I hope wherever in the world you're reading this you are safe, well, and somehow getting through this planet changing episode in our history. These are strange and worrying times, and one has to wonder what happens now. If you have lost a loved one during this crisis my heart goes out to you - I've seen my Mother change from a vibrant, chatty, active if slightly batty and clumsy woman into a bed bound shell uttering a few incomprehensible sounds and not recognising anyone in the space of a couple of months. Thanks to lock down there has been no escape from it - not allowed to do anything or meet anyone to take minds off what's going on. That's tough. However, this is a transport blog so I'm going to concentrate on that side of things.
It's now two months since I've been on any form of public transport. I have absolutely no idea when I'll morally be allowed on it again. I'll be surprised if it's this year. I have a car so I'm expected to use it instead of public transport. Unless I want to go to London, of course, where the message is don't use public transport but don't drive either as we're hiking up the congestion charge and closing numerous roads so people can walk and cycle more. From places like Colchester and Milton Keynes no doubt. Go back to work if you can't work from home, but don't use public transport or your car to get there if your work happens to be in London. I have news for the people coming up with this advice, and I'm sure Sadiq Khan's dad would back me up - very few people take short bus journeys in London at peak times. The huge majority of City commuters, for example, walk to and from stations like Liverpool Street, Fenchurch Street, Cannon Street and Blackfriars anyway! They've been cooped up in offices all day and will be, or rather used to be packed into trains and tubes for another hour or more so they welcome the walk in between. Closing off roads will give them more room, but will not increase the numbers walking, or decrease the numbers needing to use buses as from my observations most bus journeys to and from work in London are too darned long to walk both ways, and not everyone is a born cyclist. The days where folks would jump on the platform of an RM and go a few hundred yards before hopping off again are long gone. I live in the country, yet I walk further in London than anywhere else, despite the transport system it has.
But what's happening outside London? Well, trying to get information out of bus operators isn't easy. Those that respond don't want to be quoted. However, it would seem that between 50 - 60% of the nation's bus fleet is currently SORNed. Heaven only knows what that figure is in the coach industry. The buses that are on the road have strict social distancing rules, so capacity is around 20% of usual. With the best will in the world no one can make any money operating at 20%, especially with the populace being told to avoid your product like the, well, virus. One manager told me today he thought the industry could bounce back well enough, and if this was to all finish tomorrow it might. But how long can it survive in its current guise? The State can't fund private operators ad infinitum so one of two things is going to happen. Firstly we see many independent operators fall leaving the big boys to pick up the choice cuts and abandon the rest, which is what they will do with their own routes anyhow. Buses will be for urban areas only, with rural services all but extinct. It is highly unlikely Councils will be adequately funded to subsidise any of the abandoned routes.
Or secondly the State will be forced to take the entire industry in house to guarantee services, which they won't as that would go against every Conservative sinew possible.
Add to that the current low public confidence in Public Transport and we have the perfect storm. If few people actually want to use buses why bother running them or indeed funding them? Key workers will suddenly seem less important - that process has already started - so we'll see a gradual yet definite and possibly terminal shedding of routes. I'm concerned to say the least. Any operator will tell you it's easy to lose passengers, but infinitely harder to win them back. If this new isolated way of life becomes the new normal, and let's face it, until the entire country has been vaccinated it will do, will anyone want to go back to the old ways? I really want to try out one of the new Caetano electric buses introduced in London this week, or find out just how loud the rattling on the new Excel Scania E400's is now, but genuinely can't see that happening this year. When transport has been your life for nearly half a century that's hard to take.
One other nail in the coffin of bus travel is the rural DRT and dial-a-ride services. Manned mainly by volunteers who can blame them for not wanting to put their lives on the line anymore, especially as their vehicles are the smallest and most enclosed of the lot. Getting those volunteers back in the same numbers won't be easy either.
There are lots of empty trains running we're all encouraged not to catch, and from tomorrow there will be even more of them. A slightly different situation financially from the buses as all rail services are run on behalf of the Government anyway, if not all by them. I don't think we'll ever see peak travel return to the old levels, as a lot of companies will realise having people work from home is mutually advantageous, and again social distancing means passenger capacity is greatly reduced. Except on the Underground, of course, which is where the Government's explicit and detailed advice of "following social distancing IF POSSIBLE" comes into play. In other words, "if you don't want to walk or cycle twenty miles then trust to luck". Again, outside London and the major cities it will be a confidence thing, and a conscience matter - after all when will it be morally acceptable to use public transport for leisure again? When will it be safe to travel in numbers again?
I can't see anything returning to its old self, be it the way we travel, the reasons we travel, or the way travel is operated and governed. Certainly my hobby has mirrored my dear old Mum - 3 months ago was in the peak of condition and is now a shell, staring blankly into space, not knowing or recognising anything, or aware of any future.
One last conundrum to ponder - when the schools go back presumably so will school transport. If school buses have the same social distancing rules as public buses that means 4 out of 5 kids won't be able to use them. If they don't have the same social distancing rules how will the Government justify it, or will that be the time they lift all social distancing measures on public buses and let everyone take their chances again? One to watch, I think.
Take care all, and stay safe, especially you wonderful folks keeping the wheels of the transport industry turning. I salute you all.