- The government announced second round of funding worth £256 million for the bus and tram operators in the UK
- The money would help the public transporters to scale up their services ahead of September 2020 which is likely to see an increase in public transport usage.
- People are wary of using the public transport amid the fear of catching an infection
In its latest measure to facilitate the Britons safely reach their workplaces and education institutions during the coronavirus pandemic, the government on 8 August 2020 announced a second round of funding worth £256 million for the bus and tram operators across the country. The additional money infusion will assist this category of public transport service providers to scale up their services ahead of September 2020 which is likely to see a significant increase in public transport usage.
Baroness Vere, the UK’s Roads Minister stated that with opening up of the country’s economy post lockdown, an increased number of Britishers are using public transport, and this calls for an efficient service level to travel safely. Vere highlighted that the government has taken necessary steps to make sure that the public transport services were maintained since the outbreak of the pandemic to be used by people delivering essential services and would be available after the economy opened up.
The latest sop takes the total support to the sector during the coronavirus pandemic to approximately £700 million. The government aims to make it easier and safe for people to reach their workplaces and young Britons to their educational institutions in the times of the pandemic. It is to be noted that the government has encouraged more people to re-join their work from the start of August 2020, besides announcing to reopen schools from next month.
From the latest support given by the government, the bus services in the UK would get up to £218.4 million over the next eight weeks. This would be rolling funding of up to £27.3 million afterwards on a weekly basis until a time when the funding would not be required any more. The operators who would be eligible to claim the new funding, as well as the provisional funding include all the operators in England outside London who claimed the Bus Service Operators Grant earlier and those who operate services tendered by the local authorities. Similar to the bus operators, the tram services would receive up to £3.1 million per week from the total demarcated sum of up to £37.4 million, over a 12-week period. The government said that a review would be conducted after the period comes to an end.
In addition, to assist the operators in reducing the impact of revenue loss due to the coronavirus pandemic, the second dose of financial support is targeted to help them in their efforts of building back to normal service levels. In comparison to the regular levels, at present, the UK’s bus network is running at around 80 per cent capacity. The light rail services are also noted to run significantly below normal levels. The tram operators who would be able to access the light rail funding are five tram services in the North and Midlands and consist of West Midlands Metro, Sheffield Super tram, Manchester Metrolink, Tyne, and Wear Metro and Nottingham Trams.
In addition to the funding announced, the UK government has also expressed its commitment to charting ways towards independent operations and commercial feasibility of the bus sector. Realising the importance of buses in the everyday lives of the citizens, the government looks ahead at a sustainable model of working for the sector.
Welcoming the new fund infusion by the government, Graham Vidler, chief executive of the confederation of passenger transport (CPT) said that it would be of great help towards operating a wider bus network that millions of Britishers rely on. He highlighted that at present there is lesser income generation from passenger fares, and it is lower than ordinary.
Commuting by public transport during the coronavirus pandemic
In the ongoing fight against the coronavirus, people are wary of using public transport amid the fear of catching an infection, despite the government has mandated the buses and trains to operate with social distancing. Though the commuters have been asked to wear masks, many a time the public transports mean across the country could be seen running empty or few passengers. As commuter confidence is at a lower level, the deserted looks of public transport systems are not likely to be changed soon. If this is an indication that people are travelling more by their own cars, then the number of cars is almost similar to the pre-lockdown levels of 100,000 a day, despite an increase in the congestion charge zone fee in an effort to lessen the cars on the roads and pollution caused by them. Before the lockdown was imposed, around 50 per cent of people in London used public transport to commute, according to estimates.
How do the experts see the situation?
Some industry experts have stated that operating buses and trains either empty or partially full is not sustainable, and it is important to increase the capacity. Several transport unions present the case of reducing the social distancing from two metre to one metre. While some projections present that reducing the social distancing from two metres to one metre would increase capacity to 25 per cent from 15 per cent. A tube train at one metre could have 208 people on board, which decreases to 93 at two-metre. The normal capacity of a tube train is for 800 passengers. On the same lines, while maintaining two metres of social distancing, a double-decker bus that has a capacity for 87 passengers, could have only 20, and could possibly increase to 30 at one metre. Such changes on social distancing norms would have a positive impact on the queues as well and make them shorter.
However, some experts see the issue of social distancing in different lights. Welcoming the announcements made in July 2020 regarding social distancing to be reduced to 1-metre plus, they cautioned that full capacity would be reached by late November, and thereafter would require steps to manage the increased demand. Other section of experts finds some solutions in the way the aviation sector is overcoming the challenges during the coronavirus pandemic to bring efficiency and provide safe commuting to Britons. Some of the measures adopted by the aviation industry like using automatic temperature recording systems and computer-based applications to monitor the social distancing norms would facilitate in developing commuter confidence to use public transport systems.
Given such unprecedented crisis of a pandemic, the bailouts and other schemes by the government especially for a sector that provides services to a large section of the population becomes crucial; however, it also calls for learning and implementing the processes being used and followed by other similar sectors or countries at large to overcome the present circumstances. The present crisis provides an opportunity to think deeply on long-term operational benefits and sustainability of important sectors like buses and trams, while also bringing in measures to recover them from the present crisis.
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