The industry prepares for lockdown measures to ease

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As the weeks go on, and we hopefully get closer to easing of lockdown measures, Richard Sharman looks at measures operators are taking to prepare for returning to operating services and contracts.

As I write this feature we have now reached our 50th day of lockdown in the United Kingdom. Whilst many aspects of the bus and coach industry have come to a complete stop and many vehicles will have not turned a wheel for weeks, there is still a lot going on behind the scenes with operators and some vehicle manufacturers working on ideas and plans on how they can move forward once lockdown is eased. With social distancing expected to last for many months to come, operators are starting to look at new ways of continuing to operate, but still being able to comply with social distancing requirements.

Local bus services
Many operators have been running a reduced level of public bus services during this lockdown period, but as operations are scaled back up there is a need to mark out the 2 metre rule as the slow increase in patronage begins.

Operators of mini and midi buses face quite a challenge, especially if they are operating an infrequent rural service that can only be operated by a smaller vehicle. For example, to adhere to the government advice of passengers staying 2 metres apart, for an operator using an Optare Solo 7.9m Slimline it means that total seated capacity is reduced from 24 seated passengers to just 7 or 8. First West of England’s trial shows 75-seat double-decker is reduced to just 20-seated passengers.

First West of England’s local trial on service 24 reduces seating capacity to 20 seated passengers, although duplicate vehicles are provided during the peaks. FIRST

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James Freeman, Managing Director at First West of England, said about the local trial: “We are closely monitoring our services to ensure that social distancing is being observed at all times for the well-being of our passengers and drivers.

“Now that we are seeing the first signs of workers returning, we have reviewed our social distancing arrangements on our buses. In addition to creating extra capacity at busier times of the day, our new seating pilot on service 24 will act as a visual guide to show customers how they can maintain a 2-metre distance whilst travelling by bus. If it proves effective in helping both our customers and drivers, we will introduce it to all of our services across the region in preparation for more employees returning to work.

“We continue to regularly clean all touch points on our buses and our drivers are supplied with protective equipment such as disposable gloves. NHS advice is also displayed on our buses reinforcing the need for passengers to follow Government guidance.”

James added: “We are working closely with West of England Combined Authority and the local authorities across the region to maintain a sufficient level of service. As we see a small rise in patronage on some routes, we are putting on extra buses for certain stops, to ensure there is the right level of capacity for social distancing.

“The situation is constantly changing and I’m extremely grateful to all our drivers and staff who are working hard to keep our vital bus services running for key workers.”

First West of England began the trial of new social distancing measures on its route 24 service on Monday 4 May as part of its plans to be well prepared for workers being allowed to return to work. Under the new measures being piloted by the company, signs will be put in place to advise passengers on where to sit and some areas will be taped off. The bus operator intends to roll out the new seating arrangement to all of its services if the trial proves successful in helping customers adhere to government social distancing rules, which requires passengers to keep at least 2 metres apart.

Alongside the new seating arrangements for passengers, selected services in Bristol and Bath have also seen an increase in capacity to ensure a safe social distancing environment in line with government guidance as some workers start to return.  Capacity on some routes will also double at specific higher demand times, with extra buses running 5 minutes ahead of scheduled ones for parts of the route.

Greys of Ely’s website offers a reassuring explanation of processes being used to keep current and future customers safe. GREYS OF ELY

Commenting on the sustainability of the social distancing measures for First in Scotland Graeme Macfarlane, Commercial Director for First Scotland East, said: “Going forward it’s going to be a challenge, because as demand increases and we need to observe social distancing guidelines we do have to put more resource out. That means more buses, which is more costly so that is unsustainable in the longer period.”

Meanwhile, Stagecoach issued a statement on 6 May about how it sees the future, calling for a joint strategy between industry and government to secure vital public transport networks to the end of the Covid-19 lockdown and beyond.

Chief Executive Martin Griffiths outlined the proposals in a social media blog and said sustainable public transport was critical to the future. He called for the tragedy of Covid-19 to be a ‘defining moment’ that leads to a transformed society and creates a legacy that honours key workers who have given their lives in the fight against the pandemic.

The call comes as recent research by consultants SYSTRA suggests public transport use in Britain’s cities could be 20% lower than pre-Covid-19 levels after lockdown.

The six-point plan calls for:

  • A joint operational and investment plan developed by industry and government to ensure a sustainable transition of Britain’s bus networks from the emergency levels of lockdown to more comprehensive links which support the country’s recovery, including steps to rebuild confidence in mass transit, a move away from peak-time commuting to spread demand, and investment in transitional support for transport operators as passenger numbers take time to grow.
  • Radical, permanent changes by national and local government to infrastructure and planning. Road and street space prioritised for walking, cycling and high capacity public transport over private cars, with a reallocation of space and steps to encourage first and last-mile connections. Public mobility hubs rather than private car parking spaces when planning new housing developments.
  • Wide-ranging measures to deliver on the government’s levelling up agenda for regions outside London, with many hit hard by the economic shock of Covid-19. Rethinking high streets to promote local spending and create new attractions, as well as leveraging public transport’s capacity to bring shoppers and visitors to regions on a scale that will not damage the environment.
  • Lifestyle changes, particularly around travel, as well as a focus on technology to address the damaging impact of transport emissions. Single-user car trips should be replaced by public transport in urban locations.
  • A ‘grown-up conversation’ to re-examine fiscal policy as the government considers how to pay for the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary actions the country has taken. This would include a complete transformation in how transport journeys are taxed. A move to a system where the polluter pays and sustainable behaviours and use of buses, trams and trains, as well as active travel, are rewarded to make these modes more affordable and accessible to all.
  • Targeted investment in decarbonisation, including sustainable transport and infrastructure, to help restart the economy, put Britain at the forefront of the green revolution and speed up recovery. Maximising the potential of Britain’s bus manufacturing sector by accelerating government investment in electric bus fleets will deliver a cleaner environment, improved health and cement Britain’s position as a clean-tech leader.

Martin said: “Covid-19 has taken a terrible toll on many people’s lives across the UK and overseas. But among all the human tragedy, the pandemic has given us a window on what could be a positive future world – one with dramatically fewer cars on our roads, safer streets, cleaner air and less damage to our environment.

Coatham Coaches is regularly using its 35-seat Yutong TC9 with social distancing signs in place that reduces the seating capacity to 9. The signs were inspired by Greys of Ely’s idea. Managing Director of Coatham Coaches, Mark Hodgson told CBW that there is “lots of sharing of best practice going around at the moment.”

“As government examines how to take Britain out of lockdown, we must make Covid-19 a defining moment to deliver fundamental changes in how we manage mobility and put sustainability at the heart of decision-making. Public transport – particularly our regional bus networks – and active travel must be central to a transformed approach by all governments.

“The lockdown has shown how much the country is missing human contact. Buses provide that essential daily social link, helping combat loneliness and hidden mental health challenges. While some have switched to home working during Covid-19, for many that is not possible. Buses are delivering vital emergency links for key workers and they are as critical to our economy in normal times, linking everything from retail centres to manufacturing facilities. Leisure too is a shared experience that depends on extensive public transport connections.

“There is no reason why we all cannot return to safely using Britain’s most important public transport mode. Transitional support is an investment that will pay back many times over in helping our citizens, communities, economies and planet recover.”

He added: “Major events can lead to major change. The 9/11 attacks signalled a new approach to security and global co-operation against terrorism. We need to make Covid-19 the game-changer for sustainable transport and out of tragedy create hope. By grasping this opportunity and working together, we can create a real legacy to honour the key workers that have selflessly given their lives in the fight against coronavirus.”

Passengers perspective on return to public transport

Independent watchdog Transport Focus is calling for reassurances for passengers as three in five (62%) say they wouldn’t feel comfortable using public transport unless social distancing is in place.  

Nearly two-thirds said they expect social distancing to be in place on transport after lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Transport Focus and London TravelWatch are calling for governments and the transport industry to outline how they will reassure passengers that it will be safe as possible to travel by public transport.  

One passenger said: “I will be nervous about travelling by train or bus as I don’t see how social distancing will work. I think it will be important that people are not crowded together for a long time.”

Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of Transport Focus, said: “After months of being told not to travel people will understandably be fearful about venturing out. The Government must outline in its upcoming roadmap for easing lockdown what measures it will put in place to reassure people they can travel safely.”

While people in London are more likely to say they will look to cycle and walk more, rather than catch public transport, those outside London are more likely to say they will switch to driving. Transport Focus and London TravelWatch are calling for governments to ensure that ‘active travel’ is encouraged, to prevent roads becoming more congested.

Emma Gibson, Director of London TravelWatch, said: “It is interesting to see that Londoners place more importance on people wearing face masks as they move around the capital than people in other areas around the UK and that a higher percentage of Londoners in the survey would travel without social distancing or hand sanitiser available at stations or stops. Perhaps that is because they rely on public transport more than anyone else in the country.

“Like everyone, Londoners are concerned about travelling once restrictions are lifted in the capital, but a greater number of people intend to walk and cycle more often, compared to other parts of the country. Also bucking the trend, Londoners are less likely to say that they will drive more in order to avoid using public transport.”

Transport Focus spoke to 2,000 people between 1 and 3 May, with data being nationally representative of the Great Britain population. Key survey findings were:

  • 83% think hand sanitiser should be available on public transport vehicles, at stations, and at stops
  • 62% won’t use public transport unless social distancing is in place
  • 51% wouldn’t be happy using public transport unless passengers are required to wear face masks.

People aged 18-24 said that they are most comfortable about returning to public transport (40%), with people in Scotland (32%) and the West Midlands (29%) most likely, and those in the North West least happy (19%).

Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Chief Executive Graham Vidler reacted to the report by saying: “The public are understandably nervous about returning to normal life, including using public transport. However, operators are doing everything they can, including enhanced cleaning regimes, to keep staff and passengers safe.

“We are preparing to build upon our emergency network to one with more comprehensive links so that we can play a central role, which the research shows will be required, in helping people get to work or to see family and friends when the Government says it is safe to do so.

The temporarily reduced network will see coaches operating with 800-series route numbers and serving a limited number of towns and cities. NATIONAL EXPRESS

“In order to provide this expanded network we need investment from government and clarity on what social distancing measures it plans to have in place to ensure we can continue to provide a safe bus service.”

Express coach services

Scheduled express coach services are also going to feel the effect of the 2 metre social distancing guidance with seating capacity greatly reduced, for example, a standard National Express Caetano Levante with 48 seats and a rear toilet would be reduced to just 12 seats if using social distancing guidance.

Much thought will be required before those services recommence, which was due to be on Monday 1 June but it was announced last week that this has now been put back, with the National Express website explaining that: “We have extended the temporary suspension of our coach services. A restricted timetable is currently scheduled to resume from Monday 15 June 2020. Please note however, all services are subject to change depending on Government advice.”

Stagecoach-owned megabus has not yet identified a date that it hopes to recommence its services in England and Wales, which has been suspended since 5 April. megabus services within Scotland have continued to operate.

A megabus spokesperson told CBW: “We will continue to work with government on how to re-start our public transport services safely and in line with public health guidelines to help reboot the economy, connect people and communities, and play our part in delivering a more sustainable environment for our country.”

Additionally, Stagecoach’s Oxford Tube service remains temporarily suspended.

Works contract services

The latest technology is helping an innovative transport firm not only provide socially-distant bus services to protect passengers but it can help contact trace too.

Zeelo, which provides safe smart bus services for commuters at companies such as Amazon, Argos, Ocado and Investec, says passengers will only return to public transport if there is more confidence in the offering.

Sam Ryan, Co-founder and CEO of service provider Zeelo, said its new software would provide real-time updates on passenger numbers for each route, allowing users to book knowing they will be two metres apart from the next passenger, and also enable contact tracing, so if a passenger informs the company they are showing symptoms of the virus, fellow passengers who may have been travelling with them in the past can be alerted.

Zeelo chairman Michael Liebreich offered up a three-point plan: “First, mayors, municipalities and transportation agencies must act decisively to rebuild trust in mass transit, so that people feel safe using it even before the virus has completely disappeared.

“Second, they must promote active travel and micro-mobility, not as a nice-to-have, for sustainability or health reasons, but as a public priority in order to keep cities moving and to enable robust economic activity.

“Third, they need to find creative ways to increase capacity, especially during rush hours, by creatively integrating private sector and smart mobility transport providers, many of whom will be sitting on idle capacity.”

Anthony’s Travel is another operator that has been quick to introduce social distancing signage to its vehicles. ANTHONY’S TRAVEL

The technology is currently being used by logistics giant XPO. Martin Coughlin, director of XPO Logistics (Europe), said: “Online distribution centres remain open and encouraged (night and day) so at XPO our dedication during these uniquely challenging times has been to review and do everything we can to keep our employees, their families and loved ones safe. Coupled with changes to our processes to enable social distancing, the Zeelo service has been crucial in minimising the risk raised and posed by colleagues regarding initial concerns to public transport usage whilst the UK was adapting to the new normal.”

Coach operators

The reduction is seating capacity due to social distancing measures means coach operators now face a further hurdle that adds to complying with Euro VI emissions in many cities and PSVAR regulations, although there is now a further extension to the latter in place for rail replacement services until 31 December 2020.

Decisions on how school contracts are operated will, in the main, be led by local authorities. For those operating commercial school services, there may be a need to duplicate services to comply with the 2 metre guidance, thus increasing costs due to additional vehicles, drivers and fuel used.  This will depend on when the government allows schools to fully return, if it is not until after the six week school holidays then that 2 metre guidance may have been relaxed by then.

Another area of concern is coach holidays: assuming that lockdown measures see some reductions in the coming weeks, coach holiday operators will be keen to recommence their excursion programmes. Once again, this may be influenced by what happens with social distancing guidance. If the 2 metre rule continues then coach holiday operators face the issue that they may be able to only carry 14 passengers in a straight 53-seater coach, which may make that holiday unviable when considering the costs involved in running it with up to 39 fewer paying customers.

As things stand now many coach holiday operators are still optimistic and you can still go online and book day excursions from the end of May onwards, although many trips to concerts and sporting events have been cancelled or postponed until next year. Many operators are understandably offering customers a free transfer to a later departure in the year, to be able to book the equivalent holiday or excursion for 2021 at no extra cost, receive a future holiday credit note or to receive a full cash refund.

One operator looking to the future and using innovation to reassure its customers is Greys of Ely. Owner Richard Grey has introduced bespoke signage to the interior of his vehicles to identify the seating which is not available for use. This provides not only the information on where you should and should not seat, but also provides information on the current guidelines. Whilst the company’s cleaning provider has confirmed the specific use of all cleaning chemicals for suitability and they have also introduced a new full vehicle fog sanitising cleaning procedure to ensure the vehicle ventilation system is reached. Additionally, a bespoke app solution to help with contactless ticketing and contact tracing is also available.