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?
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.