Funding, distancing and messaging – the three big recovery challenges

TfL please keep your distance

As we enter week seven of the lockdown, the challenges of preparing for a restart remain daunting. It’s hard to plan a public transport restart when at the start of the week we don’t know the phasing or the timing of any lockdown release; what the rules will be on social distancing or PPE; and whether there will be a coordinated national travel demand management exercise or not. Though by the time I write the next of these weekly blogs, it looks like the Government will have told the public, and us, more.

Boiling it right down, the three main challenges of a restart are funding, operational (mostly relating to social distancing) and what the messaging is to the public.


So, let’s look at funding first. If public transport burned through a lot of cash running near empty services during the lockdown, then recovery could be more expensive still. Why? Because during lockdown there were far fewer services than normal and lower patronage, whereas the recovery stage means the fullest service you can provide but with patronage still well down (because of social distancing and continuing restrictions on travel).

The shock to the system of the lockdown led to a retreat into a compartmentalised approach to funding of public transport by DfT, with rail getting what turned out to be a relatively generous deal (compared with what was to follow, eventually, for light rail) with government promising to cover private rail operators’ costs – plus a profit margin. This was announced on the same day as the lockdown began (23 March). Buses outside London followed on with a two stage cobbled together arrangement / workaround to accommodate the peculiarities of bus deregulation. Phase one of the bus funding deal was based on local and national government doing something that it should only be doing in the absence of any alternative – which is to pay out for a service that isn’t being provided. This was topped up with a second fund for the services that private operators are actually providing. It kind of worked because the lockdown situation is stable (with services bumping along the bottom and so is patronage). But it also rests on any overpayment being reined in by a ‘reconciliation’ process further down the track – which is bound to be cumbersome and complex (and may only ever turn out to be partial) where any overpayments are supposed to be able to be clawed back.

The funding needs of the restart period will be a different animal altogether – with demand bouncing around depending on the phasing of the lockdown and local circumstances. Try reconciling and adjusting that on a month by month basis from Whitehall. Plus, the restart is the point at which we should be moving away from the last resort of asking cash strapped local authorities to pay for things that aren’t being provided, to devolving bus funding to local transport authorities so it can be used to direct funding so that every single pound is spent to ensure that the network that is provided month by month meets the changing month by month needs of the places they serve. Given that the overwhelming majority of bus industry income is now provided by the national and local state, if the rhetoric about empowering city regions to write more of the rules of their own recovery means something, then now is the time to make the big call on bus funding the right way.

Finally, it’s hard to understand why one of the world’s greatest public transport networks (Transport for London) is still without a funding deal given that private sector rail operators got theirs on day one of the lockdown. There are now 7,000 staff furloughed at public sector TfL in the run-up to what could be the biggest challenge for public transport in the capital since the Blitz. Anyone see a pattern here? And more widely, if there is to be a coordinated approach to providing a public transport network for the nation during a phased release of lockdown, then shouldn’t there also be a coordinated approach to funding?

Social distancing

The second big challenge is operationally how do you provide a service which is as safe as it can be for both staff and passengers as numbers increase? In particular, how do you maintain social distancing? And what complementary or compensating measures do you take particularly where social distancing is difficult to guarantee? Given that COVID-19 transmission is more likely in enclosed, indoor spaces, and where people are in proximity for extended periods, then that becomes an especially difficult challenge on public transport vehicles and in stations and interchanges. In the absence of a clear steer from Government, as yet, much of our work this week is about wrestling with these conundrums and sharing potential approaches with the aim of striking the right balance between consistency, innovation and adaptation to local circumstances across the modes and across geographies.


Connected to the operational challenge is what does all this mean for the purpose and capacity of public transport in a phased release from lockdown, and how is this communicated to public transport users? At high levels of social distancing and in denser urban geographies, it won’t take long for buses and trains to be ‘full’, so will the messaging be that people should make their journey at less busy times, by other means or not at all… in effect, pushing people to active travel and cars? And what will the look and feel of buses, trams and trains be? How do you communicate the behaviours that we need passengers to adopt (as enforcement at all times is not possible) without public transport looking like a scary, crime scene? And how do we do this in a way that over time allows for a transition to the endgame where we are actively encouraging people to use public transport as much as possible again (as we were before the crisis)?

Although there are some horrible quandaries and uncertain times for public transport at present, the travails of public transport are one more reason why active travel’s time has come. Before the crisis, the promotion of active travel (and the prioritisation of people over vehicles in the urban realm) was fast moving front and centre in urban policymaking in leading cities around the world. Now the dam could really break. Because the logic is that if public transport’s capacity has been limited by social distancing and we don’t want to see the roads clogged with cars, then we need to shift more short journeys to walking and cycling ASAP. Although there is ecstasy on Twitter every time a picture is shared of some temporary coning off of road space for walking and cycling, there’s also a need, whilst moving fast, to think clearly about the best way of facilitating a mass shift to walking and cycling that is also strategic and durable. This includes how it is funded, how the temporary and rudimentary best prepares the way for the permanent and high quality, and how other legitimate calls on road capacity are accommodated (in particular, locking in capacity for now and the future for buses). There is also the role of speed limit reductions and traffic and pedestrian light phasing to play into the mix.

As we enter week seven and wrestle with these taxing challenges, now – more than ever – it is good that as the Urban Transport Group we have the mechanisms to do so as #TransportAuthoritiesTogether.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group

You can read all of Jonathan’s weekly blog posts here.

Beyond the lockdown – Steering the right course for urban transport

coronavirus traffic social

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

Translink rainbow twitter

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