The computer ‘pinged’ again several times this morning to herald the arrival of a few more Press Releases. However, their arrival reminded me that instant receipt of information from companies was not always the case.
When I first became involved in journalism, Press Releases were received through the post. A printed document which in many cases was accompanied by a glossy black and white photograph. Where it was an important release, especially for the Fleet Street national media, then it may have been delivered by hand.
By the time I joined the railway, the electronic era was being embraced. Press Releases would be sent out using the fax machine. Whilst the journalists’ and media fax numbers were programmed into the machine it was still an unwieldly process and images and photographs still had to be sent out in the post or were still being hand delivered. After spending hours faxing out the Press Release, there followed several hours of phoning round to make sure the fax had been received.
Then came email, although initially the capacity for images was limited by file size.
Today, Press Releases are put online, sent out as an email and are also mentioned by many companies through their Social Media links. Within minutes of a Press Release being issued, it can be in the hands of the journalist and in a very short space of time broadcast through many outlets. A massive improvement on the mailing out of Press Releases.
But its not just the way Press Releases are issued that has changed.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s when I had contact with several railway press offices I was aware that members of the press teams had two phones at home, one was to allow them to undertake on call duties. Pre-mobile phones it also meant that on call staff had to make sure they were at home when the office closed and couldn’t leave for the office the following morning until the office had opened. As for weekends, I understand they had to stay in range of the phone.
Then came the advent of pagers for information and also the mobile phone. Things became easier and allowed more flexible. During my time in the rail industry the advent of Blackberry devices allowed the mobile and pager to be cast aside and the smart device used instead with messages previously being sent out by pager message moving over to emails.
What a long way we have come.
We see hundreds, maybe thousands, of Press Releases a year. Some take us by surprise. Some report on commitments from companies and many refer to safety issues.
We recently received a press announcement from bus operator Stagecoach UK, who they tell us is investing £4 million in the roll-out across its fleet of a new low bridge alert technology. The company adds that it is the first bus company in the country to invest in this kind of technology.
The sum of £4 million may seem high but it has to be put into context. It has to be viewed against the cost of damage to buses resulting in their write-off or substantial repair cost. Then there is third-party claims against the company. Stagecoach UK alone, in recent months has severely seen three double deck buses severely damaged when they hit low bridges. One has been scrapped, one - being just 12 months old - is being repaired whilst a third is being used as an open top project.
We shouldn’t, however, focus on recent events. Buses hitting low bridges is nothing new. During my time working at the West Midlands PTE’s Coventry offices in the mid-1970s we had a Daimler Fleetline on a private hire lose its roof under a low bridge in Kettering. It was one of those bridges where clearance is greater on one side than on the other, with a step down in the middle. The driver got the front of the bus under the bridge but then hit the step down in the bridge roof half way through.
But back to the current and Stagecoach UK tells us that :the £4m project will strengthen existing measures in place to prevent bridge strikes and build on Stagecoach’s industry-leading use of the GreenRoad driver safety and fuel efficiency system”.
GreenRoad’s core safety system is installed on all of Stagecoach’s 8.000 buses in England, Scotland and Wales.
Using a simple traffic-light-like LED system on the dashboard, the GreenRoad system gives drivers instant feedback about their driving manoeuvres, encouraging smoother, safer, more fuel-efficient driving that is more comfortable for passengers.
Following discussions started last year on how to extend the telematics technology to further improve safety for its fleet - including 3,800 double-decker buses - around low bridges, a modification system has now been approved. Following a 16-week software development phase, the technology and associated speakers will be installed on Stagecoach buses across the country by summer 2021.
Data from Network Rail shows that there were 1714 railway bridge strikes across the country in the 2019-20 financial year. Most of these incidents involve heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), with between 40 and 50 a year related to buses.
As well as the potential for serious injuries, bridge strikes have significant financial and other costs for the country. On average, a single bridge strike costs more than £6,000 and in 2019-20 these incidents resulted in more than 7,800 hours of delays for rail passengers alone.
The GreenRoad system will use GPS vehicle location data and mapping services to alert the driver to nearby low bridges. If the technology determines that the bus is heading towards a low bridge, it will sound an in-cab alert, allowing a safe exit route that avoids the bridge.
It will enhance a range of existing safety measures in place, including the design of bus routes to avoid low bridges, detailed classroom and practical route training for drivers, and ongoing work with authorities to ensure the placement of appropriate signage and other alerts.
Stagecoach Chief Executive Martin Griffiths said: “Everything we do starts with safety: for our customers, our people, pedestrians and other road users. Buses are already one of the safest forms of travel. But every year we invest millions of pounds in training our professional driving team and new technology to make our public transport operations even safer.
“Our country’s infrastructure includes many railway bridges designed in an era before modern transport vehicles went on the road, creating a safety risk. We have been working for many months with GreenRoad to design this important Low Bridge Alert enhancement to their proven safety technology, and are now implementing it to bolster the extensive measures we already have in place. We look forward to delivering the benefits from our investment across the country.”
The industry-leading initiative has been welcomed by Network Rail, which works with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), highways bodies, and road transport providers to help prevent bridge strikes.
Network Rail’s Chair, Sir Peter Hendy CBE, said: “Bridge strikes are an unnecessary burden on our railway. They pose serious safety risks, cause hours of delays for rail passengers and road users and swallow up public funds which should be used on upgrading and improving our network.
“We’ve seen encouraging signs of incidents declining recently thanks to our engagement work with industry partners, drivers and operators, as well as the introduction of technology which assists drivers, but the transport sector has to continue working together to make bridge strikes a thing of the past.
“I commend Stagecoach on taking the initiative with the roll-out of this technology and I hope to see other operators take a similar proactive approach to tackling the issue in the near future.”
Stagecoach’s bus drivers have been leading the way in GreenRoad’s global performance measurement programme for the past five years. More than 5,000 of Stagecoach’s 15,000 drivers have been awarded GreenRoad’s Fleet Elite status, reflecting the company’s approach to consistent improvement in safety and ongoing investment in driver training.
To gain Fleet Elite status, drivers must achieve an average of five or fewer events, such as harsh braking or acceleration, per 10 hours of driving over the entire calendar year. More Stagecoach employees have gained Fleet Elite status than any other company in the worldwide scheme.
Just a few days into 2021 and the UK has been plunged into yet another period of Lockdown. The exact restrictions vary across England and the devolved nations but it again brings uncertainty for transport operators.
Lockdown 3 in England, or L3 as we will refer to it, came into play at Midnight on Wednesday 6th January 2021 having been announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson two days earlier.
There are some exceptions to the first lockdown (L1) last year but we can expect it to last for at least seven weeks and schools have again been closed, although as in L1 they remain open for children of ‘Key Workers’
The new strain of COVID-19 has to be the culprit for the massive increase in infections, as does an increase in household mixing. We can only hope that L3 along with the roll out of vaccinations will combine to fight the virus and allow a return towards normality and the kind of freedom we all previously enjoyed. I have no doubt that COVID-19 will not go away but the best result is that it is controllable. Almost ten months on there can be few people who are not tiring of the restrictions but we must stick to them.
The effects of L3 will be felt by transport operators. The Government is already talking about drastically slashing train services. Some reports suggest that up to 50% of services nationwide could be cut seeing timetables again based on those seen during L1. Open Access operators Grand Central and Hull Trains are again suspending their services.
Less than a day into L3 there are few signs of how bus and scheduled coach operators will respond. Bus operators continue to receive Government support but can that continue against the potential backdrop of passenger numbers falling again due to the ‘Stay at Home’ message. Given that the L3 will last a minimum of seven weeks our best guess is that passenger numbers will be closely monitored over the next week and a decision taken on what action should be taken. Like the suggested cuts to rail services it is not inconceivable that bus timetables will return to those that were operated during the first Lockdown.
Let's not forget that capacity on trains and buses is still reduced to allow for Social Distancing, so the maximum carrying capacity remains limited.
Both bus and rail operators had seen a recovery in business following the ending of L1 and the easing of restrictions last year but the growth fell well short of pre-COVID levels. Now it is likely that the growth curve will need to start all over again.
There is no doubt in our view that transport operators will now have to re-write their 2021/22 business plans. One victim of L3 and the resultant reduction in business could be any plans to resume capital investment. Can new vehicle investment be justified? If the answer is no, and even if there is some kind of investment we believe it will be severely limited which means fewer lower emissions vehicles being bought and older higher emissions vehicles remaining in service.
Away from scheduled public transport operations another Lockdown is the last thing that coach operators need. Many saw their business decimated last year with terminal results for some. It seems that for them 2021 has started in the same vain.
The public transport industry has also suffered personally with staff contracting COVID and some losing their lives as a result. The daily figures are alarming and thoughts and go out to everyone who has suffered from COVID and our deepest sympathies go also to everyone who has lost loved ones, friends and colleagues to COVID.
Where’s the timetable?
It has now been many months since the ‘essential travel only’ message for bus travel was dropped, but whilst some areas are operating over 90% of pre-COVID ‘lockdown’ services the number of passengers travelling is varied across the country.
We hear that in some areas passenger numbers have been high, but in others previous bus users lack the confidence to return to using bus services. Add to that the number of people now working from home and no longer needing to travel to their workplace. Then there are those for whom ‘lockdown’ encouraged them to walk or extract the bike from the back of the shed.
In many urban areas prospective passengers have been mostly kept up to date with ‘forthcoming departures’ from their nearest bus stop through real time screens, but the frequent service changes post-‘lockdown’ has flagged up examples where the updating of the database that feeds the real time system has been slow.
But what about prospective passengers who use stops without real time information. At the start of ‘lockdown’ many had their timetables removed and replaced with a generic notice that pushed prospective users towards Apps and the internet for information.
Perhaps I was naive to assume that as services returned to almost pre-COVID ‘lockdown’ levels proper timetables would re-appear at these bus stops. Not so!
The result, for prospective bus passengers at these stops, they have little choice if they don’t have internet access. Just wait and hope that a bus will turn up.
I have my suspicions that the removal of timetables means that some bus companies will hope that prospective passengers will forget the printed bus timetables were ever displayed. There again, with Government support is there any incentive for bus companies to increase their loadings?
Meeting the schools transport challenge
I must admit to being impressed at the way bus and coach companies have responded to the challenge of providing return to school services. It really was a trip into the unknown but we have not seen masses of ‘horror’ stories in the media. These arrangement will evolve as operators get a greater understanding of the school transport requirements but duplicate and scholars only services are, in my view, here to stay for some time.
It seems that some operators have managed the return to school business through segregation with students using the upper deck with all seats in use and other passengers the lower deck where Social Distancing remains.
What has been surprising is how some operators turn a scheduled journey into a scholars-only journey part way through the route. Whilst it may be legally allowed, it hardly encourages non-student travel. And by nature of the schools requirement it effectively bars non-students from peak time journeys.
Transport tourism returns but faces challenging times
It is pleasing to see how a number of transport-related tourism businesses have managed a phased return but with a significantly reduced footfall. During the early part of 2020 many of them were preparing for the start of the tourism season. ‘Lockdown’ meant they had to remain closed through what would be their busiest time of the year.
Many of the attractions were able, in some cases at a considerable extra cost, to ‘tweak’ their offering and ensure they could offer a COVID-Secure environment for visitors.
Where attractions did open it was in a ‘new normal’ was of operating.
It is pleasing to see that heritage railways have been able to provide a limited offering which has afforded them at least some income.
In recent weeks the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has been offering two return Pickering-Whitby services, but its intermediate stations remained closed. Our photo shows the railway’s BR Standard 9F 92134 heading for Pickering as it passes Moorgates heading south from Goathland.
Avanti West Coast makes its mark
Over the last few weeks we have received a number of updates from Avanti West Coast. The company confirms that 31 of its Pendolino trains have now received the Avanti West Coast cab vinyls – 39008/16/43/44/45/47/49/39/40 along with 390103/04/12/13/21/23/25/27/28/30/32/32/34/35/36/37/38/41/48/52/53/54/55/56.
Pendolino 390119 had a special ‘Pride’ wrap applied during August.
The refurbishment of the Super Voyager fleet continues at Ilford with sets 221101/05/06/08/09/11/13/15 all now completed with all of the company’s Class 221 units due to be refurbished by the 18th December 2020.
Remaining with the Super Voyager trains, all of them have now been modified with welsh language announcements.
Award for Direct Rail Services
Direct Rail Services (DRS) has won the Community and Environmental Responsibility award at this year’s Rail Freight Group awards.
The prestigious Rail Freight Group awards showcase excellence in all aspects of rail freight and the benefits it brings to the country. This year the awards took on a different feel as they were virtual but it didn’t dampen spirits or detract from the fantastic work happening across the industry.
The Community & Environmental Responsibility award recognises initiatives that demonstrate environmental improvement, for instance, cutting noise, improving air quality and developing new rail freight flows which reduce road congestion, or otherwise reducing environmental impacts.
The judges commended the way DRS has launched a Zero Harm campaign to protect employees, assets and the environment, the company’s extensive work within the community and charitable endeavours, the ground-breaking use of their Class 88 bi-mode locomotives, modifying its Motherwell depot to reduce noise for local neighbours, and its work on using digital displacement hydraulics to reduce emissions which could have a significant impact across the industry.
It’s been a while since we caught up with Avanti West Coast so to put that right we bring news that from the 7th September 2020 the company plans to increase its timetable to around 90% of pre-COVID levels.
The timetable uplift will restore through links to and from London to Shrewsbury, Wrexham, Chester and North Wales, Blackpool and Edinburgh.
Shrewsbury, Wrexham, Blackpool and Edinburgh will all see the return of direct Avanti West Coast services to and from London for the first time since lockdown measures were enforced. North Wales will also be served by one train in each direction between Holyhead and Euston, supplemented by a shuttle service along the coast from Crewe. Chester will have three direct trains to London Euston.
In addition, the additional early morning services between Milton Keynes to London that started in July together with the late afternoon return services will continue.
Following the September timetable uplift, Avanti West Coast will be operating 285 services each day on Monday to Fridays up from 277 a day. The relatively small uplift in total services a day is explained by the fact that many of the extra through journey opportunities will be created by the extension of existing services.
An Avanti West Coast spokesperson told SKM: “These additional services will mean more room for social distancing onboard. We would like to remind customers to book ahead, reserve their seat and wear a face covering whilst at the station and onboard our services.”
The spokesman added that Avanti West Coast has “seen a steady growth in reservations and loadings in the past month”
Latest information suggests that the company is operating at around 40% of our its latest social distanced reservable capacity. With 227 seats available, out of 589, on an 11 car Pendolino the number of passengers currently travelling is averaging around 80-90 per train.
On board services are also now returning with the reintroduction of the First Class at-seat service on Pendolino services. The range of items to purchase from the onboard shop has also increased.
The 7th September changes means that:
+ Shropshire will be served by the 06:39 Shrewsbury to London Euston (with calls at Telford and Wellington, and the 18.23 return service from London Euston.
+ Blackpool North will have two direct services to and from London via the West Midlands, in addition to one early morning service from Birmingham and a late evening service back to the West Midlands.
+ Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket will have seven services to London Euston (six in the return direction), which will also restore direct links between the Scottish capital and the West Midlands.
+ Wrexham’s direct service to London Euston will depart at 07:03, returning at 17:10.
+ A direct service from North Wales to London Euston will depart Holyhead at 06:55, returning north at 17:10.
+ Chester’s three services for London will depart at 07:35, 08:35 and 14:35 respectively.
Like many small businesses we have felt the effect of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’. Specifically this meant we had to delay the publication of Stagecoach East Midlands and Stagecoach Oxfordshire Fleet Handbooks (now due in August 2020) and the Stagecoach East Fleet Handbook (which we expect to publish in October 2020).
We had planned to publish these three books in March 2020 and the publication delays are also as a result of short notice changes to the fleets and the cancellation of investment plans in new vehicles.
A number of retailers through whom we sell our books were also closed. All are now open and we thank them for their continued support.
As a result of these challenges and their effects on us we have reluctantly taken the decision to cease publication of commercially-produced Fleet Handbooks and other publications once the Stagecoach East Fleet Handbook is published.
We will continue to provide updates to the Stagecoach, Go North East and East Yorkshire Fleets through Fleet Ramblings on our website and will also, for the foreseeable future, continue to produce the monthly allocation documents. We will also be continuing with our media and PR work but feel the time is now right to start the journey towards full retirement.
The COVID-19 restrictions and the fact that several OpCos closed their paint shops means that there acre currently far fewer buses in the new Stagecoach liveries that would have been expected.
Where repaints have taken place they are now appearing with full branding, after a period when buses were pushed into use in the new livery but without company logos. We here that in a couple of areas this confused intending passengers.
We still haven’t seen one of the Stagecoach ‘Local’ vehicles in the flesh, but we are still unsure on what the livery brings to the Stagecoach brand.
It now seems that the livery template has been refined and recent repaints are generally to a single design. There was a ‘tweak’ in recent weeks to the ‘magic bus’ livery in Manchester where the amber design on the back has been omitted.
What has become evident is that some previous liveries and brands have been allowed to remain, whilst the three basic ‘new livery’ designs have been expanded. We still hear of some older vehicles being painted in the former corporate ‘beach ball’ scheme.
We now think that the following generally summarises the generic Stagecoach UK livery plan:
2000 corporate ‘beach ball’ livery - discontinued but still being applied to some older vehicle types
2000 corporate ‘electric hybrid’ livery - being discontinued
2000 corporate ‘InterConnect’ - off white with purple and violet graphics (used in Lincolnshire.Norfolk)
2000 corporate Stagecoach Gold - gold/dark blue (was being discontinued but appears to now being retained)
2020 Stagecoach ‘Local’ livery - off white with blue, amber and ocean green graphics
2020 Stagecoach ‘Specialist’ livery - off white with ocean green graphics
2020 Stagecoach ‘distance’ livery - all over amber
2020 Stagecoach ‘magic bus’ livery (Manchester) - off white with blue graphics and white stars
Lakes Connection/Lakesider - Green-based with Lake District branding (Cumbria fleet)
Cambridgeshire Busway - ocean green with white Busway branding
Cambridge electric bus - white with ocean green graphics and electric bus branding
Manchester electric bus - ocean green with electric bus branding
Oxford Tube - Red with branding
Megabus UK - Blue with ‘megabus’ branding (replaces darker blue with ‘megabus.com’ branding
So much for the three livery variations plus Megabus and Oxford Tube announced earlier this year and the list above doesn't include the myriad of local identity liveries and branding currently widely used across the Stagecoach UK operation.
It is good to see bus services returning to ‘close to’ pre-lockdown service levels in terms of timetabled frequency, but social Distancing remains a limiting factor for passenger numbers.
We hear that some operators are having to duplicate some journeys but generally two double deck buses can cater for 40 passengers - a huge reduction on the 150 seats normally available. We have heard prospective passengers say they are fearful of using the bus because they don’t know if they will be able to get home again, or will be forced to wait for a bus with vacant seats.
We have said it before but with vastly reduced carrying capacity bus operators will struggle to maintain a viable business with many still unclear on what any Government subsidy will look like and when they will see it.
We also hear of passengers complaining that they cannot get on buses when there were ‘dozens of empty seats’. That poses the question. ‘Are operators doing enough to publicise Social Distancing seating capacities? The answer is yes, and no. Online and App-based information is available, but generally nothing exists at bus stops. Why, where real time displays are provided cannot they be programmed with scrolling messages. Perhaps it is because most are operated by local authorities and not the bus companies.
In a recent discussion with a former bus industry colleague we discussed the removal of roadside timetables in some areas. In place are notices advising prospective passengers to consult the App or go online. My colleague doing his best Victor Meldrew impression said: “don't get me started on the switch from printed timetables to journey planners via technology. the benefit is to the operator not the customer!”
We do wonder whether the bus stops that have lost their timetables for a ‘look online’ poster will ever see a proper timetable being returned. Let’s not forget that as restrictions are eased and more passengers are allowed on buses operators more than ever will need to attract passengers back. And it will be a real challenge.
During ‘lockdown’ people have been walking or cycling and even taking to their car. Then there are those who have been working from home. That presents bus operators with another unknown. How many commuters have they lost to home working?
With all these challenges we suspect that the major groups will be reviewing their back office and admin functions and we have even heard of an operator looking at dispensing with its remaining revenue protection roles.
What we can predict is that the bus industry going forward will be looking to reduce cost and that means that redundancies and job losses are likely to take place.
We wonder how long it will be before service frequencies are reviewed. Will be see seven minute frequencies become ten minutes and ten minute frequencies become 12 or 15 minutes. Such actions will save costs through reducing vehicle and driver requirements.
We hope the bus industry can bounce back, but being realistic that bounce back could take many years. That said the post-COVID bounce back will be a challenge for many industries and businesses in many sectors. Will be ever experience life as we knew it pre-‘lockdown’ again?
The last few months have been, err… strange.
We have gone through ‘lockdown’, shortages in the supermarkets, a block on leisure activities, the rise of home haircuts, queues for the shops, reduced opening hours and essential activity only at banks to name but a few.
Then there has been the lack of clarity at times from Government. Announcements made but then having to wait for the guidelines. Lots of instructions but are they guidelines or statutory instructions. What seems like ‘U’-Turn after ‘U’-Turn and senior figures failing to understand instructions and guidance.
We think, though, we have missed the change to the requirement of ‘double yellow lines’ on our roads. We are sure that at some stage the law must have been changed to signify that ‘double yellow lines’’ demotes a parking or unloading area. The in narrow streets cars should be parked opposite each other.
We are also convinced that the definition of footpath has also been changed to “an area where cars can be parked” As a result roads have become “and area where pedestrians are allowed to walk round cars on the footpath”.
The serious comment here, though, is that we hear of buses being delayed due to poor parking, buses unable to pull into bus stops due to poor parking and in some cases sections of bus routes having to be omitted due to parked cars.
If bus companies didn’t have enough challenges to deal with……
When I worked in the bus industry in the 1970s and 1980s it would have been unthinkable to be peddling the message of ‘please do not travel’ or use buses only if essential.
That is no way to run a business and keep it afloat. But it seems that is what our Government wants the bus industry to do.
Bus we should remember the 1970s and 1980s when it was commonplace for companies to promote cars and dealerships on their buses - including all over adverts. Could a return to those days generate some much needed income?
In normal circumstances such an idea in 2020 would be absurd, but these are not normal times.
After almost three months of running a bare minimum of service most of the bus operators are increasing frequencies. Costs are returning to somewhat approaching pre-lockdown levels but passenger numbers and the important revenues are not.
Yes, there is the promise of Government support, but we are hearing from some quarters that bus companies are still unsure on how much they will receive and indeed when they will receive it. In the meantime they are expected to continue to ramp up their bus services to near normal service levels.
But let’s remember that service levels may be near normal but that carrying capacity is not. A 76-seat double deck generally has capacity for 20 Socially-Distanced passengers. On a midibus, such as an Enviro 200 the capacity drops to around ten and on a Solo is it really worth putting it on the road when capacity is around seven.
The Government needs to make clear what the support package is, how it will be allocated and when it will be paid. Then there is the reimbursement of Concessionary Travel - not that many pass holders can use the bus given the reduced seating capacity. Local Authorities are also struggling to balance the books. Will this also mean that they will struggle to pay bus operators in a timely way.
From our observations and the latest set of revised timetables from many operators we suspect that bus service levels in many areas are returning to around 90% of normal but that doesn’t mean that they are carrying 90% of normal passenger loadings. Our estimate is that it could be nearer to 215-20% of normal and at best in some areas pushing 25%.
Again that does not mean that 25% of normal passenger numbers means 25% of normal revenue. I stand corrected here but my assumption is that in many cases current revenues in percentage terms is in single figures when compared against pre-lockdown levels.
If my calculations are anywhere close, then bus operators will need a massive cash injection to keep them afloat.
My prediction is that capital investment, as we have seen in recent years, will become a thing of the past. New vehicle orders will be paused as the oldest vehicles in fleets - which ordinarily have been due for replacement - will remain parked up and will not be required.
By the end of the year will we start to see service levels cut?
Let’s not forget the advice has been to walk or cycle (or use the car). We are no longer being urged to use the bus.
I hope that my prediction is wrong, but I would be surprised if it is…..
Steven Knight is a Transport Specialist who has over 40 years experience in the bus and rail industries as well as in specialist transport journalism. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.