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

 

Funding, sharing, recovery & legacy – a weekly blog post on urban transport and the COVID-19 crisis

Here are some Sunday morning reflections on where things stand for urban transport on the COVID-19 crisis as we prepare to begin another busy week.

1. We have done everything the Government has asked of us during the crisis – now we need the Government to stand behind us

The Government’s overall strategy has been helicopter drops of cash for households, business and local government, accompanied by relaxing of the legal and regulatory framework so that cash can be deployed by the recipients as soon as possible in order to keep the overall show on the road. This has been followed by sub-sectoral support. For transport, rail was first to go, with quasi re-nationalisation, leaving railway people free to get on with the job of running a core service. For bus (where bus deregulation makes life more complicated), we have already had phase one which is local and national government maintaining the funding flows they control for concessionary fares, supported services and fuel subsidies (BSOG), whether or not those services are being provided or not. Phase two should be ready to roll early this week (which broadly speaking will be additional payments for operators on the basis of the service they are actually providing). The idea is that in return for maintaining a level of public support that seeks to compensate for lost income from passengers, operators will do the right thing (provide an essential network based on where essential workers are and where they need to get to) in a collaborative way with transport authorities. And at the same time, that they won’t do the wrong things (like go ahead with planned fares rises). It’s early days yet on how well this plan will work in practice over the coming weeks – but it’s definitely a good thing that the Government has made additional funding support to maintain bus networks an early priority. And on the ground, private sector bus operators and public sector authorities and their staff are working hard to make it work and to provide the essential network that essential users need.

However, so far public sector transport authorities are not seeing any of the additional funding (other than at the margins). Additional funding for local government goes direct to councils not transport authorities and the extra funding for rail and bus goes to the private sector providers not the public sector transport authorities. And it’s not just those private sector providers that are haemorrhaging patronage (and therefore income) – the same is happening on our tram and light rail systems (like Manchester Metrolink and the Tyne and Wear Metro). Merseytravel is also financially exposed on its Merseyrail Electrics rail franchise and as the provider of a World City integrated public transport network, TfL is losing income on an altogether different magnitude.

At the same time as losing income on their own systems, transport authorities are also making good the lost income of private bus operators (through continuing to pay for concessionary travel and supported services, etc). And all authorities are losing revenue from rent, advertising and broken contract clauses (as projects are put on pause because of the virus). This can’t go on. Especially as this isn’t just about maintaining an essential service for essential workers in the here and now, it’s also about being in a fit state to crank services up when we come out of lockdown. Plus, being able to resume the kind of investment programmes and service improvements that will be needed to tackle problems that haven’t gone away in the meantime – like climate change and the levelling up agenda.

So a big part of our work in the week ahead will be making the case to Government for the funding deal transport authorities need. On this, we have had very good engagement with the Department for Transport Local Transport (who we know are working incredibly hard to move at pace). But to unlock the funding, the work we are doing with them needs to land at Treasury and be seen by Government as a whole as priority.

We have done everything the Government has asked of us in responding to this crisis – now we need the Government to get behind us.

2. Shared approaches to the crisis

The other big job we have (as we have been doing throughout the crisis) is networking between our transport authority members so they can share approaches. We do this through a series of rolling telecons with groups leading on light rail, bus, communications, staffing, active travel, legal and finance, as well as our overarching Board level co-ordinating group (which meets at least three times a week). As a complex coordination job this is working well.

3. Recovery and legacy

The task of winding down networks rapidly but matching them to the needs of essential workers (all whilst protecting staff and seeking to ensure social distancing and securing the funding and legal framework to do this) has been, and remains, an enormous operational and practical challenge. At some stage this process will go into partial and then full reverse (and then be partially or fully reversed again depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds) which will bring with it new operational challenges, which we are turning our attention to. There are also the wider and enormous long run ramifications of this transformation on all our lives for transport planning (from the future of the daily commute to whether this experiment in mass behaviour change will normalise or inhibit the kind of behavioural change that climate targets imply). Shaping the best legacy we can from the crisis is something that our Assistant Director, Becky Fuller, is leading on and that our transport planning group will be addressing in their first telecon next week.

Another week of tough challenges and long hours begins, but put into perspective by the news that five London bus drivers have died from the virus and the dedication of front line staff at our member organisations in keeping core public transport networks running.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group