We live in peculiar times. Many people have been documenting the social aspects of this period, so i’ll attempt to look at this from predominantly a business point of view.
The school which is the focus of our activities at the start and end of each day closed as part of the national schools shut down on Friday 20th March. B&NES initially asked us to continue with the Home to School services, but this was curtailed after the following Tuesday on account of very small numbers of key worker children being carried. B&NES agreed to pay contractors normal rates for home to school routes until the Easter holidays started (3rd April).
I carried on for the next three weeks providing the bus services, driving them myself once the school runs were off. Passenger numbers were thankfully low, mostly appearing to be restricted to those who were travelling to do worthwhile shopping for supplies.
During the three weeks i was still perservering with the bus services, other local routes gradually began to be suspended. Carmel’s A5 (Winscombe – Airport – Winford) and 88 (Nailsea – Portishead – Clevedon) were called off by North Somerset Council after operation on Friday 27th March. Having run the 135 empty on 27th March, we carried several passengers on the 3rd April, primarily those from villages who otherwise had no bus services remaining. HCT also suspended the 672 service from the Chew Valley to Bristol from Monday 6th April.
But whilst i was happy to carry on running, all things must pass and a phone message from North Somerset was waiting for me on arriving back from 128 on Thursday 9th April. The council asked us to suspend services on account of some assessment of PPE required by bus drivers, which we both agreed were unsustainable. I’m not sure how genuine this PPE excuse was, particularly as First have continued to provide services contracted by North Somerset with no noticeable change to their approach. I was also unconvinced of the evidence provided by the council as this seemed to assume we were council employees. As of mid May, other providers in B&NES have continued to provide similar weekly bus services, which now fall under the domain of WECAvon.
As soon as it became apparent that business was not going to continue as normal, there was a brief flurry of activity from WECAvon to confirm that operators of bus services would continue to receive contracted payments regardless of what was being operated. We were also advised that concessionary payments would be continued to be paid based upon the passenger numbers being carried for the equivalent month in 2019. B&NES Home to Schools quickly advised us that we would be paid the normal contracted rate until the Easter holidays began. Payments were advanced and authorised more quickly than they would normally be in order to try and maintain cashflow in to businesses.
But then there is North Somerset with their curious priorities. In the early stages of preparations, i had a frankly bewildering conversation with one member of staff who was keen to assess how capable we were of surviving a period without an income. They then suggested that this could be an opportunity to increase one of the services which they’d recently served me notice to terminate the contract thereof, potentially at the expense of some other provider(s) whom they were not expecting to make it through the disruption. Meanwhile their Home to School unit were busy sending out massive emails about their expectations and requirements of operators. This drew a stark parallel to B&NES, who were sending concise, relevant messages which were much easier to process and action.
Support from central government was fairly swift to respond, but ultimately useless for us. Whilst councils were told to keep paying contractors for services and to make arrangements for concessionary fares (which in fairness, they had done), central government support was clearly aimed larger operators with a significant exposure on commercial services. A snappily named scheme – Covid-19 Bus Special Support Grant (CBSSG) was introduced to pay operators an additional subsidy per kilometre operated on commercial bus services, but this was only available to those who were registered for Bus Service Operator’s Grant (BSOG) and based upon their previous claims. Despite having three bus routes which are eligible for BSOG, i had never bothered registering them for it because the costs of making a claim and having it verified by an approved chartered accountant are prohibitively expensive and would outweight any income generated.
Whilst various government departments were being far more helpful than normal and other usual payments (such as pensions) were given longer to be addressed, the one organisation that was still happy to pursue their invoices through this period was our beloved ticket machine suppliers, Corvia Ticketer. Despite telling us they had furloughed most of their staff, they were still happy to chase invoices. Thoughts regarding Ticketer may well be a story for another time.
The tide begins to turn
By the end of April, i still hadn’t heard from B&NES as to at what level we should be invoicing for ongoing Home to School contracts after the Easter break. Operators were eventually emailed on the 30th April advising them to submit invoices as normal for April, but to complete a form regarding how much Supplier Relief they thought they should be claiming beyond the Easter break in order to avoid duplication of financial relief to operators between government departments. At the time of writing, these claims for supplier relief appear not to have been responded to, but the invoice for April has been paid. Both B&NES and WECA also began making noises on the local news outlets regarding shortfalls between their normal income and that which had been promised by central government.
On the local bus front, Stagecoach West announced their withdrawl from the services they took over from First in September 2018 (Severn Express, Bristol – Chepstow – Newport and X5 Weston – Clevedon – Portishead – Cribbs Causeway) and, having declared an interest, we are currently awaiting a promised tender to be issued.
Recovery from this period is going to be a long and arduous task. Local government have already stated they expect to have huge budget problems in the coming months and years and given that some 80% of all their spending already goes on social care, i don’t hold out much hope for public transport being anywhere near the top of the agenda.
In the short term, managing services with socially distanced passengers will be challenging. Making these services viable will be impossible without unprecedented levels of ongoing financial support. I have concerns that the duration of the distancing guidelines will have a heavy influence over the viability of services beyond the period for which they are active.
In the short to medium term, it is going to take a lot of effort to rebuild passenger numbers. It should be expected that there are going to be fewer commuters for a long time as businesses with expensive city centre offices recognise the money they can save from staff working remotely. There will also now be a social stigma attached to public transport as government is currently telling everybody that it is their duty to avoid public transport.
in a similar vein to Thatcher’s (possibly ficticious) quote regarding bus users being “a failure” in the 1980s, a renewed stigma of public transport may well see the masses ignoring us as an option, this time over health concerns. Headlines like the one shown above don’t disappear from memory quickly. Affluent cities like Bristol already have a huge stigma against public transport embedded in the minds of most residents, which has led to the service being less a public service and more an extension of social services, thus driving away those who have a choice and making the service by definition less efficient and less attractive.
Perhaps i’m getting ahead of myself by considering this rather than the current ongoing challlenges, but rebuilding passenger numbers will require a huge effort. Some operators have already told me that there will be opportunities in the months and years ahead, but i’m remain unconvinced. How effective any of us can be in the future may well be influenced by how much support is given to other sectors, and how long these support measures last. The message will not change instantly from “Avoid public transport” to “Choose public transport”, but when it does, both government and operators need to make sure it is heard loudly and clearly.
One of the frustrating things about writing this post has been the fact that it feels odd posting it before the story is concluded or whilst there are still so many unknowns. Hopefully there will be another, more optimistic chapter to write soon.