Coronavirus: public transport

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on public transport in Wales and across the UK. This is likely to continue for some time, and the final destination in terms of the public’s travel behaviour and modal choice is unclear.

Estimated reading time: 10 Minutes

8 July 2020

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on public transport in Wales and across the UK. This is likely to continue for some time, and the final destination in terms of the public’s travel behaviour is unclear. 

The public policy response will be crucial to secure the future for public transport.

The impact of the virus and lockdown

While the impact of the lockdown on public transport patronage has yet to make it into official statistics, data from other sources suggest it has been substantial.

In late May the Welsh Government indicated that “the use of public transport is around 95% less than the same period last year.”

Google’s Community Mobility Reports suggest reductions in visits and length of stay at UK transit stations of up to 75% in March (PDF, 1.84MB). These have rebounded since, with reductions of around 49% in late June (PDF, 199MB), but the reductions remain significant. Apple’s Mobility Trends Report shows a similar trend.

While these data have limitations – for example, they rely on passenger searches and are unlikely to reflect commuter journeys – they illustrate the scale of the impact and the trend in usage. 

The Prime Minister told the public in England on 10 May “when you do go to work, if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle”. However, the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, Ken Skates, told the Senedd’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills (EIS) Committee (11 May); “I am not going to say ‘avoid public transport’“.  He continued:

We’re right on the cusp of being able to develop an integrated transport system in Wales, and I don’t want to see that destroyed because people are not using it, because people are discouraged from using public transport.

The Minister was “really worried about public transport,” highlighting:

  • risks from falling patronage as people “fear being in close proximity”;
  • capacity issues if social distancing means loading of just “10 to 15 per cent”; and
  • social justice issues since “20 percent of people in Wales just don’t own a car”.

However, on 25 June the Welsh Government tweeted that people should “avoid public transport” unless the journey “is essential and you have no travel alternatives”. 

Public perceptions of public transport safety are critical. Passenger watchdog Transport Focus is tracking public attitudes to travel across the UK during the pandemic. Weekly results suggest the public are cautious about public transport. Respondents indicate that they’ll work from home more and change how they travel – many say they’ll walk, cycle and drive more.

Worryingly for operators and policy makers, fewer than a quarter of respondents at a UK wide level indicate they’d be happy to use public transport once restrictions are lifted.  

An ITV Wales poll in early June found similar results showing 78% of those polled are concerned about using public transport as the lockdown eases.

Safety is a significant concern for public transport workers as well as passengers. In highlighting higher death rates from the virus amongst men in general, ONS data for England and Wales indicated that, up to 20 April 2020, for the working age population, “road transport drivers, including male taxi and cab drivers and chauffeurs, had some of the highest rates of death involving COVID-19”:

Among road transport drivers…taxi and cab drivers and chauffeurs had the highest rate, with 36.4 deaths per 100,000 males (76 deaths). Other occupations with significantly higher rates include bus and coach drivers, with 26.4 deaths per 100,000 males (29 deaths).

This compared with an overall death rate of 9.9 and 5.2 per 100,000 for working age men and women respectively.

While these data are provisional, and the ONS highlights that these differences are not conclusively caused by occupational exposure, they will be a cause for concern for those working in road transport.

How has the Welsh Government supported bus and rail?

A 31 March written statement from the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales detailed initial support of £69m for bus and rail services.

For bus services he said that £29m would be paid to bus operators over three months. Effectively, existing support for the bus industry would “be paid monthly up-front”, based on past payments, pending “a more sustainable solution”. In addition, he said he had written to the Welsh Local Government Association recommending that local authorities continue to pay a minimum of 75% of the value of local authority bus contracts.

In return, operators were required to agree a “foundation timetable”, operate at a maximum 50% of capacity, provide free travel for NHS workers, and report to local authorities on how every bus in their fleet has met its obligations.

The statement also announced initial support of “up to £40m” for Transport for Wales (TfW) Rail Services to “assure the skeleton service we are now operating”, and safeguard future rail operations. It said details of the mechanism were being developed.

On 30 May, the Welsh Government announced a further £65m for TfW Rail Services in the form of an “Emergency Measures Agreement” (EMA) – an approach to supporting rail initiated by the UK Government for England and also applied in Scotland (see below). 

On 2 July the Chief Executive of TfW, James Price, provided greater detail to EIS Committee on how the EMA would work. He explained that the Welsh Government is now taking full revenue and cost risk, and the operator is “doing exactly what we ask them to do” in return for a management fee of 1.5 to 2%. He said the new agreement is “structured in three phases”:

The first chance, or opportunity, for that to end is the end of July. The second end point is the end of October. Then, there is a legal opportunity for it to run a further three months after that, but that is the legal opportunity rather than the political opportunity at this point; i.e. there is no Welsh Government agreement for it to run past October.

The Welsh Government also issued a written statement on 2 July announcing a “COVID-19 Bus Emergency Scheme”. Initially, emergency funding will continue. However:

…the agreement underpinning the BES is intended to signal the beginning of a lasting partnership between operators and public bodies to enable a reshaping of Wales’ bus network, supporting the management and interaction across transport modes including smart ticketing, unified routeing, and integrated timetabling.

The long-term cost to the public purse could grow further. The Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales told the Committee on 11 May that the Welsh Government had estimated that socially distanced public transport would require public funding of £250m per year above existing subsidies.

How have the UK and Scottish Governments supported bus and rail?

On 23 March, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) offered the option of EMAs for the rail franchises it oversees, including the Great Western Railways, CrossCountry, and Avanti West Coast franchises operating in Wales. These EMAs transfer all revenue and cost risk to the UK Government, initially for a period of six months, with a fee capped at 2% paid to operators.

On 3 April, the UK Government announced a package of £397m for English bus services – including “new funding” of £167m over 12 weeks. Subsequently, on 23 May, the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps,announced wider measures including a further £254m for bus and £29m for tram and light rail services “to start moving back to a full timetable”, albeit with capacity of “at best … one fifth of normal capacity” given social distancing.

The Scottish Government has adopted a similar approach to rail services with its ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises. Contracts have been varied for a minimum of six months, with increased payments to cover operating costs “with a small management fee” paid at the end of the period subject to “satisfactory performance”.

On 25 March, the Scottish Government announced funding for the bus industry, committing to “maintain concessionary travel reimbursement and Bus Service Operator Grant payments at the levels forecasted prior to the impact of COVID-19”. On 19 June it also announced £46.7m over eight weeks to support bus services as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

How have bus and rail stakeholders responded?

On 30 March, the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) issued a news release welcoming Welsh Government funding for bus services but stating “additional support will be required [by operators] to cover their costs to provide the service levels envisaged by the Welsh Government”.

On 3 April, the CPT responded more positively to the UK Government announcement on bus services. Its Chief Executive said “we’re pleased the [UK] Government is working with us to ensure essential bus journeys can continue and will work closely with them to ensure the network remains viable”. The CPT in Scotland was also positive about Scottish Government support.

In discussing the UK Government’s 3 April announcement the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales explained to EIS Committee on 11 May:

… that additional money that was announced by the UK Government essentially only brought the offer to English bus operators up to what we were already offering in Wales. That’s because in Wales … about 45 per cent of the income for bus operators comes from your purse, the public purse, whereas in England, I think the figure is around about 25 per cent—it’s much lower. Therefore, our intervention was already significantly higher than in England. That additional money that was announced by the UK Government brought the subsidy up to Welsh levels.

Following the Welsh Government’s 2 July announcement of further support, the CPT responded:

Buses across Wales play a vital role in getting people to work, retail and leisure venues and to see loved ones. It is welcome to see the Welsh Government recognising this important role.

With social distancing measures restricting bus capacity there has been an unprecedented fall in passenger revenue meaning, despite cutting costs, operators are unable to cover the costs of running the network from fares alone.

We look forward to working with Welsh Government to ensure communities have access to safe, clean and sustainable bus links and to understand how the proposed transition arrangements will impact on the number of bus services we can run and how quickly we can get more buses on our roads.

In terms of rail, the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, responded positively to the UK Government’s announcement of EMAs – measures largely replicated by the Scottish and Welsh Governments for their franchises. The RDG’s Chief Executive said:

The industry strongly welcomes the Department for Transport’s offer of temporary support and while we need to finalise the details, this will ensure that train companies can focus all their efforts on delivering a vital service at a time of national need.

However, rail advocacy group Railfuture has said it’s “time for Whitehall to drop advice to avoid trains,” and called for “the full train service to be restored as soon as possible”.

What about taxi and private hire services?

As the ONS data suggest (above), taxi and Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) drivers may be at a higher risk from the virus than the wider working population.  

The Welsh Government has published taxi and PHV guidance (17 June) stating “taxi and private hire vehicle drivers are not generally considered to be critical workers”, but drivers can continue to work if this is “for essential purposes”, citing school contracts among the examples of “essential” work.  

This suggestion that taxi and PHV drivers are not “critical workers” might be  surprising given that Welsh Government guidance on coronavirus critical (key) workers virus test eligibility (10 June) lists “taxi/PHV” alongside “bus operators” and “Train/Network Rail staff”.

This largely unsubsidised sector, comprised mainly of operators working with self-employed drivers, has not seen direct financial support of the type provided for bus and rail. Rather, guidance directs drivers and operators to government support for the self-employed, business support, sick pay and universal credit.

With taxi and PHV licensing and regulation a matter for individual local authorities, decisions around changes to licensing arrangements responding to the pandemic are taken by individual licensing authorities. The taxi industry in Wales has raised concerns about safety, for example highlighting the need for local authority approval for protective screens to be fitted to cabs, and also the implications of the fact that drivers are often on low incomes.  Similar concerns have been raised in Scotland and England.

Social distancing and face coverings

On 1 June, the Welsh Government published updated guidance for operators on “restarting public transport”. This includes information on risk assessment and physical distancing, along with updated guidance for the public on “travelling safely”, including on public transport.

On 4 June TfW launched a “travel safer” campaign, aimed at public transport users, highlighting “how travellers can keep themselves, transport staff and the rest of Wales as safe as possible”. It’s been reported   that pre-booked bus and train tickets may be one of the ideas being considered by the Welsh Government to manage reduced capacity.

As in Wales, the UK Government has published guidance for both operators and passengers. The Scottish Government has made similar guidance available alongside a Transport Transition Plan.

Approaches differ across the UK. Face coverings became mandatory on public transport in England from 15 June, in Scotland from 22 June and will be compulsory in Northern Ireland from 10 July. In contrast, the Welsh Government has recommended their use on public transport, but they are not mandatory.

Both trade union and bus operator representatives told the EIS Committee on 18 June that they supported mandatory face coverings along with protective screens to protect bus and taxi / PHV drivers. Face coverings were seen as a particular issue for cross border rail and bus services. The unions emphasised the importance of clear public communication and messaging as much as the public health concerns.  In contrast, TfW told the Committee on 2 July that face coverings were less of an issue on cross-border rail services than the different requirements for social distancing. Current rules permit a one metre distance in England while the approach in Wales remains two metres.

Where next for Welsh public transport?

On 24 April, the Welsh Government published leading Wales out of the coronavirus pandemic: a framework for recovery. This notes the rapid change in behaviour which has taken place during the response to the virus, commenting “it is vital that we seize on the changes which can have a positive impact long into the future”.

On 7 May the Welsh Government announced that the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, Lee Waters, had written to local authorities “inviting them to submit proposals for temporary measures that would improve the conditions for sustainable and active travel”.

The Deputy Minister said:

The immense challenges of coronavirus have severely disrupted our transport network and I am clear that we don’t need to go back to normal. We have a chance to do things differently, helping more people to walk, cycle and travel in sustainable ways.

The Welsh Government announced the outcome of this process on 20 June, allocating “£15 million for ‘Covid-proof’ travel.” Alongside this, the Welsh Government published guidance for the “owners and operators of public places” on maintaining public safety as restrictions are relaxed.

In June, Transform Cymru published a sustainable transport vision for a post-lockdown Wales. This calls on Welsh public authorities to commit to seven key steps, including rebuilding passenger confidence in public transport, supporting innovative solutions, understanding the behaviour change which has taken place, and working with communities to develop solutions.  The report says:

We know that this is a pivotal moment in our history and some of the changes we have made now, will stay with us for a lifetime. Whilst we recognise that the current public health crisis creates significant challenges for the transport sector, we believe that there is also a major opportunity to drive modal shift and change the way we travel for the benefit of our future.

Given the widely identified risk that a short-term shift from public transport to the car might become a long-term trend, many will hope that the opportunity identified by Transform Cymru can be captured.

Article by Andrew Minnis, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.

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