A look at how social distancing is being upheld on Greater Manchester’s bus routes
Scene One: Gem Travel Luxton depot
Stan Butler Junior has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by working in the bus industry. He drives the 346 to Cemetery Gates, originally the 11 and 11A before National Bus Company took over Luxton and District. After privatisation, it became part of the Molesway Group, which became part of Easyway in 1995. In 1998, Easyway Luxton was sold to its management before falling into Gem Travel’s hands in 2007.
Stan’s nemesis is, of all people, related to his granddad’s nemesis. Nigel Blake is the charismatic boss of Gem Travel Luxton, and just as strict as the late Cyril Blake. He joined the company in 1987 – back when Luxton and District had a disastrous spell with operations in Milton Keynes. Unsurprisingly, they lost several Buckinghamshire County Council tenders after six months.
Today, Stan Junior is likely to get caught by Nigel for messing with his smartphone. Dating apps and a tile matching game called Fudge Fumble are his downfall. Over at Luxton Business Park, Gem Travel Luxton’s base, Stan is on his early shift aboard the 346.
Stan: (Yawning) Here we go again… Why couldn’t I have been furloughed like Marie in Maintenance? (Stan’s smartphone bleeps. He finds a WhatsUpp message from Nessa).
(Excitedly) Cor blimey… Nessa’s replied… NESSA’S REPLIED! This could be my ticket out of Luxton. (Nigel Blake sees him fiddling with his smartphone).
Nigel Blake: (banging on the doors) BUTLER! What are you doing with that phone? Aren’t you supposed to be doing the 0815 to Cemetery Gates???
Stan: 8.15??? But my running board says 8.30 and today is Wednesday.
Nigel Blake: Butler, this morning’s journey should leave at 8.15. It is now 8.25 and you are running ten minutes late. BUTLER, could you open the doors, please…? (Stan opens the doors). Let me see your running board… (Blake examines the running board).
Butler… (indignantly) I think you’ve got the wrong running board. As of this Monday, Gem Travel Luxton is running a Sunday service.
Stan: You didn’t tell me.
Nigel Blake: Butler, we discussed this on Friday. Everybody was told about this, due to that Corona… Corona… Corona thingy.
Stan: Oooh yes… and because of this lockdown, the streets will be quieter. And nobody will notice.
Nigel Blake: But they still expect to see their buses running to time, even during a global pandemic. Butler: think of the nurses (Stan smiles knowingly), the carers that use our buses. The pensioners…
Stan: Oooh, they wouldn’t notice. They’ll be sat at home, self-isolating in front of Bargain Hunt.
Nigel Blake: (angrily) If you think they wouldn’t notice one missing bus, you’ve another thing coming. We are running a Sunday service which means another hour till the next bus instead of another fifteen minutes. Now get that bus out…! (Stan looks rather resigned).
Stan: (looking at his smartphone) If you say some, Blake.
Nigel Blake: Good. And if I see you with that smartphone again, on Tic Tac and WhatsUpp, I shall socially distance you from your position! (Stan drives bus out of depot).
* * *
Social distancing on the buses is no laughing matter. In fact, on any form of public transport, it is a must for any key worker that takes the bus, train, or tram.
Some form of social distancing has been made by timetable changes. This has seen key routes operating a Sunday service. In some cases, a Sunday timetable with peak hour journeys. On residual routes, a cut down version of a Sunday service – many of which being Associate Members of The Every Two Hours Club. These changes, in addition to protecting the welfare of bus drivers and ancillary staff, reflect reduced patronage following the lockdown.
With more passengers either being furloughed, in self-isolation or working from home, the demand for peak hour public transport is dramatically reduced. Owing to the lockdown, serendipitous journeys have been discouraged. Even if you are nipping to the chemist, supermarket or to work as a key worker, the use of any bus route is discouraged. Instead of waiting for a bus, cycling, walking and even driving are hailed as preferable options.
In the long term, the pro-car, pro-walking and pro-cycle messages could be detrimental to the future of any communal transport. Ultimately, this too depends upon the state of our workplaces, should videoconferencing become the norm after the pandemic.
How is social distancing upheld on Greater Manchester’s bus routes?
Using the 219 (Ashton-under-Lyne – Piccadilly Gardens) route as our example, there is normally space for 480 passengers per hour. This is based on a ten minute frequency using double decker buses. With the post lockdown frequency of every half hour, 160 passengers per hour. From the 19 May, there is space for just 40 passengers per hour.
It may be easy to blame the 92.7% drop in capacity on falling passenger numbers. Some bus routes have seen a drop of up to 90% in patronage during the last two months. The real reason behind the cut in capacity is the use of social distancing techniques. These changes will ensure that passengers are two metres apart from each other. In other words, one window seat in two being occupied on each side as seen in the diagram below.
The general consensus seems to be cutting the passenger capacity of each bus by 75%. An Enviro400 would carry 20 socially distant passengers, sat two metres apart. For a single decker bus like the Enviro200, 10 passengers. An Optare Solo, as seen on the 41A and 343 routes, would only carry seven passengers. Standing is prohibited.
Once the bus has reached its self distanced capacity, operators may use the front indicator to read ‘Bus Full’.
In general, most operators will be taking contactless card payments with exact fare policies for cash payments. A face covering may be worn on board, though this is seen as “desirable, though not essential” for the time being. Mobile tickets are also encouraged for more regular passengers. Some operators, like Vision Bus, have offered NHS employees free travel.
All of Greater Manchester’s bus operators (from Arriva to Warrington’s Own Buses) will be taking heed of the latest advice from HM Government. In relation to safe travel by bus, its recommendations are as follows:
- Take a window seat and place your baggage on the aisle side seat;
- When queueing for your bus, make sure that only one person is stood in the entrance;
- Remember to refrain from standing near the driver’s cab before you leave the bus;
- If social distancing isn’t possible, please wear a face covering (see below).
Stagecoach Greater Manchester
As detailed above in general, Stagecoach Greater Manchester will be cutting the capacity of its buses to allow for social distancing. This would see vehicle passenger capacities cut by 75%. To keep everyone safe, Stagecoach GM recommends wearing a face covering if you can – alongside social distancing techniques. Each bus has clear details of its revised capacity below the driver’s screen.
Go North West
To enforce social distancing measures, certain seats have been taped up to prevent passengers from occupying them. Like Stagecoach Greater Manchester, Go North West recommends wearing a face cover. In their words, this could include “scarves, old t-shirts and bandanas”. You can also message them on 07779 544650 via WhatsApp if you have any queries.
First Greater Manchester
In addition to the usual lockdown period etiquette (essential journeys, contactless payment), First Greater Manchester recommends making full use of the bus to encourage social distancing. If there’s a double decker on the 409, FirstGroup recommends sitting upstairs, leaving the lower deck for less agile passengers. Like Stagecoach, FirstGroup buses will display details of the bus’ revised capacity below the driver’s anti-assault/anti-spit screen.
Transdev (Burnley Bus Company, Blackburn Bus Company, Rosso)
In addition to the usual social distancing guidelines, the front seats will be taken out of use and clearly marked with vinyl signage. The floor will also be clearly marked to deter passengers from standing too close to the driver.
High Peak Buses
Like our fellows at Transdev, FirstGroup and Stagecoach, the front seats have been taken out of use and clearly labelled. If you can, High Peak Buses recommend staggering your journeys to avoid peak hour travel. They have also created this nifty little video on how to make your own face covering from an old T-Shirt. (You may prefer to mute the annoying background music).
General social distancing measures have been place since the start of lockdown. Stott’s Tours have addressed this by making sure passengers take window seats and adhering to the two metre rule. Social distancing based seating plans can be seen on board.
Social distancing in bus stations
Transport for Greater Manchester has raised its social distancing game by having two metre markings in their bus stations. Vinyl signage has been placed on seats, waste bins and windows to enable effective social distancing.
Since the start of the lockdown, TfGM Travelshops have been closed. Instead, passengers can ring a telephone enquiry number (seen on the Travelshop entrance doors) or visit TfGM.com.
Social distancing tips for passengers
Since the lockdown, walking, cycling or driving to work is pretty much the accepted style. Anyone ‘daring’ to use public transport is seen in a negative light, which reinforces the ‘peasant wagon’ and ‘method of last resort’ tropes that bus travel has had for over three decades.
If you need to use the bus, here’s my selection of travel tips:
- If you have trouble upholding the two metre rule, don’t bring a tape measure with you. Where there’s a bus shelter, queue at the opposite end of the shelter if you are the second person in the queue. Chances are, the length of the shelter may be greater than two metres, so every two to three window panels could do.
- Some passengers might sit too close to you, when trying to keep two metres apart from your fellows. Expect to move around the vehicle to maintain sufficient distance.
- At the bus station, help to keep the bus – and your bus station – clean by refraining from eating in the queue. Try to have your takeaway lunch or packed lunch at home or in a public place where social distancing is easier to practice.
- Wash hands for 20 seconds before you leave the house or workplace, or use hand sanitiser. Please remember to do the same on reaching your final destination.
S.V., 19 May 2020.