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.
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.