Journey into a locked-down world

(Picture: Empty platforms at Leeds station at rush hour during the first national lockdown in March 2020)

Like many others, my daily bus commute came to an abrupt end in March 2020. In the months since, my only real life experience of public transport in a COVID world was a couple of open-top bus trips up and down Great Yarmouth seafront in the brief respite of August 2020.  

That changed last week when I made the trip down south for the funeral of my Grandma. With numbers of mourners restricted, and wanting to minimise the risks involved, I travelled alone, meaning a journey on a train for the first time in over a year.  

Whilst expecting Leeds Station to be quiet, it was still a shock to see it so devoid of people, with passengers outnumbered by staff and contractors in hi-vis jackets working on the upgrades to the station. Signs reminding people to stay at home and save lives added to the somewhat dystopian feel and the oddness of being out in the world. 

I was surprised by how nervous I felt – like I had forgotten how to ‘do’ train travel – clumsily presenting my QR code as I passed through the ticket barriers and scanning the waiting LNER train, searching for the correct carriage and temporarily forgetting which order the alphabet runs in.  

Finding my seat, the carriage appeared empty, but the occasional rustle of a newspaper told me I was not alone. The space for seat reservation cards in the backs of the seats was now used to remind passengers that reservations were essential and that they should sit in their allocated seat only, to ensure social distancing.  

Posters and audio announcements reminded passengers that face coverings were required at all times unless exempt. I guiltily removed mine to eat my lunch and drink my tea, trying to bolt everything down as quickly as possible, feeling embarrassed to be ‘unmasked’ and feeling for those who are exempt and routinely run the gauntlet of the public gaze and judgement.  

The journey progressed smoothly, and the cleaning regime was reassuringly visible. Cleaning staff dressed in black, looking like members of a SWAT team strode the carriages, spraying everything in sight. Switching onto a local Thameslink service, again the cleaning team were working hard to keep every surface as safe and sanitised as possible. Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was eerily accurate when he imagined the demise of a planet which decided to send its telephone sanitisers and other seemingly unimportant workers off on an Ark into space. Those left behind were subsequently wiped out by a disease contracted from a dirty telephone. Cleaners are heroes. 

Arriving safely at my destination, despite the sad reason for my journey, it was absolutely wonderful to see my family (however briefly) after so long apart. 

(Picture: A near empty carriage on Rebecca’s journey)

The journey back to Leeds was less straightforward. I had somehow managed to book myself onto a Thameslink service that didn’t exist, meaning I would miss my LNER connection and lose my all-important reservation. Stressful at the best of times, but the context of COVID added a new level of anxiety. Would I be allowed on a different train, what about my reservation?  

The member of staff at the customer service desk seemed harassed and off-hand. He was unable to secure me a reservation and, scrawling my permission to travel on a tear-off sheet, sent me on the next north-bound LNER service with no advice as to my onward journey or where I should change. The train manager seemed equally stretched making me wonder whether staff are being pushed to breaking point by the pressures of keeping themselves and others safe and moving in a pandemic.  

In contrast, the member of catering crew (the first person I encountered on boarding the train), was kind and compassionate as – seeking reassurance – I felt the need to explain to him why I was sitting in a seat for which I had no reservation and my worries as to where I should alight for the next stage of my journey. He sat down, listened carefully and messaged the train manager, even offering to arrange me a reservation in advance of the next leg of my trip. A little kindness and understanding goes a long way, especially in these anxious, edgy times. And he made a fantastic bacon roll. 

Finally, I arrived back in Leeds, walking through the city centre to catch the bus home for the final leg of the journey. The city centre looked tired and unloved. With shuttered shops and windows frozen in time, still dressed in their Christmas finery, it was far from the buzzing city that I know and love. 

My bus, in normal times, would be pretty full throughout the day. This Friday lunchtime, there were three people downstairs and about five upstairs. I know that buses are cleaner than they have ever been and that companies are working hard to keep them as safe as they possibly can be.  

What you can’t account for is the unpredictability of us humans. It made for a somewhat worrying journey as one of my fellow passengers, talking away to himself, moved from seat to seat, taking his mask on and off as well as closing the windows that had been left open for the ventilation that is so important for reducing transmission. It highlighted to me the role that the bus plays, not just in transporting key workers during a pandemic, but also as the only travel option for some of the most vulnerable people in society, many of whom are likely to be isolated and cut off from their normal routines and support.  

My journey into the locked-down world was at times tense and nerve wracking. However, the things that matter are magnified but largely unchanged.  

Kind words, a friendly greeting, smiling eyes mean so much in a sea of masked faces.  

Seeing tangible evidence of enhanced cleaning regimes bolsters confidence and we should treasure the armies of staff that are responsible for delivering this. 

Clear information and good communication when a journey is disrupted will always do a lot to dispel anxiety and maintain goodwill. 

It all boils down to kindness and reassurance, both of which will be needed in spades as we begin to emerge, blinking into the light, from what we all hope will be the last lockdown. Happy trails everyone. 

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group 

Why we need a new deal on urban transport – both during the pandemic and beyond

The roadmap of the release from COVID-19 restrictions was as cautious as was predicted for the early stages but perhaps more ambitious than was expected on the end game – with June 21st potentially seeing the end of all restrictions on journey purpose and on social distancing. It’s good to now have the playbook for the nation’s recovery from COVID-19 as a whole. But the uncertainty over what the future holds for public transport, and for urban transport more widely, continues.

Key uncertainties include that we don’t know what the new base level of public transport use will be once the restrictions on travel and on social distancing associated with the pandemic have been permanently removed and transport patronage has settled down to ‘new normal’. Our best current assessment is that without significant policy intervention, the base level of patronage will be well below what it was before the pandemic due to the changes in journey patterns that will have taken place – for example in regular commuting.

We also can’t be sure of when the ‘new normal’ will arrive. June 21st is the earliest possible date and it could be that even if that is achieved, that restrictions may temporarily return, either locally or nationally, at a later date.

What we do know is that the pandemic has underlined what was always true – which is that public transport gets essential workers who don’t have access to a car where they need to be. And without public transport, cities can’t function. It’s also clear that a just and green recovery from the pandemic isn’t possible without public transport. Transport’s poor performance is currently a drag on the UK achieving its carbon reduction targets and shifting more journeys to public transport and active travel will play a key role in correcting that. The pandemic has also hit hardest those people and communities with the least – who are also those who are least likely to be able to work from home. Better access to opportunity through affordable and better public transport is therefore key.

Government has rightly provided welcome emergency COVID-19 funding support during the pandemic so far – which has enabled the wheels of public transport to keep turning. Indeed, in some ways this is a unique situation in that unlike prior to the pandemic (when bus services were vanishing, leaving ‘public transport deserts’ in rural areas), during the pandemic the Government is guaranteeing a level of provision. But though it is doing this, it’s only doing it in a provisional and fragmented way – with different funding arrangements for each mode of public transport – and through a series of relatively short term funding mechanisms. Initially this funding has was predicated on the tacit assumption that the ‘new normal’ will arrive at a fixed point (which will be as soon as possible) when social distancing is removed and previous funding arrangements can be restored. More recently there has been a recognition of the need for ‘recovery funding’ which could bridge the gap between the end of the emergency period of the pandemic and the subsequent transition to when patronage has settled down to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. At which point the Government can step back.

But there is a bigger challenge with the mindset behind the idea of ‘getting back to normal’, ‘recovery funding’ and so on… which is that the normal we had before the pandemic falls well short of the aspirations we had then, and have now, at both local and national level, for greater use of public transport. For example, the totality of funding prior to the pandemic was insufficient to stem decline in bus use. The way that funding was provided (and indeed continued to be provided throughout the pandemic) was through multiple, poorly coordinated funding streams involving different Government departments and was not linked to delivering a coherent set of wider policy objectives for bus.

With at least four more months of pandemic restrictions ahead of us which will hold down public transport patronage, and with a mountain to climb after that to get public transport use back to where it was prior to the pandemic, it’s time for a new deal on urban transport.

This new deal for public transport should:

  • simplify, devolve and guarantee the revenue funding and powers that urban transport authorities need to enable us to plan and provide single integrated public transport networks in the most cost effective way. Both during the remainder of the pandemic and beyond.
  • include a long term capital funding deal for investment in urban transport (similar to the one that national rail and roads already have) so that we have the certainty we need to invest in the decarbonised urban transport networks that can serve all our communities and underpin a green and just recovery.

Find out more on our website here.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group

Bus strategy is our opportunity to safeguard industry’s future

Over the last year of the Covid-19 pandemic we have witnessed dramatic changes for public transport that will continue to present us with major challenges for some time to come.

Three national lockdowns, the continued ‘stay at home’ messaging from Government, and the requirement for social distancing have decimated patronage across rail, bus and tram networks. Unless we take action now, there is a strong risk any recovery will be car-led, with more people choosing to take their cars over any form of public transport.

In my own region, the West Midlands, recent figures show rail has taken the biggest hit, operating at just ten per cent of pre-pandemic passenger numbers. Our light rail system, West Midlands Metro, is faring better at around 43 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, partly because of the unique nature of the network and the areas and types of employment in those areas that it serves.

Bus is currently carrying around a third of passenger numbers compared to pre-Covid levels – a statistic that is consistent with most city regions in England during national lockdowns.

We can see that the bus has throughout the last year provided a vital and affordable transport service to those who still need it. Whether it is for people who travel for essential work journeys, to medical appointments or to pick up shopping for those more vulnerable, the bus has remained a constant supporter throughout the pandemic. 

In the West Midlands, extra services were required and delivered on some routes when schools were open for the autumn term. The bus has also provided a much-needed service for our healthcare workers travelling to work throughout the past year, ensuring they can continue caring for our most vulnerable residents.

There is perhaps an assumption that a large part of the UK’s workforce is able to work from home, but it’s important to point out that these people are actually in a minority.

The Centre for Cities estimates that urban areas in the South East of England have been better able to transition to working from home. Cities such as London and Reading have among the highest shares of people able to work from home (more than 40 per cent), whereas in Stoke, just up the road from where we are here in the West Midlands, it is thought to be less than 20 per cent of workers.

Those people who cannot work from home are more likely to be bus users – lower paid, less likely to have access to a car and travelling shorter distances to jobs.

Not only is the bus vital for those who continue to travel to work, but it will be equally important for those people who currently find themselves unemployed or furloughed. With unemployment at its highest level for four years, a figure that could rise higher still after the furlough scheme ends, the scale of the challenge is huge.

Pre-pandemic data suggests that 77 per cent of jobseekers in British cities outside London do not have regular access to a car, van or motorbike, and so the bus must be ready and waiting to connect people to job opportunities or new education and training necessary for this brave new world.

But the future of the bus – and a fairer, more socially equitable economic recovery to which it can contribute – is deeply uncertain.

Across the country bus patronage was in decline before the arrival of coronavirus (although in the West Midlands this decline had been stemmed and we had seen a modest upturn since 2018).

Part of the problem has been the way bus services were funded prior to the pandemic – by a complex patchwork of declining, poorly targeted funding streams, which were insufficient to stem patronage decline, to prevent networks from shrinking and to stop fares from rising.

During this crisis, the Government has rightly provided additional emergency funding, which has allowed transport authorities to keep the wheels turning.

But now, more than ever, we need to put bus funding on a secure, long-term footing that recognises the role it currently plays for those who rely on it most, and how it can contribute to a more prosperous and greener future.

The forthcoming bus strategy provides a once in a generation opportunity to do so, and Government must take these three steps.

First, it should assess how much funding is needed to deliver improved bus services and devolve that funding to transport authorities – those who understand local markets, can innovate quickly and can target that funding to achieve the best results for their people.

Then, local authorities and integrated transport authorities can contractually provide bus networks on an emergency, short-term basis to deliver specified outcomes.

This will act as a stepping stone toward finally using streamlined provisions in the Bus Services Act 2017 so that when we do arrive at a ‘new normal’ for bus use, transport authorities can choose either better regulated partnership arrangements with existing operators, the franchising of networks of services (like in London) or direct provision.

In the West Midlands, working with operators and Transport Focus through our bus alliance, we had begun to stem the decline and modernise services with contactless ticketing, capped fares, real time travel updates and free Wi-Fi. Further innovations such as flexible season tickets for those who continue to work part-time at home, for example, will be needed to keep passengers on board.

Whatever route is taken, this devolved approach means that bus networks could be planned and coordinated in a way that puts local people and jobs first, whilst at the same time being accountable and providing value for money for the taxpayer.

If we do not take action, those who deserted public transport during the pandemic will not return. Those with a choice will take the car or jump in an Uber and leave our roads congested, making it even harder to meet our clean air and climate change targets.

The Prime Minister’s existing £3bn pledge for buses and the urgency with which it is seeking to publish a blueprint for the future are encouraging signs that this Government does understand what’s at stake. We must make sure that it takes this opportunity to safeguard the future of the bus once and for all.  

Laura Shoaf is Managing Director for Transport for West Midlands, and Chair of the Urban Transport Group

This blog originally appeared in Local Transport Today magazine