After the government announced a £1.6bn rescue package for Transport for London last week, the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan warned it was little more than a “sticking plaster”, underlining the problem public transport bosses face as they restore services close to normal levels in response to the easing of the coronavirus lockdown.
After almost two months of running a skeleton service, the capital’s network has started to put on more trains and buses in response to ministers signalling that some people should start to return to work.
This week, services on London Underground, which normally carries 110m passengers a month, should be running at three-quarters normal capacity, while buses, responsible for about 170m monthly journeys, will run at 85 per cent.
But social distancing requirements mean that TfL can carry just 15 per cent of normal traffic, leaving it running the opposite of a mass transit system. As well as posing a practical headache, it is a financial nightmare, with revenue falling far short of operating costs.
“The old model for funding public transport in London simply does not work in this new reality,” Mr Khan said.
Labour’s London mayor, who was at loggerheads with the Conservative government over the bailout, is not alone in warning about the challenges involved in operating a full service for the few.
Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, has warned that the region’s public transport will need more support given that revenues have slumped. Passenger numbers are down 85 per cent as he aims to return services to their pre-pandemic levels by June 1.
The system received £2m of a total £30m government settlement for five non-London metros, to keep it open until mid-June, which covers just 70 per cent of losses, according to Mr Street.
“We will need the shortfall in funding to be made up just as they did for TfL in London,” he said.
Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, has warned that the regional transport authority would need £100m in support just to run a full timetable on the tram network, the UK’s largest, if social distancing remained in place until next March. “We cannot increase capacity unless we receive [government] funding to run more trams and more buses,” he said.
The Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents bus companies, said operators elsewhere faced a similar problem, compounded by the fact that it was unclear how long the crisis would last.
The sector in England received a £160m bailout in early April to cover the next three months, but Graham Vidler, CPT’s chief executive, said it would need further funding over the coming months.
“Buses will need sustained investment from government to meet the costs of an expanded network until passenger numbers return to normal levels,” he said. “If this funding is agreed, operators will be working around the clock to get more buses on our roads.”
Those funding needs pale in comparison to the huge bill the government is facing for effectively nationalising the rail network in March when it suspended the franchising system and took on the revenue and cost risk for six months.
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents the industry, said social distancing measures meant trains running at just 10 per cent of normal capacity, as services are reinstated across the network.
The government has given no cost estimate but it is likely to run into the billions with average monthly fare revenues of £866m.
Peter Mackie, at the University of Leeds’ Institute for Transport Studies, said the imperative for ministers was to keep all forms of public transport running.
“Immediate term — this year — everything depends on the willingness of the Treasury to put money in to keep the systems going,” he said.
Beyond the costs of providing close to a full service for a fraction of the usual passengers, the practicalities of keeping them safe for as long as the virus is a threat poses another big challenge.
Transport authorities, including TfL and Tyne and Wear Metro, have urged passengers to wear face masks, while providing basic PPE for staff.
Stickers marking out the 2m social distancing requirement are common place along with tannoy announcements asking passengers to stay apart and strategically positioned hand sanitiser.
Many mainline train operators have asked passengers to book ahead before travelling so they can restrict numbers on each service.
But a simple seat reservation system does not work for mass transit, and staff and passengers are worried.
Scenes of overcrowding on some peak-time buses and tube trains in London have illustrated that unless the majority of people adhere to government advice to stagger commutes and only travel if necessary, the system will break down.
At Victoria station, Manchester, where trains run by operators Northern and Transpennine are just 5 per cent full, there is already talk about how to stop passengers boarding an overcrowded train.
“When it hits it is going to take us by surprise. It is going to be chaos,” said one employee, who refused to give his name.
But those concerns appear to be reflected in public confidence. A recent survey by Transport Focus, the passenger watchdog, found that 40 per cent of regulator commuters did not feel it was safe to use public transport after the partial easing of the lockdown.
Nevertheless, operators are doing what does not come naturally and are urging people to think twice before using their services. “Contrary to what we would have said before the pandemic, we’re asking for people to keep trains clear for those who really need them,” Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group, said.
TfL has reinforced the government’s message, asking Londoners to cycle or walk where possible and to shop locally.
Although there is still no certainty about how long the virus will persist, Prof Mackie warns that the prospect of social distancing remaining in place for any length of time would raise profound questions about the future of public transport. “In the medium to long term, operating public transport at anything like 10 per cent of capacity is not going to be sustainable.”