In the last week we have been sharing across the UTG network about how best to safely operate public transport networks where demand in some cases is already bumping up against, or exceeding, its socially distanced capacity. If the return to work becomes more pronounced this week then these challenges will become more acute. We have also been sharing how best to communicate to travellers if they should be using public transport at all, what they can expect if they do, and how we need them to work with us once on board in order to keep everybody safe.
As of Wednesday we have the basic framework from Government (in the form of national guidance) on how they want us to do this. But given the guidance is general rather than prescriptive we are working with DfT, CPT, RDG and UKTram on what it should mean in practice to seek to get consistent approaches across the modes and regions of the UK. Or if not always consistent then at least a headsup in advance on where different approaches might be taken and why.
Meanwhile the funding situation remains as inconsistent and unclear as ever.
So to recap on where we are. National rail operators got all their costs covered the same day as the lockdown began. Private bus operators were next via a complex and convoluted two stage system. Stage one being national and local government paying out for everything they were paying bus operators for before COVID-19 (whether those services are being provided or not) and secondly an additional grant for those services that operators are actually providing. Our tram and light rail systems finally got a funding deaI (though well short of the full costs of keeping them going) seven weeks after the lockdown began. Transport for London got a deal last week, though not enough to keep them going indefinitely, and with strings attached. Merseytravel are still waiting for a deal on their exposure on the devolved Merseyrail Electrics concession.
Meanwhile, most of the above was designed for the lockdown phase when services were low and so was patronage. Restart means ramping up services as rapidly as possible whilst patronage (and thus revenue) remains low because of social distancing. That’s going to be more expensive. Other than a commitment (in very general terms) from Government to fund the immediate costs of starting up light rail and bus services (getting engineers in to ensure the buses and trams are ready to roll) we have nothing from Government on covering the COVID-19 funding gap for the recovery stage. Which is why last week we wrote an open letter to Baroness Vere on the urgent need for greater financial certainty. Otherwise something has to give sooner rather than later. For private bus operators it is their ability and incentive to ramp up services at the pace everyone would like them to do. For us it will be hard choices between covering the costs of our tram and light rail services or continuing to pay out for concessionary travel reimbursement to commercial bus operators (especially when those journeys are not being made at present because of COVID-19).
It’s also worth noting that despite the scale of the crisis, and the concomitant need for a coordinated approach to public transport provision in conurbations (which have the populations of small countries) that transport authorities outside London continue to be bypassed on the funding flow for the main form of public transport (the bus). One reason why we have made detailed proposals to Government for a new, enhanced and devolved format for bus funding for the recovery phase which we believe would be more legally robust (no more paying for things that aren’t happening), provide better value for money and secure bus companies’ ability to provide the safe networks that local communities need. It would also provide a sound basis for transition to happier future days when we are able to safely encourage people to use the bus more indiscriminately and in greater volumes again.
Finally on funding – we remain unsighted on when and how the £250 million for active announced with a flourish over a week ago will be allocated to transport authorities. By and large councils and our members are cracking on regardless with temporary road space reallocation. But clearly it would be a lot easier if we knew what the overall funding was for each authority (and if any conditions are being attached) so we could plan these projects most effectively. And it would also get those local authorities shifting who perhaps are less enthusiastic until the cheque is received rather than edging closer to the envelope somewhere in Whitehall.
Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group