It was great for LTT to provide the opportunity for two senior bus industry representatives to join the panel at last week’s online discussion and bring the local transport professional community up to date on what’s been, to say the least, an interesting three months for bus companies.
Faced with passenger demand falling off a cliff virtually overnight when the Covid-19 lockdown began on 23 March, operators immediately introduced reduced timetables to around 40 per cent of normal service levels necessitating the compilation of revised schedules that normally take weeks, rather than days, to compile and refine to implement. This was all achieved despite no immediate guarantee of funding for the journeys which continued almost empty, but enabling essential workers to access employment and food shops.
As well as demonstrating trust that the Government would provide funding, operators have shown welcome further flexibility by changing timetables with added journeys in response to feedback from those needing to travel, and cooperating with other bus companies to accept tickets and coordinate bus times where sensible in response to the easing of competition regulations.
All this has hopefully demonstrated that there is a strong commitment to the public service ethos, despite most of the industry being operated on a commercial basis, and often criticised for putting its finances first. In fact, at the moment, the financial equation is a worrying one, and survival of many companies – large and small – has depended upon a series of government support initiatives, which have been discussed and negotiated literally on a week-by-week basis.
The trust, cooperation and responsible approach that has been needed to get through this crisis throughout the period of lockdown has now extended to the latest phase when reverting timetables towards more normal levels, despite, once again funding streams being uncertain for some time and passenger levels still really well down on pre-Covid levels.
Bus companies have also demonstrated that they can be adroit and innovative in communicating with passengers about how services are being modified and, in particular, offering reassurance of enhanced cleaning regimes and measures introduced to ensure safe travelling.
All this in a situation where the official Government advice has been highly negative towards public transport use with a virtual instruction to people not to use buses if they can conceivably avoid it. Both the bus company speakers at the LTT online event showed excellent video clips demonstrating measures being taken and ensuring passengers feel welcome to travel by bus. A 700-strong survey reported by Alex Hornby, chief executive at Transdev Blazefield showed that, for what must be the first time ever, cleanliness has overtaken punctuality as the customer’s number one demand.
Overall the bus industry has demonstrated its professionalism, flexibility, cost effectiveness and fleetness of foot, by quickly adapting to unprecedented challenges and it can be trusted to provide a service for passengers in the most extreme of circumstances with minimal call on public funding.
The future is still unclear, and it will take a joint effort by the operators, the Government and local authorities to rebuild patronage and adjust services further, as new patterns of travel are demonstrated in the post-pandemic period.
A particular challenge is providing capacity under the social distancing regime that has dramatically cut the numbers who can be carried onboard individual vehicles. Both vehicle and driver availability are now at their limits, as James Freeman, managing director at First West of England explained.
I know my colleagues in the industry are keen to collaborate and work together to get things back on track with their fellow professionals in the transport authorities, and the relevant parts of government and its agencies.
The bus carries many many more people than the rail system in Britain, and that is even the case now with trains virtually running empty outside of commuter land. The Government has committed large sums to support the continuation of rail operations, and made changes to the commitments of franchisees to remove all business risk. We’d like to think that there’ll be a time for serious discussion about a more level playing field on future funding between buses and trains.
We’d also hope that the Government will remember that announcing new policy rules like the wearing of face covering and social distancing requirements at short notice is a huge challenge for the industry, and greater notice is needed, certainly more than three days, and at least a week.
Likewise, proper consultation by local authorities on the obviously necessary subject of street and road changes to reflect post-pandemic traffic patterns and the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, but recognising where proposals potentially disadvantage buses and their customers, and add to costs.
One reward for all the effort put in by operators to rise to the challenge of the circumstances has been the generous kindness and serious recognition in the community of bus workers, now often held up to a similar plateau of respect to our remarkable NHS staff.
Bus operators and their drivers cannot be policemen, so they can simply do their best to support passengers by information and encouragement on matters like face mask wearing and social distancing and how people should use the limited seating capacity. But they are committed to making the experience of bus travel as comfortable as they can in very difficult circumstances. New digital technology is being deployed to help with service information including the ability to check how many seats are available on a bus as it approaches a stop.
We do hope that it won’t be too long before the Government can step back from the blanket and unhelpful advice of “avoiding public transport”. Our eyes must remain on the prize of how the bus can remain a key part of the solution to the ultimately bigger threat of climate change. We want to remain inside the active travel discussion – indeed, cycling and walking can help buses overcome congestion and be the best first/last mile solution – and how together we can be the key to our towns and cities moving freely, easily and sustainably.
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