Coronavirus: Three concerns on the Government’s approach to urban transport

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As we begin another busy week in our fight against the coronavirus, here are a few observations on where things stand for urban transport…

From the perspective of our network of city region transport authorities, we are pleased with how we have organised ourselves– with a regular Board level telecon at least three times of week to provide overall direction. Interlocking with this, we also have regular telecons of groups on buses, rail, legal, staffing, comms, finance and active travel (so far). We have also started frequent bulletins which seek to reduce email flow by providing a consolidated picture of how the Urban Transport Group is responding to the crisis and key developments. There is the inevitable fog of war but, by and large, these ways of working are proving cohesive in sharing approaches and information and help to inform a consistent dialogue with the Department for Transport (DfT). This is the time when professional networks like ours (and the UITP) are showing a new dimension to their benefits as it’s been relatively easy to switch our existing groups and relationships to solely focus on this challenge, rather than trying to cobble together something from scratch.

As you might imagine there are a host of things going on in terms of firefighting and sharing information and approaches, but in this blog post I will stick to the big picture on where things stand at the time of writing.

In the past week the dialogue with DfT Local Transport has become much improved and more structured, including regular senior level participation with our Board group and with other key groups (in particular, on bus).

However, although this contact is constructive, there are three headline concerns so far about the Government’s approach to urban transport and COVID-19.

First, in general, there is not the sense that urban public transport is in the premier league of Government’s concerns. Public transport is enabling many essential workers to get to where they need to be, including those working in healthcare and in food retailing. But whilst the Government has given strong public backing in a systematic way to those sectors so that they can get on with the job they need to do – the same doesn’t yet appear to be the case with local public transport. Transport authorities are being asked to keep the show on the road without high level moral and political support; a lack of clarity they need on funding; and the absence of comfort they require on the legal framework for taking decisive action across the piece.

Secondly, a deregulated bus network with various operators in various states of financial health (even before this crisis) – and which is supposed to be operating on the basis of a competitive internal market – is not the easiest format for adapting to the current emergency. In the short-term there are real fears about the collapse of operators or service reductions below the level of that necessary to provide an essential service for essential users. In the short to medium-term, there are concerns about how successful simple mechanisms for providing extra funding to the operators (such as the phase one package of maintaining payments for the National Concessionary Travel Scheme (NCTS), tendered services and so on) will be, given the very different financial position of operators. There’s also another short to medium-term challenge of how the available bus resources across a city region are matched to the need to provide a coherent overall network (which also relates to what the light and heavy rail network is providing) if some operators are struggling, out for the count, or are taking different approaches. At present, the hope is that keeping the public sector income flow (with some national and local conditions) into the industry will encourage a cooperative approach to providing the networks that places need and also stave off any significant collapse. This week will be a test of whether this strategy is going to work. Meanwhile, in the medium to long-term, there are real concerns about what shape the sector will be in when we reach the recovery stage and people want to take buses to get back to work, and the legacy stage when we want to try to get back on track with more investment in the sector to grow patronage. And in turn, whether more fundamental changes to the bus sector and its funding will be needed. It’s these challenges that have been taking up a lot of bandwidth since the crisis began impacting urban transport – certainly more than on rail where quasi-nationalisation has effectively occurred already and rail people can just get on with the job knowing where they stand.

Thirdly, although the government has been bailing out business in general, households, private operators and local government – it hasn’t been giving city region transport authorities anything more than a few warm words. The financial strain on transport authorities has already begun as their incomes fall steeply from their financial exposure on metro, light rail and tram schemes, as well as other income from advertising, rents, construction contract clauses for schemes that have been paused, bus station departure charges and so on. At the same time, they are also being asked to pay out on NCTS, supported services, schools services which are not being provided. This obviously can’t go on.

All of this explains why on Friday, we wrote to the Chancellor on the basis of this public statement, and why this week we will be stepping up on making our case to Government.

Everyone’s world has been transformed beyond recognition in a very short space of time but the speed at which colleagues at our member organisations have re-orientated themselves in order to work together to tackle this crisis is a source of hope and inspiration. We are also aware that there are many people – such as frontline public transport staff – who are facing tougher jobs and challenges than we are as the Urban Transport Group team. However, I would still like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues in the team for their work and dedication in ensuring that we are able to make a positive contribution to support our members at this difficult time.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

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