COVID-19 funding gap filled… for now

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It would make no sense for Government to cut COVID-19 funding life support for light rail systems whilst it is rightly investing millions every week on expanding and renewing them.

 

This time, Government funding to close the gap caused by coronavirus on bus and tram had run out before a new funding deal was put in place. The deal (announced on 8 August) gives light rail in England outside London three months support before another funding cliff edge – with bus support now on a rolling deal with eight weeks’ notice of termination (but no clarity on what the criteria for termination might be). Meanwhile, the funding for additional public transport capacity (up until half-term) for schools came through just three weeks or so before the schools restart.

It’s clearly good that the Government is continuing to stand behind public transport financially. However, the way it’s being done is increasingly tangled with funding arrangements by mode and area becoming more divergent following the latest funding round. Transport for London, light rail outside London (not including Blackpool), buses outside London and national rail services are all now on funding deals on different time periods, and with different criteria (or no clear criteria) for decision making. Dealing with the consequences of last minute, cliff edge approaches to decision making (with all the cash flow and legal implications) also soaks up a phenomenal amount of time for our members and our staff.

The Treasury is also looking to scale back and escape from the COVID-19 funding arrangements as soon as they can – hence the short term nature of the deals and the deadline stand offs. This is scary stuff for transport authorities because there is little chance of patronage (and therefore income) returning to where it was pre-pandemic anytime soon – and the local authorities that stand behind transport authorities are underfunded for COVID-19 themselves. Any scaling back of funding support therefore could hit bus services in particular and hard. The reasons for this include that there’s only so much you can do at the margins to cut costs on light rail without shutting them down completely. Plus local transport authorities with light rail systems have all sorts of financial and legal obligations to the light rail systems that they own – which they don’t have for bus services, which are owned by somebody else. Other factors on bus include the return to normal de-registration periods for bus services, which combined with funding uncertainty or retrenchment, could trigger a wave of de-registrations of commercial services. The Government is also still looking to local authorities and transport authorities to continue to pay out on an indefinite basis concessionary travel reimbursement at pre COVID-19 rates (i.e. for concessionary journeys that are not currently being made). This is something which is not sustainable given the state of wider local government finances.

All of this casts not only a long shadow over the ability of transport authorities to plan ahead but also the Government’s longer term aspirations for urban transport and the ‘levelling up’ agenda. This includes the Prime Minister’s intent to turn around a declining bus sector with the £3 billion of additional Government funding which it announced prior to the pandemic. It also includes the millions that are being poured into renewing and expanding light rail systems which is happening right now. It makes no sense therefore to pull the rug from under public transport funding in the short term – if you are trying to build it up in the medium to long term. The way out of this conundrum could be the Spending Review and the national bus recovery strategy in the Autumn, which would be the logical point to build a bridge between an increasingly ragged emergency patch and mend approach designed to keeping the wheels turning on public transport for now and the more sustainable and robust  arrangements which will be needed in order to segue into supporting the Government’s expansionist agenda for public transport post COVID-19.

The stabilisers are off

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London Borough of Waltham Forest

 

To be clear, I’m all in with the active travel revolution set out in the Government’s new manifesto for Britain’s roads. How revolutionary is it? Very. Traditional street hierarchies turned upside down, only the best will be good enough on active travel infrastructure, go to sleep in Detroit and wake up in Delft. However, in one way not so revolutionary in that it’s the traditional centralised England approach of “we like what we’ve got in London so you need to do the same – chop chop, no backchat about the voters, and make sure nothing happens without our approval”. We are about to test whether this can work and in the way that it didn’t for road pricing for example. We are going to find out whether the populace has a universal latent desire to cycle which is about to be liberated – or creatures of habit who have enough on their plate without all this. More likely a bit of both which will play itself out in a form of street theatre. We are going to find out whether politicians in power locally (and almost as importantly, in many places in opposition) are going to be prepared to expend electoral capital on resisting any local backlashes (Waltham Forest being the shining example). We are also going to find out whether national politicians are going to stand behind the policy when the going gets tough locally and politicians of their own party are leading the backlash locally. And whether we can go from a standing start in many areas to ambitious transformation to high quality schemes which get it right first time.

So, if we are going to go Dutch (and not die trying), then there’s going to need to be more resources, both centrally (at Department for Transport and at the new Active Travel England), and locally. Not just capital but revenue too, in order to pay the people to design good schemes which communities can buy into. Wherever we can, we also need to be thinking more widely about ‘future streets’ when the opportunity comes from active travel funding. Because the street of the future need not only to be easier to navigate on foot or by bike, but also needs to be more climate resilient (shade and drainage), give buses priority, be sensitive to the needs of different types of disability as well as being responsive to a host of other legitimate outcomes too. The Headrow scheme in Leeds city centre is a good example of what I’m talking about – better for active travel but buses too, and also the opportunity was taken to put the pipes in at the same time for a district heating scheme – as well as street trees. All of which costs money, takes skills and resources and involves trade-offs.

Intercity – make the going easy

Maybe it’s been sorted now, but a few weeks ago if you travelled by rail from Newcastle to York and on LNER services, seat reservations were compulsory, on Cross Country you could sit anywhere and on Trans Pennine Express it was like full lockdown never ended – two metre distancing and the bare minimum of seats on offer per carriage. The exciting world of consumer choice now extends to the approach to a pandemic it seems. The railways’ bizarre bazaar of make believe ‘big four’ branding, pot luck fares and take your pick public health tactics looks like an increasingly strange and strained indulgence when the whole thing is an artifice propped up and puppeteered from Whitehall with public money. Never mind the legions of lawyers, economists and consultants that the taxpayer pays for to keep up the front of house pretence that the railways are a dynamic, competitive and private sector market. With patronage hammered by COVID-19 the fight back is going to be tough for rail as it is, so why waste time and money perpetuating this expensive fiction when you could cut through it all by recreating a national intercity network again. Guaranteed frequencies for the nations’ major cities on a more consistent basis, straightforward long distance fares and intercity a big player on the national travel scene again.  This is something that you could market and promote the hell out of, get your story straight for the twists and turns of the pandemic to come, and sell on the basis of the environmental credentials that people do care about rather than make believe identities that nobody cares about.

Jonathan Bray is Director of the Urban Transport Group 

Comfort or ‘capitalist realism’?

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There are a lot of new trains – faster and with more seats. So that’s good. Some of the nose cones are sleek and the exterior styling is impressive. But it doesn’t seem like the same amount of thought has always been put into the design of train interiors and passenger comfort. Poor ride quality, harsh lighting and hard seats are common. Standard class provision feels more abundant – but at the same time sub-standard and utilitarian. It was as if the design brief stated “…imagine that the GDR still existed and that there are only two colours left in the world”.

Why are train interiors being designed by this, does it matter and if so what’s to be done about it? I suspect the reason it’s happening is that we have a railway which is ruled by engineers and financial engineers plus an absentee landlord in the form of the Department for Transport. And with passengers flocking to rail (almost regardless of what’s sometimes done to deter them) train design becomes all about meeting a seemingly unquenchable demand for rail travel. The big challenge is finding more places to cram more passengers on to more trains. So why make the extra effort on comfort and style?

There’s also a hole in the centre of the railway, the place where British Rail used to do the R and D and think big thoughts about the issues that are less immediately critical. Like comfort and design.

But does it really matter? Not if you look only at passenger growth figures. But then the national passenger surveys tell us that more people were satisfied with their last bus journey (88%) than were satisfied with their last rail journey (82%). But the patronage stats also show that passengers have been abandoning the bus whilst flocking to rail.

So let’s go deeper, and then deeper still; beyond the facts and figures and down into the netherworld of feelings and emotions and instincts. Where even the colours and the sounds we experience influence our actions in ways we weren’t even aware of. By way of example, when two different liveries for the existing Merseyrail fleet were presented to the public they rated the one with the livery they liked best better for comfort, despite the fact that aside from the livery the trains were the same.

Meanwhile, in Japan, CityLab recently reported that suicides have decreased at stations where overhead blue lights have been positioned at platform ends. Because blue is a calming colour.

And then there’s time. In many ways choosing to travel by train is a logical choice with journey time being a big factor. However, once you are on board your sense of time can start to become elastic. The commute or trip for work can take on value as a transitional or preparational time. A firewall between domestic and professional life. A time when zoning out is absolutely fine. Where ‘anti-activity’ is acceptable and to some extent revered (‘the quiet coach’). Where train travel ‘gifts’ you a different kind of time.

Perhaps this is one reason why commuter trains can be as quiet as a monastery. Perhaps part of the agitation about having to stand, or travel in grimly designed trains where you don’t have any space, is to do with the loss of this kind of time?

It’s different for leisure travellers. The research suggests that leisure travellers actually want more stimulation en route as the journey is part of the purpose. If there’s someone noisy in the morning commute it’s much more likely to be a stray leisure passenger than a work traveller.

It’s also interesting to speculate how the all pervading always online nature of modern life has flattened out the experience of rail travel – for travellers for work in particular. If you tune in beneath the silence of the commuters, and the sound of the train in motion, there is the insect-like clatter of tapping keyboards. The single seat on the train journey becomes an extension of the single desk at the office – rather than a prelude to it.

And whereas there is no doubt a strength to the argument that the ability to go online for work or leisure is an advantage public transport holds over being a car driver, could it be true that conversely this could make driving more attractive insofar as it becomes one of the few remaining places where you can force yourself to avoid going online? In which case does rail design need to offer something more?

I’m always interested in what’s going on in the Netherlands, as their base level of rational pragmatism gives them space to be creative on transport (and public policy more widely), and then to implement at scale – and boldly. On this topic this includes the work of Dr Mark van Hagen of NS, the Netherlands state railway, from whom a lot of the content of this article is inspired (although any misinterpretation is mine). NS has been trialling different approaches to the design of the environment that passengers experience at stations and on trains and methodically assessing how this influences the way passengers respond.

I could feel that NS had been benevolently messing with my head when I was last at the new Rotterdam Centraal station which despite its impressive scale has a sense of all pervading calm which you can feel literally slowing your mental metabolism.

One of the reasons why they have put a lot of thought into it is that interchanges are a big source of negative experiences for passengers. They are also places where time can slow down (because waiting for a train can be boring if the environment is too harsh and without facilities or distraction), or stressful (if you can’t find your train). So they have sought to create an environment which all passengers can easily navigate and where they feel socially as well as physically safe, whilst providing facilities and attractors (useful retail) where it doesn’t get in the way of the station’s essential function.

Some of this is also about ensuring passengers feel in control of an experience. Where the railway is getting the basics right, then adding the extras – like pianos on concourses – can give a lift to satisfaction scores (including for other aspects of the experience of the station which in reality haven’t changed one iota).

With a large station it is easier for the same station to give different types of passenger what they want from the same building – but not so easy with train design. At present the prevailing style of modern train travel in the UK might be best described as ‘capitalist realism’. You can sense the financial calculations about what was realistic to provide.

But travel on scenic and secondary lines in many parts of Europe now and you will find single car units which look extraordinarily generous and ‘unrealistic’ in what they gift to passengers, with huge near floor to ceiling windows and the feeling that the whole train is basically an observation car. Take the German ICEs with their family cabins, or the experiments with social and shared space that are increasingly taking place in train design.

None of this seems ‘realistic’ to us – but there you will see it, pulling into the platform in Wroclaw or Dusseldorf.

However, in the UK there are also signs of restlessness against the capitalist realism of modern train design – with the backlash against hard seats on Thameslink and elsewhere. Scotland too is increasingly unwilling to accept that the trains serving some of the world’s great railway journeys should be so uninspiring and without guaranteed access to the views.

I will leave the last words to Dr Hagen: “If the desire for speed and ease is met, the passenger will experience a sense of control and be satisfied with the journey (but no more than that). Speed and ease belong to the core business of train travel; they are generic and apply to each station and train. Comfort and experience are satisfiers.”

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

What does the National Travel Survey tell us about how much we travel?

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The Government recently published the National Travel Survey, one of the annual highlights in the calendar for transport researchers such as myself. Contained in the cells and tabs of the 77 spreadsheets served up in the survey (as well as, to the credit of the Department for Transport, its accompanying commentary document) is a statistical nirvana on how we, as a nation, are travelling.

So what does it tell us? One of the most interesting highlights is that the number of trips made by residents of England increased to 986 trips last year, 11 more than the year before and the highest number since 2009. Following a long period of decline, we have started to record more trips in the last couple of years.

Which modes are seeing growth?

Much of this recent increase can be accounted for in walking trips, which are now at their highest level since 2006. Walking has been the big winner in the last couple of years, with the apparent under reporting in short walks being corrected for since 2016. We’re now seeing 39 additional walking trips per person since 2014. Great news for active travel advocates such as ourselves.

Less good news, particularly from a climate perspective, is that the number of trips as a car or van driver increased to 395 (up from 390 in 2017), reaching their highest levels since 2010. Last year also saw a large increase in the number of young people with a driving licence, reversing the recent trend.

However despite this recent increase in car or van trips, the actual distance travelled as a car or van driver decreased over the last year and is at its lowest level since 2013, with the average trip length falling to 8.2 miles (from 8.4 miles the previous year). The number of trips people made by car in urban conurbations also fell in the last year (4 less trips per person), mirroring trends we have seen in local cordon counts.

Surface rail hit a new high for the number of trips per person (22). This is a small increase on the previous year (21) and continues a long standing trend of steel wheel success.

Which modes are seeing decline?

Both inside and outside of London the bus did badly (two fewer trips per person in London and four fewer trips for the rest of the country). This disappointing but largely expected news leaves the bus at a low point in the last decade, with only population growth preventing further falls in patronage.

When it comes to two wheels, national figures once again show a somewhat bumpy ride for cycling, with numbers hovering around 17 annual trips per person on average for the last few years. This is despite local evidence in our city regions which shows large scale growth where high quality infrastructure schemes are implemented. This suggests that whilst there has been a lot of good work in this area, there is still more to do to emulate the success of places like London – where cycling has been the fastest growing mode of transport in since 2000 – on a nation-wide scale.

The impact of the car on our mobility

Another fascinating tidbit to emerge is the relationship between car ownership and travel. Households with a car continue to make more trips overall (986) than those who don’t own one (737), with the main car driver in the household making the highest number of trips overall (1,163).

Car ownership also impacts on the distance travelled, with a household with no car averaging 2,760 miles per year compared to a staggering 6,530 miles for a household with a car (and 9,163 for the main driver of the car in the household).

Whilst there are likely to be a number of factors that impact on this trend (households with no car can range from wealthy city centre dwellers to households experiencing high levels of poverty), the presence of a car has a significant impact on how households travel.

What does this mean for our cities?

While the national statistics are undoubtedly interesting, looking at the number of trips in isolation doesn’t tell the full story. A major success story from our cities over recent years has been the reverse of long-term population decline and the revitalisation of their economies. With ever more people wanting to travel into and within our major cities, it is important that we are able to encourage them into higher capacity modes. In this sense, the increase in walking levels and rail are welcome trends.

If we do choose to look at our major cities in isolation, it seems that their trends are different to that of the national picture. Cordon counts are showing a decrease in the number of cars recorded in the morning rush hour into some of the largest city centres. Cities such as Birmingham have seen the total number of people commuting in the morning peak increase and have achieved this with a decrease in the number of cars over the last five years.

The Urban Transport Group is currently undertaking a research programme which explores changing travel trends and has a particular focus on improving understanding of the factors driving the decline in bus patronage.

Our annual Number crunch report and online transport data tool, the Data Hub, go into greater detail as to the trends that are taking place in our cities.

Dr Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group