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

 

Time is right for fresh thinking on future of urban rail

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time – or at all – it also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike. With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. Before coming to that the first thing to say (and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report that we launched today) is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong. Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people. It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion then again its rail that will be key because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metro-land to Docklands successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair there is significant investment going into urban rail at present – for example Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and Merseyside and Tyne and Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks. However much (but not all) of this investment is incremental or replacing rolling stock on its last legs – it stops short of a wider vision for the rail cities that we need. What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross city routes because running trains in and out of edge of centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. Hence the push for Crossrail Two in London but also the need for more cross city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor as well as a potential new underground route). Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre. Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the ‘look ma no wires’ hinterlands as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn up and go networks with greater capacity and more reliability. Networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, s-bahn, u-bahn, trams and buses – under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated. But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that regardless of how these debates are resolved that more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. Not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators operationally and passenger satisfaction but because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow (as in German rail cities) for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.