural changes such as those we are experiencing will mean change for bus services also.

Both office-based and retailing account for large parts of the demand for bus travel so structural changes such as those we are experiencing will mean change for bus services also.

Redefining peaks

The implications for passenger transport providers are huge with the potential for a huge dent in the peak period market. Many rail commuters need not travel so much or travel outside the peaks and train users tend to be higher income travellers who are more likely to be able to work from home. If the peak demand is reduced then we are beginning to get away from the age-old problem of providing capacity for peak travel which isn’t as productive throughout the day.

This is not fanciful thinking – if everyone who is able to work from home did so for one day a week, that would reduce demand by 20%. As it is the last few per cent that make the difference between crowded and overcrowded, and between operating at 95% rather than 100% capacity, then the benefits are magnified. It would ease traffic congestion and help buses.

Other situations have shown that change is possible, a huge example being the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics for which the travel information and advice worked rather well with more people changing their behaviour than expected. It affected how goods were delivered, how and when people went to work and how large numbers of people could be managed in a relatively small area. Over time, these legacy effects could be expected to decline but not necessarily if there are recurrent reasons to keep them going.

Now trains are run under agreements rather than franchises although this may provide evidence that whoever is in charge, infrastructure defects, train faults and similar won’t go away

The government’s suspension of all rail franchises has not been a great surprise to most and hasn’t met with much objection. Now trains are run under agreements rather than franchises although this may provide evidence that whoever is in charge, infrastructure defects, train faults and similar won’t go away.

However, it may well show that centralised control is what the railway needs and unify activities in a way which we haven’t seen for a long time. Reinstating a proper structure in which trains and infrastructure are managed together could well be a huge leap forward (or backward from a historian’s point of view). Getting over the problem that regular failure of franchises would be a political u-turn, it is timely and convenient that the system is reunified, temporarily at least.

This is actually a big opportunity to replace the franchising system that everyone, including the Williams Review, agrees doesn’t work; this can be achieved conveniently by not going back to the recent franchises when the current crisis is over. As some were about to fail anyway as a result of circumstances as well as conceptually, now is a golden chance to put it all right. Even those who are staunch supporters of the free market would probably admit that the move away from franchising is inevitable, particularly if a spirit of cooperation and reconstruction emerges in the face of adversity.

Bad news for buses?

For bus services, the traditional sources of demand have collapsed. In an industry which relies heavily on revenue and cash flow, this is a disaster. Government’s attempts to maintain workers’ pay and jobs may be too late for some bus operators and services will suffer in consequence.

On the brighter side, this too might be an opportunity in many areas: concentrating on core services makes commercial sense as well as the interim reality. It’s useful to compare bus markets with the retail sector in that production and sales is all about a number of core items, around which are secondary items that don’t sell as well but justify their returns by widening brand and market opportunities. With buses, some of the less viable services are there simply because they always have been, not because they generate large scale revenue.

One of the recent problems has been that there is no core timetable to revert to when problems occur. For example, one major operator’s website explained how services would run to a Saturday or Sunday timetable but something else after a few days when a substitute timetable could be put together. The equivalent for trains is to keep the main line services going but temporarily withdraw some or all of the secondary services. Buses could do the same if they have a readily identifiable core network. Everyone, customers and operators, then know where they stand and can do their best to focus on good delivery of those core services.

I continue to be amazed at timetables that are impenetrable to potential users and not straightforward for regulars either, some apparently defying all logic or any notion of simplicity

Many bus services are fighting for survival for well-rehearsed reasons but there could now be a chance to think through what happens next, particularly if the current crisis goes on for a long time. Putting aside the social role of buses (i.e. operators acting charitably to keep running services that have very limited commercial prospects because there is a social need), a hard look at network and services would be worthwhile. I continue to be amazed at timetables that are impenetrable to potential users and not straightforward for regulars either, some apparently defying all logic or any notion of simplicity. Similarly, getting to grips with a bus network is a challenge for anyone who may want to use it.

An opportunity for change

When normality returns, it will be interesting to see if the market for passenger transport recovers fully but there could be some big dents in demand simply because people have got used to different circumstances. Some clients or customers won’t be doing what they did before and maybe their travel demands will be very different. Sadly, some people may no longer be with us. Those in education may need transport at different times to those we have come to expect. Disposable income is likely to be reduced, a concern when transport costs make up a large proportion of monthly budgeting.

Social distancing is the polar opposite of passenger transport so behaviour and tolerance may change also, collective and shared transport now being seen as antisocial and even dangerous. This is an opportunity to change how services are delivered and the image of passenger transport.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The Transport Planning Society provides professional development, a meeting place for all those working in the transport sector and leads the response to emerging policy issues. See www.tps.org.uk for further information. Nick Richardson is Technical Director at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK) and Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

 
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