Season of Mists and Mellow Covidness?

Chris has been looking at the latest numbers on the effects of the Covid pandemic, now becoming a permanent part of our lives, and wonders what they portend for the future of public transport.

Suddenly, it’s the autumn. In this quite extraordinary year, spring and summer seem to have slipped by almost unnoticed, and as I write, it’s eight weeks since the lifting of restrictions on social distancing, which happened in the third week of July. The Department for Transport (DfT) is still publishing its weekly statistics on transport use during the pandemic, and pretty grim reading they make – especially for those of us who believe in public transport and in the need for modal shift away from private vehicles.

In summary, the figures for motor vehicles hit a weekly average of 90% of 2019 levels within days of the first lifting of restrictions after lockdown three in April. The numbers hit 100% by the spring bank holiday weekend at the end of May and have broadly stayed there. By contrast, public transport use has lagged well behind.

On the national rail network, demand increased from the mid-teens in February to the mid-twenties in March. On the first round of restriction lifting in April, numbers rose to around 40%, hitting 50% at the end of May. Since the lifting of restrictions in mid-July, numbers have hit the high fifties, before topping 60% in mid-August. The most recent figures are provisional, though, and may go higher. London Underground followed a broadly similar pattern, but then it flatlined in July in the mid-forties, only topping 50% in the last three weeks of August. Bus networks, meanwhile, have been slightly ahead – topping the 60% mark in May both in London and in the regional networks. However, they flatlined in the mid sixties throughout June and July. This continued into August in the regions, but London has moved ahead, and bus demand reached 71% in the last week of August, the highest figure since all this began back in March 2020.

In many ways, this has to be expected. The highly contagious Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus continues to cause upwards of 30,000 new cases a day. Whilst vaccination means immunity for most and a mild infection for much of the remainder, people are still being admitted to hospital in numbers and some are dying – including a disturbingly high proportion of fully vaccinated people. This virus has not done with us yet – and, not surprisingly, people are still nervous of catching an unpleasant and unpredictable disease.

Whilst official advice against public transport use has been lifted in England, the information that has replaced it is still draconian, with continued mask-wearing, cautions against waiting indoors and to travel outside peak hours if possible. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but hardly surprising in the circumstances. Meanwhile, instructions to work from home if possible have also been lifted, and the government has indicated that it wishes to see a gradual return to work.

The response to this has varied, with some employers happy to maintain a significant level of home-working, whilst others remain opposed. Amongst workers themselves, the same is true: some long to be back in the office, others hate the idea – especially whilst infection levels remain as high as they are. It is well known that this is the rail industry’s big problem – prior to the pandemic, 47% of passenger journeys were generated by commuters. Looking at the ONS breakdown of the workforce by occupation, it looks to me as if we’re likely to end up with around one third of the workforce working on a hybrid basis in future. This would result in falls of 13 per cent in commuting from 2019 levels, rising to 14.6 per cent in London. If this happened, travel to work demand would revert to 2015 levels.

People need to get back into the office if our big city economies are to return to anything like pre-pandemic levels of activity, especially in the hard-hit retail sector. Here, latest footfall statistics show that, whilst the number of shoppers is up from last year, they are still between 20 and 25 per cent short of 2019 levels. Meanwhile, latest stats from the Office for National Statistics show that the proportion of retail sales undertaken on the web has settled back at 26 per cent over the last few weeks (the same level as last autumn). If this does turn out to be the new norm, then online has seen a six per cent gain in market share since the end of 2019.

All of which, to be honest, leaves the public transport industry in a bit of a hole – reliant on government financial support provided by an increasingly unhappy Treasury, itself beset from all sides by demands for funding – most pressing of all is helping the NHS to cope with the ongoing demands of the pandemic, and to reduce the waiting lists that have grown huge during the crisis; not forgetting policies to fix the growing problems of providing sufficient social care resources for a rapidly ageing population; and all the other many and varied demands on the public purse.

So can we expect a return to the rail industry of the early 1970s – starved of investment, with ‘make do and mend’ maintenance policies and constant shaving of service provision? Certainly, on financial grounds, the Treasury could put up a clear argument that the country cannot sustain the levels of service and investment that were bring provided pre-Covid. Both have been adjusted downwards over the last year or so, and this is probably a process that will continue – accompanied by a few hefty fares increases.

But…

And it’s a big ‘but’. It’s called Decarbonisation of Transport – an essential component of the Net Zero 2050 target. Most of you will be familiar with what that means: modal shift away from private car use to more sustainable modes such as walking, cycling and public transport together with reduction in the need to travel at all; a target recommended by the Climate Change Committee (and accepted by Government) of 5% reduction in car kilometres by 2030, 9% by 2035 and 17% by 2050.

Frankly, it is going to be difficult enough to persuade people out of their cars on the scale needed (remembering that one per cent of car passenger kilometres switched to rail represents an 11 per cent increase in passenger kilometres travelled by train). It is going to be impossible if the rail network slows down to save money, is poorly maintained or has insufficient capacity.

All of this comes as a vivid reminder of the downsides of working in an industry that relies on derived demand. If people have stopped commuting to and from work, going shopping or travelling to business meetings and conferences, there’s not a huge amount that public transport management teams can do about it. Lots of destination marketing and reminders of the exciting things that can be accessed by using transport – and that’s about it. Such campaigns are essential, and there are already some very good examples of how to do it out there  – but, in truth, even the best of such marketing is only ever going to nibble away at the edges of the problem.

As I write, the political world is abuzz with reshuffle rumours – and after more than two years in office, our current Transport Secretary may be expected to move on. Any volunteers for the job?

First published in Rail Professional magazine.

SInce I wrote this, we have of course had the much heralded government reshuffle, and remarkably there was only one change, at junior ministerial level.  Grant Shapps therefore remains Secretary of State.

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