Recent government advice has been ill-advised

The messaging for passenger transport users has been brutally clear

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK government has managed to undermine everyone who deals with passenger transport. This has taken the form of an instruction – do not use public transport – rather than informed advice. It’s as if the demand for bus use needed another blow to incite even fewer people to use it. The trains run largely empty and passenger services have been demonised as being hot spots for pestilence. To make it worse, people have been told to use cars instead, an extraordinary reversal of everything that has promoted public transport for decades.

Providing insight

Part of the trouble is that the proclamations come from people who have a tendency to shy away from mass transit at the best of times including government ministers and their advisors. Pitching in are epidemiologists who have become the focus of attention because we need to listen to the science. Let’s hope that transport planners don’t start telling the medical world what to think and do. Having said that, there are some strong links between these two apparently disparate professional communities. Studying the spread of disease is very much a spatial analysis where geographical and transport planning advice should be vital. This is especially true when it is the movement and interaction of people that leads to the spread of infections. It has always been this way from the spread of the Black Death to cholera and many other contagious events.

Certain members of the government have expressed their contempt for ‘experts’ but now it seems that medical experts are the sole source of advice on everything – including transport and education

Significantly, logistics and public information are essential elements of any mass vaccination. Hence combining the knowledge of epidemiologists and those who know about transport would be extremely helpful. Some means of strengthening the ties would be a welcome legacy of a pandemic.
This is where the cracks start to show. Certain members of the government have expressed their contempt for ‘experts’ but now it seems that medical experts are the sole source of advice on everything – including transport and education. There is a heavy dose of inconsistency here and at some point government might welcome advice on transport rather than pushing it away.

Getting people off mass transit

For those who might be tempted to use a train, tram or bus, there are stark warnings as if this experience would result in certain death. Some buses have been running around with ‘key worker only’ messages as if to reinforce what government is promoting. Applying social distancing to a bus is something of a problem given the layout and the necessity of people moving around involving fleeing near-misses with others. However, we know that travelling by bus or train is actually less likely to promote spread of the infection than other activities such as going shopping for essentials. In the supermarket where there are lots of people in close proximity to each other and little option to keep apart. Contrast this with trains where you are likely to be the only person in the carriage or on the bus where rigorous distancing is in place and everyone is pointing the same way. I am cheered to see that trains have been made longer to carry fewer people; after years of severe overcrowding, Great Western’s Portsmouth to Cardiff trains now have at least five carriages instead of three, even on Sundays. What is also interesting is that they run on time with only a few minor exceptions (I can hear them arriving at my nearby local station because they are the only diesel units) proving the point that they are much more reliable when there aren’t any passengers. Cascaded rolling stock is the main reason for the longer trains but they demonstrate that spreading infection on a train journey is unlikely and has been largely managed out. This should be a very positive message but is overshadowed by the ‘essential journeys only’ message.

Cleanliness is also a good news story. Vehicles are cleaned on a daily or even more frequent basis. Some buses and trains in the past had a deep clean every few years, not every day. Hopefully this regime will stay with us into the future regardless of a health imperative. All transport operators should be hailed as a model of good practice.

Funding uncertainties

Keeping the networks going has been enabled by huge amounts of central and devolved government emergency funding. This has achieved public control in a pseudo-nationalisation scenario and conveniently enables rail franchising to be ditched with time to consider what could follow. Money seems to be falling out of the sky in an attempt to avoid widespread business failures and unemployment in stark contrast to the austerity years when any request for funding was met with derision. More probably, emergency funding will stall some profound problems for a while but not necessarily enable economic recovery. The spread of these fortunes appears to be inconsistent with the public being told to drive everywhere but at the same time introducing the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme to get people into eateries. Despite the hospitality sector doing its best to enforce social distancing and avoid customers interacting, getting customers in has been undermined by successive lockdowns. Passenger transport has also adopted a number of control measures but with customers being put off by the messaging. Fortunately, passenger transport has not been closed down unlike the hospitality sector. The reality of having little or no income for nearly a year rather suggests that many traders in the hospitality sector are doomed. When some activities are allowed again, people won’t need buses or trains to get to them because many won’t resurface and they will have got used to going everywhere by car.

Simple messaging

There has been much criticism of the government’s messaging throughout the pandemic. It has shown how simplicity is the key so that people can understand what they should or should not be doing and act on the advice or instruction. Compliance is damaged with ambiguity and evidence of breaching the rules (Dominic Cummings was a prime example but the prime minister’s relations are also culpable). When the requirement turned to ‘stay alert’, no-one was clear what it meant. The many complications and inconsistencies of the tier system left everyone baffled, including those supposedly enforcing it. In contrast, the messaging for passenger transport users has been brutally clear.

An example of really good messaging and therefore understanding was the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Great effort was put into simple messaging and communicating with everyone with the result that everything worked as intended.In fact, many individuals shunned the special Olympic priority measures for key participants on the roads and took trains and buses instead. To make it all work, the regular users stayed away and the extent to which this happened was impressive and beat expectations. It shows that explaining situations results in better outcomes. The only odd element was the use of ‘remode’ which apparently meant ‘re-mode’ – i.e. find another means of travel which rather sacrificed meaning for the sake of alliteration.

The upshot of the pandemic is that passenger services will take years to recover … but the negative messaging may have put off some potential users for life.

The upshot of the pandemic is that passenger services will take years to recover (as will the health service, education and many other sectors) but the negative messaging may have put off some potential users for life. Should commuting by train ever reach anything like its previous high, the level of service will be reduced so overcrowding will remain as a regular feature. For the discretionary-spend leisure users, off-peak and weekend travel will become more significant unless engineering works are programmed. For bus services, there is a mountain to climb to recast networks and attract users but hopefully government will be as keen to achieve this as it has been to frighten off users during the pandemic.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (, 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.

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