As if coping with the Covid-19 lockdown was not challenging enough, Britain’s public transport providers are now facing an even more complex problem in planning for the phased lifting of restrictions on social and commercial activity.
The Government’s general message is one of caution, and measured steps out of the current social isolation policy towards more normal activities. It doesn’t want a sudden surge of people moving about in close proximity for journeys to work, school, shopping and leisure.
Is this the beginning of good news for bus and rail operators, who have seen massive drops in public transport use and revenues?
Perhaps not. First of all, continued social distancing is likely to be a requirement of any resumption of activities, which means that the numbers of people allowed to travel on individual buses and trains will be strictly limited. Managing that will be something of a nightmare, both operationally and commercially. Allowing loadings of only half or less of normal levels means providing capacity well beyond anything commercial for a considerable time going forward, and designating and enforcing appropriate seating layouts will be an enormous management challenge.
On the commercial side, the Government has already effectively picked up all the financial responsibilities on rail by suspending franchise arrangements. A deal for London’s transport remains in negotiation. For buses outside London, there will be a huge revenue shortfall to cover, and that will need either routing new Government money to the operators directly, or possibly via combined authorities where they exist. That choice is likely to be a controversial one in its own right.
There will be the opportunity for political grandstanding amongst those who have been wanting to shake up the bus regulatory system for some time. ‘If the industry cannot pay its way, why don’t we take it into public ownership?’ may be the argument. It could even be one that some amongst the exasperated and commercially damaged operators might be happy to go along with.
Another group of politically active campaigners will be calling for greater use of public transport and less use of private vehicles as part of their ‘let’s use the pandemic experience to make the case to tackle climate change’.
Just when you thought the climate argument was a timely opportunity for buses to play a bigger role, another problem has come along to stop them doing that job.
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