#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

 

Coronavirus: Three concerns on the Government’s approach to urban transport

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As we begin another busy week in our fight against the coronavirus, here are a few observations on where things stand for urban transport…

From the perspective of our network of city region transport authorities, we are pleased with how we have organised ourselves– with a regular Board level telecon at least three times of week to provide overall direction. Interlocking with this, we also have regular telecons of groups on buses, rail, legal, staffing, comms, finance and active travel (so far). We have also started frequent bulletins which seek to reduce email flow by providing a consolidated picture of how the Urban Transport Group is responding to the crisis and key developments. There is the inevitable fog of war but, by and large, these ways of working are proving cohesive in sharing approaches and information and help to inform a consistent dialogue with the Department for Transport (DfT). This is the time when professional networks like ours (and the UITP) are showing a new dimension to their benefits as it’s been relatively easy to switch our existing groups and relationships to solely focus on this challenge, rather than trying to cobble together something from scratch.

As you might imagine there are a host of things going on in terms of firefighting and sharing information and approaches, but in this blog post I will stick to the big picture on where things stand at the time of writing.

In the past week the dialogue with DfT Local Transport has become much improved and more structured, including regular senior level participation with our Board group and with other key groups (in particular, on bus).

However, although this contact is constructive, there are three headline concerns so far about the Government’s approach to urban transport and COVID-19.

First, in general, there is not the sense that urban public transport is in the premier league of Government’s concerns. Public transport is enabling many essential workers to get to where they need to be, including those working in healthcare and in food retailing. But whilst the Government has given strong public backing in a systematic way to those sectors so that they can get on with the job they need to do – the same doesn’t yet appear to be the case with local public transport. Transport authorities are being asked to keep the show on the road without high level moral and political support; a lack of clarity they need on funding; and the absence of comfort they require on the legal framework for taking decisive action across the piece.

Secondly, a deregulated bus network with various operators in various states of financial health (even before this crisis) – and which is supposed to be operating on the basis of a competitive internal market – is not the easiest format for adapting to the current emergency. In the short-term there are real fears about the collapse of operators or service reductions below the level of that necessary to provide an essential service for essential users. In the short to medium-term, there are concerns about how successful simple mechanisms for providing extra funding to the operators (such as the phase one package of maintaining payments for the National Concessionary Travel Scheme (NCTS), tendered services and so on) will be, given the very different financial position of operators. There’s also another short to medium-term challenge of how the available bus resources across a city region are matched to the need to provide a coherent overall network (which also relates to what the light and heavy rail network is providing) if some operators are struggling, out for the count, or are taking different approaches. At present, the hope is that keeping the public sector income flow (with some national and local conditions) into the industry will encourage a cooperative approach to providing the networks that places need and also stave off any significant collapse. This week will be a test of whether this strategy is going to work. Meanwhile, in the medium to long-term, there are real concerns about what shape the sector will be in when we reach the recovery stage and people want to take buses to get back to work, and the legacy stage when we want to try to get back on track with more investment in the sector to grow patronage. And in turn, whether more fundamental changes to the bus sector and its funding will be needed. It’s these challenges that have been taking up a lot of bandwidth since the crisis began impacting urban transport – certainly more than on rail where quasi-nationalisation has effectively occurred already and rail people can just get on with the job knowing where they stand.

Thirdly, although the government has been bailing out business in general, households, private operators and local government – it hasn’t been giving city region transport authorities anything more than a few warm words. The financial strain on transport authorities has already begun as their incomes fall steeply from their financial exposure on metro, light rail and tram schemes, as well as other income from advertising, rents, construction contract clauses for schemes that have been paused, bus station departure charges and so on. At the same time, they are also being asked to pay out on NCTS, supported services, schools services which are not being provided. This obviously can’t go on.

All of this explains why on Friday, we wrote to the Chancellor on the basis of this public statement, and why this week we will be stepping up on making our case to Government.

Everyone’s world has been transformed beyond recognition in a very short space of time but the speed at which colleagues at our member organisations have re-orientated themselves in order to work together to tackle this crisis is a source of hope and inspiration. We are also aware that there are many people – such as frontline public transport staff – who are facing tougher jobs and challenges than we are as the Urban Transport Group team. However, I would still like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues in the team for their work and dedication in ensuring that we are able to make a positive contribution to support our members at this difficult time.

Jonathan Bray is Director at the Urban Transport Group