When we enter the ‘new normal’, our passenger transport services could be very different

 
Both the secretary of state for transport and the prime minister have told the travelling public not to use passenger transport

 
There is much speculation about the impact of coronavirus on passenger transport services. Currently, everyone is being told to actively avoid using it which is hardly a step towards economic recovery. In a scene that would be pure fantasy in any other context, both the secretary of state for transport and the prime minister have told the travelling public not to use passenger transport; worse still, they have been telling everyone to drive to work. It is becoming clearer that there will be a mountain to climb to restore demand to what is was, never mind creating growth in the market. Although there is no certainty about anything anymore, we can reasonably speculate about the scenarios that may re-define the role of passenger transport based on the experiences to date.

The dismal present

There is a crucial role for all passenger transport services across society, possibly ditching expansion plans for now but continuing to provide services that are fundamental to many people. At this point we need to consider the value to the economy, the environment and society of these services and to pay tribute to those who have died from COVID-19 simply through doing their jobs. Bus operators have now taken steps to protect workers but regrettably this took longer than it should.

People are waking up to the value of the health service and a wide range of other services, including transport

People are waking up to the value of the health service and a wide range of other services, including transport, that enable the country to function. Having been subjected to successive rounds of spending cuts, all those essential services are now very conspicuous which eventually may result in better working conditions and pay levels. There is now a recognition that everyone who works to provide passenger transport services is valued and hopefully this will create a shift of perceptions particularly among those responsible for their funding.

Problem 1: Reduced demand

The first problem is that there are likely to be fewer people on buses and trains because there will be fewer jobs to travel to and fewer shopping trips – these are the two main bus and tram journey purposes. With a dip in train commuting with the discovery that working from home works for many people who then don’t need expensive offices, revenue will decline but it will help relieve the overcrowding prevalent on peak services. This addresses the prevalent problems of providing for peak capacity and the tidality in which everyone goes one way in the morning and returns in the evening.

Problem 2: Social distancing

Social distancing is now established and likely to be with us for some time. This has huge implications for train services which regularly accommodate vast numbers with no opportunities for distancing. However, adopting a more patient approach with reduced demand trains in combination with controlled queue ticket barriers at stations, the situation may be manageable.

For buses, there are some huge problems looming. To date, Transport for London has decreed that only one in four seats should be used and that any seats near the driver will be cordoned off. Using the middle door for entries and exits has been a smart move to help protect drivers, but requires self-regulation by users and all services become free to use. The big problem is that, outside London, most buses have only one door at the front. This enables payments and gives the driver control over the number boarding but they are exposed to risk.

The biggest problem is loading – a double deck bus is at capacity with only 15 users spread out if distancing is to be achieved

The biggest problem is loading – a double deck bus is at capacity with only 15 users spread out if distancing is to be achieved. Translating this to everywhere else means that the ability to move large numbers of people is hugely diminished without lots more buses; there are not spare fleets to provide multiple services so this won’t happen unless resources are re-directed from somewhere else.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps – who up until now has scored reasonably well on the Grayling Competency Scale – has said that there will be more buses and trains so that users can distance themselves. This is improbable given that many rail routes operate at full capacity and there are not spare buses and drivers hanging around in case of emergency.

Problem 3: Funding

Transport for London has been bailed out with £1.6bn, conditional in that the Government has more control over how it is spent, a curiously socialist approach. Interestingly, although light rail has been awarded some emergency funds, buses outside London have not yet secured funding to see them through the crisis beyond the 12-week package announced last month – another example of decision-makers being very London-centric. Perhaps bus services are not as valued as government would like us to think.

Even if buses can carry all those who wish to use them, then they will not do so commercially because three-quarters of the revenue will be lost. Unlike the railway, buses have no operator of last resort or the safety cushion of government taking all the funding risks. If government is supportive of buses, as we were reassured pre-COVID, then large scale funding commitment is needed for some time into the future – there is no other route. Sadly, it is too late for some bus and coach operators which simply had limited reserves and a sudden loss of income.

Another possibility raised was to increase fares to maintain revenue, the problem being that this is untenable

Another possibility raised was to increase fares to maintain revenue, the problem being that this is untenable. For a theatre or cinema it is a possibility but with stupidly high train fares already and affordability being a concern for many transport users, any fare rises will deter use, not support viability. That same quandary applies to cafes and restaurants with one quarter of the capacity available due to distancing but the same overheads; perhaps the government will bail out everything. The vast sums being thrown around at the moment will need to be paid back at some time or simply written off, in which case money would be free. The next generation is already in trouble given the UK’s demography with the working population in decline, now with the added burden of potential large scale unemployment and demands for greater healthcare and welfare funding.

Local authorities have incurred large amounts of funding related to pandemic management which will cripple their budgets and further erode everything that isn’t social care or education. A total re-vamp of all direct and indirect government activity will be needed instead of trying to patch up what went before. This really sorts out priorities of which passenger transport should be one.

Serious commitment is needed, without which there won’t be any private sector interest in running trains, trams or buses. For bus and coach operators that have already failed, there is unlikely to be any chance of resuscitation; for those that remain, there are tough times ahead.

Longer term options

Given the need to re-think just about everything, the time is right to consider the regulatory frameworks in which bus services are provided. If operators can temporarily cooperate to take each others’ return tickets, they should be encouraged to do this anyway because there are no losers and the travelling public benefits. Competition rules as applied to passenger transport services are largely unnecessary because they constrain progress instead of assuming a helpful regulatory oversight. There should be greater flexibility of service registrations, particular in a market in which business failure can be instantaneous but providing substitute services may take weeks. None of the possible changes affect safety in any way but could stimulate recovery in the market.

Governments always want something in return for funding but there is a potential role as an active player. Not micromanagement as the railway has found to its cost, but to promote activities that support the retention and growth of passenger numbers. Only government can do this by having a coherent transport policy that recognises the role of passenger transport services and does something about it. A coherent policy should include decisions about car use, how funds are spent and how to support the environment, something that has been pushed aside recently but won’t go away.

To get back to a commercial proposition, buses have a very long way to go – probably over years rather than weeks

The speculation extends not just to how much money it will take but the timescales. To get back to a commercial proposition, buses have a very long way to go – probably over years rather than weeks. Alternatively, bus franchising/contracting with oversight by some form of government agency may be inevitable, noting that local authorities no longer have the appropriate staff and that direct Whitehall control would be a disaster. For the railway, the temporary situation is a useful step away from franchising towards a new way of managing services. The options range from new governance and funding to state control but probably do not include putting back what was there before.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (www.ciltuk.org.uk), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

 

Online discussion:
Social distancing – the death knell for public transport?

PTRC Education and Research Services, a company within CILT(UK), invite you to join a free online panel discussion. Chaired by Glenn Lyons (Mott MacDonald Professor of Future Mobility at UWE Bristol), the panelists include Nick Richardson.

For details CLICK HERE.

 
Get the latest news delivered to your inbox. CLICK HERE to subscribe to our e-newsletter.