Since the lockdown began, Transport Focus has concentrated on ensuring that those that need to travel can do so when they need to in safety. Sharon Hedges explains how, like others in the transport sector, the watchdog is now beginning to think about what the future holds

 

 
Dispersed across Great Britain, Transport Focus teams are adjusting to life and work during lockdown. Our activities are not as we had expected when we drafted our workplan a few short months ago. However, we have found plenty to focus on as we continue our mission to represent transport users, ensuring their views are understood and considered when important decisions are made.

And, perhaps there have never been so many vital decisions made in such a short time. Government support for the rail and bus industries is timely and essential. As people respond to the need to cut all but essential travel, demand has plummeted, and transport businesses need help to survive these most peculiar times.

For the key workers in so many sectors, to whom we are all so very grateful, it is imperative that services continue to operate to get them to the places they need to go. And when we start to be able to return to, if not quite the same world or business as it was prior to lockdown, our more usual activities and behaviours, then transport opportunities that enable us to move around, for work, personal business or leisure, will be needed. Public transport will continue to be at the heart of much mobility.

On top of the ‘usual’ barriers experienced by passengers with accessibility needs, there is now the added anxiety arising from coronavirus itself. Transport Focus knows through its research that journeys are often planned in meticulous detail by disabled passengers to help ensure a successful journey. The cost of something going wrong may not just be inconvenient, it can represent a threat to health. So, in a time of reduced timetables, disruption and uncertainty it is important that there is absolute clarity about what help and support is available.

Current perspectives

To date Transport Focus has focused on three major issues:

  1. The quality of information provided by transport providers and governments. Any anxiety inducing situation such as this crisis requires clear information to tell transport users what to expect and when, about timetables, motorway service areas or assistance. We have reported on this work in a series of blogs, tweets, the Transport User Voice newsletter and on our website.
  2. The clarity and adequacy of refund arrangements. Many rail passengers have significant amounts of money invested in season tickets. The welcome decision by governments and the rail industry to backdate season ticket refunds to March 17 (unless used since) is now, as a result of our work, backed by much clearer information and arrangements. This reduces anxiety, the need to return to stations where tickets were purchased and makes claiming easier. However, we know that many ticket-holders would have preferred a pause and retain option.
  3. The adequacy of service provision for transport users. As bus, tram and rail timetables have been thinned out and altered it is important that the remaining services (and the prices charged for them) are suitable for the markets they keep serving. We published principles about service alterations and are helping the Rail Delivery Group with a survey on timetables and key/essential workers. We have also stressed the need for motorway and other service areas to remain open for remaining essential journeys.

We have also undertaken, with our partner organisation London TravelWatch, a swift but informative survey with people registered on our Transport User Panel. Nearly 6,000 panellists responded to our request to tell us about their experience in the seven days from 26 March. For those who were still travelling this covered their journey, including the provision of information. For those who were not travelling it covered the reasons why and what they felt about refunding season tickets.

Almost half of panellists hadn’t made any journeys by public transport or by car in the last seven days. Almost nine in 10 of those who hadn’t made a journey in this time said this was because they were following the Government advice not to travel. Of those who had made a journey, the majority were by car and mainly for essential shopping.

Whilst it is reassuring that so many respondents were staying home, of course some people need to travel, including key workers. While many reported trouble-free journeys and public transport being very quiet key workers – including NHS staff – reported a wide range of experiences.

Bus had encouraged social distancing by taping off alternate rows of chairs. They also introduced free travel for NHS staff which has greatly helped me. Driver was very friendly.

Trains are now running on an off-peak service. I have to leave home 20 minutes earlier to get to work at the same time (I’m a nurse). Yet I still have to pay full peak fares despite this service not being provided.

It is more noticeable that surfaces are being wiped clean, certainly on my return journeys from Glasgow Central on the Kilmarnock line. No one talks on the trains and it is a very surreal experience.

I found as a key worker caring for people with confirmed Covid 19 that the bus timetable had changed to one per hour and I had to wait in the cold for an hour for my first bus… It made me feel more weary than when I left the ward.

We also wanted to find out more about season ticket holders’ experiences of claiming a refund. At the time of our survey we found around a third of rail season ticket holders and only one in 10 bus season ticket holders on our panel had so far made a refund claim.

Around a quarter of respondents who hadn’t yet made a claim for a refund on their rail or bus season ticket said they were either unsure if they could get a refund or of how to go about claiming. This illustrates the importance of clear information to help season ticket holders claim the refunds they are entitled to. There are also lessons to be learned here to ensure that season tickets remain attractive to passengers in a period of uncertainty about future travel plans.

Looking ahead

It seems unlikely that the post-coronavirus world will be the same as before with both economic and health challenges likely to remain for some time. When and how quickly will people return to public transport after restrictions on travel have been lifted? Will people return to their old travel patterns, perhaps being reluctant to travel on mass transport systems? Will more people want to work from home and will businesses now see this as more viable than previously? Will more people opt to drive because of health concerns, or because petrol is cheap and congestion is initially low?

Our focus since the lockdown has been ensuring that those that need to travel can do so when they need to in safety. However, Transport Focus, like others in the transport sector, is now beginning to think about what the future holds even though we do not know when the crisis will end. We must think about the needs and possible changed travel patterns of those who will be on the move again once this crisis is over. We will help the Government and the operators understand these perspectives and how best to respond to this as public transport reshapes for the new times ahead.

We are thinking about the future for our range of modal tracker surveys. We will also build on successful trials of online focus groups to allow us to develop our thinking and test out new products. We are already working with behavioural change experts to help us widen participation in the Transport User Panel. We also know that we will need to continue to communicate with stakeholders and the travelling public.

Transport Focus recognises that there are more questions than answers at this time but it will be crucial to involve the user in these debates so that services are rebuilt around their needs, any concerns they have can be overcome, and transport budgets that have been battered can be restored. We are looking at our forward planning to ensure that the needs of transport users’ can inform the decisions by operators, funders and regulators of transport systems in these unprecedented times.

 
About the author: Sharon Hedges is Senior Stakeholder Manager – Franchising at Transport Focus.

 
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