Beyond the lockdown – Steering the right course for urban transport

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As we enter week six of the lockdown, the country is now turning its attention to when and how it should begin to be released. If the lockdown period was difficult for transport authorities to respond to – then the start-up could be harder still.

We don’t know when the phasing out of the lockdown will occur for different journey purposes and demographics, and without knowing this it’s hard to match service levels to potential demand. We also don’t know to what extent we are going to be involved in the Government’s decision-making processes and thus how achievable what we may be asked to do will be. What is certain is that at some stage we will need to meet the additional demand for public transport that release from lockdown entails, whilst continuing to ensure that staff and passengers are protected. Maintaining whatever level of social distancing is required will be particularly challenging as more people are released from lockdown restrictions. As well as the operational challenges, there will be financial challenges too as we will need to pay for the running of public transport networks which may be operating at normal, or even enhanced service levels, but with lower patronage (and thus lower income) and higher costs (everything from higher cleaning standards to more staff to regulate access to stations and vehicles).

We therefore need clarity from Government on five things:

  • How we are going to be involved in a meaningful and strategic way in the Government’s decision-making process on the phasing of lockdown release.
  • What the strategy is through lockdown and into the recovery phase for PPE in general (and for masks in particular, in relation to both staff and passengers), testing for transport sector staff and the role and extent of social distancing.
  • A joint approach to travel demand measures (such as the staggering of working hours) so that travel demand can be managed in a way which is consistent with protecting the safety of staff and passengers.
  • Greater flexibilities for transport authorities outside London to dynamically manage public transport networks as a whole, in an agile and integrated manner, in the same way that London already can.
  • Sustainable funding arrangements to be agreed between Government and transport authorities to cover the different funding challenges of the recovery phase.

Looking beyond these immediate operational and funding challenges for public transport there are some broader, more existential and long run issues for urban transport planning that need to be grappled with.

It hurts to say it but it’s difficult to see anything but tough times ahead for public transport for quite some time as patronage is hammered by the COVID-19 crisis, and even after the crisis commuting fails to return to previous heights following on from the mass experiment in home working. Meanwhile, national and local government is providing more of the funding for public transport and more direction than it has before. In effect, for the time being, we have already transitioned to a more continental model for public transport – with higher subsidies, better integration and more national and local control. We could now do this in a more structured way, a way that is standard practice on the continent. And to give public transport a fighting chance in the recovery, perhaps we also need to be now looking at cheaper and simpler fares too? Without radical action like this, public transport could well be the big loser from COVID-19. But what of the winners? It wouldn’t be surprising if both active travel and cars were both winners – though perhaps in different places. Cheap petrol and discounted cars coupled with the desire to improve personal and family resilience could lead to king car reinforcing its dominant market share with SUVs more popular than ever – particularly in the suburbs, countryside and edgelands. Whereas the city centres and inner suburbs, which were already repurposing streets around people rather than vehicles, could accelerate faster and further. There might be an approach that works for public transport and active travel here – if we can lock in road capacity for buses and active travel in the urban cores in the short term where the appetite and opportunity is already there. Meanwhile, to head off the danger of a two nations on transport, much more policy attention needs to be given in the medium term to transport policy that addresses the harder challenges of places beyond the urban core, as well as the easier bits like city centres (easy being a relative term!).

There are some interesting climate graphs around which show how the fall in carbon emissions that have occurred as a result of COVID-19 is only what we should have been doing anyway (and will need to continue to drive down at the same rate) if we are to meet global targets for limiting global heating. So if that’s the case, the route one for transport must be to electrify the vehicle fleet (public transport and cars) from a decarbonised grid as a central facet of any wider post-COVID-19 economic renewal plan.

All of the above should also be seen as an opportunity to radically simplify the byzantine world of local transport funding into something that gives much more leeway for transport authorities to act quickly, consistently and at scale in order to drag city regions out of the aftermath of this crisis in a way which is also consistent with the climate change imperative. And if money is short, then an increasingly irrelevant and fantastically expensive national road programme looks like the obvious place to get it from.

So, a lot of our time this week will be on the daunting immediate practical, operational and financial issues to focus on around starting up again in support of a phased relaxation of lockdown. But it’s also time to start thinking big – very big – about how the long run implications of this crisis can best be shaped in support of long term economic, social and environmental goals for the city regions that our transport networks support.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

Protecting staff and passengers as we prepare for the recovery phase

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As we enter week five of the lockdown, here’s my weekly take on how things look from the perspective of the UK’s urban transport authorities.

Sharing approaches (both between our members and also through regular contact with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the Rail Delivery Group and the Department for Transport) on how best to protect the welfare of staff, whilst continuing to keep an essential service going for essential users, has been the dominant theme of discussions within our groups with a strategic and operational focus (including the daily meetings of our bus group). On all our minds is the fortitude of frontline staff in keeping an essential service available for key workers and the loss suffered by the families of transport workers who have died from COVID-19 both here in the UK and around the world.

Protecting the health of staff and passengers has also been brought to the fore as we think through the challenging issues around the recovery phase (when the lockdown is lifted). Among the big questions are: How do you switch public transport networks back on again (at what could be relatively short notice) to serve what will probably be a phased and staggered lifting of the lockdown by journey purpose and demographic? How do you do this in a way that protects the health of staff and passengers (including, if some degree of social distancing is to be maintained)? What kind of funding support will be needed to do this given that it’s likely that for a period there will be a requirement to operate a full service but with far less than the normal levels of patronage? And how do we ensure that the funding and regulatory framework for the recovery phase is also preparing the way for the legacy phase (post vaccine)? If public transport is to bounce back, then we will need to have legacy phase funding mechanisms that are simpler and more efficiently targeted, and public transport networks that are more integrated and locally accountable, than they were before the COVID-19 crisis began.

Meanwhile, we continue to press the Government for a funding deal to support our tram and light rail systems to get them through the immediate lockdown phase and into the recovery phase. Private rail companies and private bus companies have had funding support deals agreed for some time now but our tram and light rail systems, like Manchester Metrolink and Tyne and Wear Metro, are also haemorrhaging cash every week as they run near empty whilst providing a safe service for those who really need to travel. This is hitting transport authority finances hard at a time when they need to continue to provide an emergency service, prepare for recovery and invest in the future of these networks as part of wider policy agendas that haven’t gone away (such as on climate and levelling up economies). At the same time, Transport for London is losing hundreds of millions a month in lost income with no funding deal yet agreed with Government. Merseytravel also has financial exposure over its devolved franchise for Merseyrail Electrics.

It was therefore encouraging to read mainstream media coverage of this issue in The Guardian this morning, with a number of our members which operate these systems speaking openly about the challenges they face. We hope to hear from Government in the coming days on what support they can provide to assist transport authorities through these turbulent times.

Another, no doubt, frenetic week begins – but we remain #TransportAuthoritiesTogether

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

#TransportAuthoritiesTogether

I hope those whose jobs allowed it, got some rest over Easter. As we enter week four of the lockdown, here’s my weekly blog on how things look from the perspective of the UK’s urban transport authorities.

Sharing approaches (both between our members and also through regular contact with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the Rail Delivery Group and the Department for Transport) on how best to protect the welfare of staff, whilst continuing to keep an essential service going for essential users, has been the dominant theme of last week’s telecons of groups, with a strategic and operational focus (including the daily meetings of our bus group). It will rightly continue to be this week too.

On funding, the second round of additional funding for the bus industry was finalised last week. Broadly speaking, in the earlier phase one, national and local government agreed to continue to maintain the same funding it put into the sector before the coronavirus pandemic began (such as for concessionary fares, BSOG and supported services) whether those services are being provided or not. Phase two provides additional funding for those services bus operators are actually providing. The idea is that in return for this funding, the bus industry will do the right thing and provide the emergency network for essential users that both national and local government want. It’s early days on how successful this plan will be – but both local transport authorities and bus companies are working hard to make it succeed.

With rail and bus funding deals done, attention is now moving to our light rail and tram systems where lots of detailed work was done last week by our members with DfT in preparation for a case to be made to the Treasury. Tram and light rail systems like Manchester Metrolink and Tyne and Wear Metro are hemorrhaging cash every week as they run near empty to provide a safe service for those who really need to travel. This is hitting transport authority finances hard at a time when they need to continue to provide an emergency service, prepare for recovery and invest in the future of these networks as part of wider policy agendas that haven’t gone away (such as on climate and leveling up economies).

Meanwhile, Transport for London is losing hundreds of millions a month in lost income with no funding deal yet agreed with Government. Merseytravel also has financial exposure over its devolved franchise for Merseyrail Electrics.

Whilst most of our bandwidth is taken up with dealing with the immediate crisis, some day – we don’t know when, but we know it will come – we will need to start up the public transport networks we have busily been scaling back and deterring passengers from using. This is going to bring with it a host of equally daunting challenges including having the staff and equipment in place, to what extent social distancing will still be required and whether this will be a phased end to lockdown and over what period (or indeed whether there will be a series of rolling partial and full lockdowns either nationally or sub-nationally). As well as starting preparation for the practical and operational challenges of the recovery phase, we have already kicked off work on what the long run legacy of this monumental period of upheaval will be with our transport planning group now to meet weekly.

Before I close, I would like to thank colleagues at DfT Local Transport – we all have our different roles and responsibilities and therefore we won’t always be on the same page – but we are grateful for the level of engagement we have had and we know just how hard they are working to fight local transport’s corner.

Meanwhile, we enter week four as we left week three – as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether