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.