Public transport out of lockdown

26 May 2020

Interview with 

Darren Capes, IET

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With the recent ease in restrictions and some people going back to work, what does the future of our public transport system look like? Darren Capes is a transport expert from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. He spoke to Katie Haylor and Chris Smith, who firstly asked him to summarise how lockdown has impacted public transport...

Darren - Yeah, I don't think it's a great surprise to anyone to say that public transport has been hugely affected. We're currently seeing bus and train use at around 5% of its pre-coronavirus levels. Which of course is massively affecting the way the industry works. And of course most trains in the UK, most buses are privately run. They're either run as private concerns or they're run as franchises. And this means that they are very much reliant on the money that they make through ticket sales and that of course has completely evaporated. So they are fundamentally now being paid for and operated by the government, which is a massive change. Anyone that's worked in transport as long as I have will be amazed to have heard the government saying recently that people should avoid public transport, people should drive to work. This is something we never expected to hear in our lifetimes. So of course it's absolutely important that we do say that, that's absolutely important that we follow that guidance, but that creates massive challenges for public transport.

Katie - What kind of challenges? Can you lay a few out for us?

Darren - How we fund transport going forward is one, and certainly at its current levels of use, public transport is not a viable business, it can't operate like that. And the models for the way that we run buses and trains in this country just don't work at those kinds of ridership levels. It also means that as long as we have social distancing, we won't be able to carry anything like the number of people that public transport used to carry. One in five is the kind of level, the kind of usage that we're able to see. So the whole way that public transport operates is challenged. The change in travel to work patterns, we don't know how they're going to stick yet. We don't know how many of the 54% of people currently home working will continue to home work. And that will have a massive effect on peak hour travel, it will have a massive effect on the number of buses and trains that are needed to carry people into work and back. We simply don't know how that will play out here. But I think it's absolutely right to say that in the future public transport will be a fundamentally different business to the one it was a few months ago.

Chris - Do you think we will have a new normal for transport or do you think we'll have a temporary new normal and then once everyone gets their confidence back and forgets all this in a year or so we'll be back to how we were? Cramming into underground trains, packing onto buses, back to a microbial stew pot that we all love.

Darren - Some of us love! I think we'll have both.

Chris - I was being facetious, just in case you're wondering. I don't think there was a single commuter among us that would welcome a return to where we were, but unfortunately part of me suspects that's the way we're going ahead isn't it?

Darren - I think so. I think looking back we will all say that similar things we used to do feel very strange now, but we are heading for two stages of this. I don't know how long social distancing will continue, but I think it's likely to be quite a long time. I think public transport will feel very strange in that period. I hope it's not so long that we have to fundamentally redesign public transport to deal with it. I hope we get back to a new normal soon enough for us to be able to think about what public transport looks like in the longer term. But I think it's absolutely the case that it may well be a very long time before we all want to cram onto the Victoria line at half past eight in the morning again, even if we're allowed to. As I said, the 54% of us that are now home working, many of us will want to continue to do that. Many of us will work shelter weeks in the office. The morning and evening peaks, which are the sort of the defining thing that public transport has to deal with at the moment, they will look very different I think in the future, and that will fundamentally alter the way that transport works. And that will fundamentally alter the way that we finance transport, how we pay for major infrastructure, how we pay for new trains, new buses, et cetera.

Chris - The worry is of course that without the current crush that we have with rush hours, it might lead to more reduction in investment in public transport because they'll just say, well, all these people can work at home, then

Darren - I hope it won't lead to less investment. I hope it will, well, one of the things I think as transport professionals we hope for is that we end up with a transport network that isn't so as I said, peaky. That isn't so built around meeting two quite sharp peaks in the day and would help move to a transport network that's able to use its capacity better. We know that on the tube and on the railways, on buses as well, lots of vehicles stand idle for large parts of the day because they were only required for the morning and evening peak. It'd be nice to move to a network that spreads the efficiency more through the day. It'd be nice to move to a network that rather than being configured around conveying large numbers of people from suburbs into cities, then back again, is able to meet a wider range of transport requirements, a wider range of journeys and a wider range of use type. We could hope that that transport becomes a lot more responsive to the way the world is changing than it was pre-covid.

Chris - So when Grant Shapps, transport secretary, when he says that we can only move a fifth of people with our current rolling rail stock transport networks and so on, in order to observe social distancing and so on, is that if we tried to assume the current model of how people rush to work and rush home, if we were to take into account the ideas that you're putting forward, that perhaps we all decide we don't like the rush hour and we're going to stagger how we get to work and go home from work, actually when one looks at how that might be serviced, do we have a more sort of theoretically feasible infrastructure at the moment to service that sort of industry? And do you think that that will be the way it goes for that reason?

Darren - When the peak hour becomes completely saturated, people do move their journeys, they're told to work earlier or later, we see the length of the peak spreading. What this current principal of only a fifth of the capacity available will do is it will absolutely increase that peak spreading and people will look to try and travel earlier or later. I mean if we use a bus or a train in the middle of the day, we know that they're generally not more than one fifth full anyway, so that that capacity could be there. There will be a need for the transport network to change, but there will be a need for employers and employees to change behaviour as well to spread loads of the day more. I think increasingly it just won't be possible to travel in the morning peak with any form of reliability while these measures are in place.

Chris - We've dwelled very much on things like buses and trains, but let's consider planes because that's different. Planes are most efficient when they're full and at the moment we can't just spread everyone out and then just say, well take your journey an hour later because the plane goes and it ideally goes full. So that industry still remains broken. Doesn't it?

Darren - It does. Yes. I think it's much harder to see how aviation could move forward. I think you're right. I think it's an industry that over many years has become very, very precisely honed on carrying full planes of people around. And I think it could operate, but I think fairs will be much more expensive. I can see that suppressing demand. I think that there is capacity that will need to be shed from the airline industry to deal with that. It's interesting because that will, that potentially has gains in terms of CO2. You know, reduced aviation is in environmental standards not a bad thing, but of course in terms of people's ability to travel and do what we all want to do, it is a bad thing. So that's a complex issue in terms of politics, in terms of transport, how much we would want in the future to use public money to support an airline industry.

Chris - Hmm. So if we may summarise then the new normal that you foresee for things like trains and buses and possibly boats with the rush in mind, we'll just spread the rush a bit more and actually what we've got already could work and could support that and that might be okay, but at the moment you can't really offer us a new normal vision for the airline industry. It looks like cheap flights are off the cheap hot holiday, which people have become largely addicted to. Those days are probably numbered, do you think?

Darren - I think that the business model of the airline industry would struggle. I think the final thing to say is that the government has made an awful lot of data and apps recently and there's been a number of challenges to use data and build apps for travel and I think we will see that playing a much more important role in how we travel in the future. I think we will probably have to become much more reliant on better using data, building apps that the public can use, so we can see when it's safe to travel. We can see when the trains and buses are empty. I think what we're seeing is that the investment that the government's bringing forward in that type of technology is here to stay and will play an increasing part in how we use public transport.

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