Useful advice on staying safe on the buses
At this very time of writing, Britain is on the verge of a possible third lockdown. Since the Coronavirus first reared its head, the petering out of a second wave has been replaced by a third wave. Which at this moment in time has greatly affected households in Greater London and South East England. It is in our interests to stop the worst excesses of that strain from reaching the North West of England.
Prior to Greater London’s movement into Tier 4, there was a War of the Worlds style exodus with the city’s commuter trains. As for social distancing, it had gone the way of Stalybridge Celtic’s hopes of getting to a Wembley Cup Final.
Then came Boxing Day. Under Tier 4 conditions, there had been no people queuing up out London’s shops. Instead of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, queues thronged the Trafford Centre and Meadowhall shopping centres. If you thought coronavirus’ assumed Christmas Day break was one super-spreader event, the queues outside our shopping centre could be the second one.
Thankfully, I wasn’t one of the shoppers. Whether I had my own set of wheels or not, I would have avoided the Trafford Centre like (dare I say it) the plague. I have elderly parents and an antiquarian Jack Russell Terrier to support. I am also a Key Worker. Apart from that, I have no love for the Trafford Centre and work on the principle of “if I cannot get it in Stalybridge or Manchester city centre, it’s the internet”.
In the last year, private motoring has benefited most of the pandemic. Cycling and walking enjoyed an upsurge though that seems to have stalled. Patronage on buses, trams, and trains have struggled to reach pre-pandemic levels. Despite improved cleanliness of buses, trams and trains, the Tories’ Public Transport = Bad/Private Transport = Good mindset came to the fore. For a while, that was the mood music; the possibility of buses, trains and trams being a potential source for COVID-19.
The bus industry was first to respond, especially as more than 80% of bus routes across the UK stand on their own six wheels, without public money. Social distancing practices were introduced; with limited seating available, this was set at roughly 25% of seating capacity per bus. With passengers having to wear face coverings, up to about 50% of seating capacity by June 2020.
Moving towards the end of 2020, the United Kingdom is now under a tiered lockdown system. With public transport usage, travel restrictions vary according to the tier in your locality. If you live in Greater Manchester (Tier 3 at present), Tier 3 rules apply if you travel to a lower tier area like Merseyside (Tier 2) and the Isle of Wight (Tier 1). If you need to travel to a Tier 4 area, this can only be for work, education, or seeing a family member in your support bubble.
As to how far you can travel under the tier system, being in Tier 4 means you can only access services and shops within your locality. Under Tier 3, this means within your borough and city region. This is fine if you are travelling around Greater Manchester, or anywhere else of reasonably short distance outside your borough (i.e: Newton to Glossop or Cadishead to Warrington). If you can, please stay within your City Region, borough, Unitary Authority or County Council boundaries.
The Tier Alert System in relation to public transport
The Tories’ Car = Good/Bus = Bad message is stated in all the Government’s guidance notes on local restrictions. It disregards the fact that some people need to catch buses, trains or trams as part of their travel to work. They might not have cars due to affordability (fuel, insurance premiums, credit terms). If they live in a part of the UK that has a public transport network which suits their working pattern, they might refrain from buying a car and walk for short distances. For residents in a Tier 1 Medium Alert category, official advice says:
“You should walk or cycle if you can. Where that is not possible, use public transport or drive.”
For Tier 2 and upwards, it says:
“Walk or cycle where you can and plan ahead and avoid busy times and routes on public transport.”
In one way, the Car = Good/Bus = Bad message is entrenched in their guidance for Tiers 2 to 4. On the other hand, this means stagger your journey times and choose less popular routes. Bus operators great and small have gone the extra mile in making their buses clean. Some operators have added hand sanitisers to their vehicles. Transport for Greater Manchester’s bus stations have had hand sanitising points since the start of the pandemic. In a Channel Four documentary, it was found that buses were safer for passengers than their superstore of choice. This due to the extra cleanliness measures and social distancing.
If you are familiar with the machinations of our deregulated bus network, you always need to plan ahead. Allowances should be made for congestion or longer waits for the next bus, if the bus you need to catch is full due to lower capacities that allow for social distancing. Lockdown or otherwise, there will also be the usual service changes by each operator on tendered or commercial routes.
Under the Government’s Safer Travel Guidance for Passengers, it suggests keeping your distance from other people when you travel. Every bus operator in our City Region from Stagecoach Greater Manchester to Nexus Move have marked off ticks and crosses to mark which seats should be used, or not be used. Instead of being a pariah, the person who places their baggage on one of the seats is now a folk hero.
Also it states the need to wash or sanitise your hands regularly. Not every passenger has a ready supply of hand sanitiser on them. Some operators refrain from having hand sanitiser dispensers for fear of vandalism. Passengers using their local bus stop have to use their own hand sanitiser.
One other important bit of advice suggests the avoidance of unnecessary stops on your journey. From past experience, I have made very few journeys where unnecessary stops have been made, and the ‘unnecessary stops’ quote could be an issue of semantics. Say you love spotting trains: does finding out about Tornado passing Stalybridge station at the last minute mean breaking your journey on a 237 and spotting the thing constitute an unnecessary stop? Yes, if you see it as an excuse to spot a train. If you add a shopping trip to TESCO or a walk along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal to the equation, that’ll be a ‘no’.
There are other issues where the so-called ‘unnecessary stop’ is necessary. Say you have a person in your support bubble that has an autism spectrum condition. S/he is travelling from Royal Oldham Hospital to Top Mossley, and the 409 at the best of times could be overloading for the passenger. Due to its route starting in Rochdale or Ashton, it is likely to get caught up in the traffic. With the 409 being a popular route, the noise could overload our passenger if his/her usual way to Top Mossley means changing at Ashton for a 350 bus. Alternatively, our passenger could catch the 402 or the 408 for Oldham.
From one point of view, breaking the journey at Oldham could be seen as ‘unnecessary’. Subject to connections, s/he could (before 6pm) change at Oldham for the 343 bus instead. The journey time may be faster than changing at Ashton, so a case of ‘unnecessary stop’ my posterior. Any stop needed for the purpose of changing buses isn’t an unnecessary one – even if it you need to call into Home Bargains for milk between buses to kill time. Breaking journeys for a toilet stop most certainly isn’t unnecessary either.
Using Buses Responsibly on shopping trips
Since the lockdown, I have done more of my shopping online. I have kept shopping trips to a minimum, being as social distancing is much more difficult to enforce in supermarkets and shopping centres than on buses and trains.
If you take the bus to your shops (essential or non-essential), there’s every chance you would plump for the most direct route to the nearest town or city centre. This move has its limitations being as the most direct bus routes may be the busiest. On the other hand, their frequencies may be better than less direct routes, which means a modest wait for the next bus if the previous one had the ‘Bus Full’ sign.
If you can, stick to the most direct route you can make. Try to shop as locally as possible. If you have a multi-modal pass or day rover, be open to using other modes. Instead of waiting another 20 minutes for a 219 to Ashton on Sunday, the tram could be a suitable alternative. In some cases, you might need to walk for part of your journey.
Supposing you take the bus to your nearest (or favourite) local supermarket, consider taking a taxi home if you are doing a Big Shop.
Using Buses Responsibly with outdoor exercise
Whatever alert tier you fall under, you are able to leave the house for outdoor exercise. This could be anything from collecting a prescription to a twelve-mile walk along the moors.
If you live in a Tier 4 area, it is best to exercise within your locality. This means refraining from using public transport for anything other than work or education purposes if you need to leave your town, city or village. For outdoor exercise in a Tier 3 area, stay within your borough, City Region, county council or unitary authority area. Please do the same in Tier 1 and Tier 2 areas.
The basics of Using Buses Responsibly
- Carry a travel size bottle of hand sanitiser with you: this means you can apply sanitising gel to your hands prior to boarding your bus. Likewise before you alight your bus. We recommend ALDI’s Lacura sanitising gel in travel size form: a mere 45p from the shelves beside the checkouts. (Oh, and both ALDIs in Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge are close to principal bus stations and stops respectively).
- Where available, make us of the communal hand sanitising points: the reasoning behind this is obvious as well as hygienic ones; your titchy travel size bottle goes further.
- Expect to move along the bus to allow for social distancing: if somebody is sat in front of you or behind you, please find another position on the bus where there is more space between yourself and fellow passengers.
- Where available, consider less busier alternative routes: that way you have a better chance of social distancing unless smaller buses are used. Some operators have mobile apps which tell you how busy their buses are in terms of passenger numbers. On the other hand, some routes are less busier because they are operated by a different operator to the more popular one. For work travel, I have opted for a considerably less frequent bus than my previous one. This came about because my then usual bus connected with a tram where social distancing was impossible (it was always a 2-car set instead of a 4-car set). The downside has meant a slightly longer walk to the office but being there at a more consistent time.
- Avoid busy times: if you are able to stagger your work hours (when you are not working from home), make the most of your employer’s flexitime arrangements. If it means binning your pre-work coffee in favour of an earlier bus, you might gain the fringe benefits of starting and finishing earlier. Supposing you start late and finish late, be mindful of the fact that services change to their evening frequencies after 6pm.
- Factor in toilet stops on longer journeys: between connections, you might need to use the facilities. Whereas modern-day bus stations have purpose-built toilet facilities, this method is easier said than done elsewhere. Throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, you cannot sneak into a pub toilet because the pubs are either open as book-ahead restaurants with substantial meals or closed completely. This also stymies the ability to have a quick half between buses. Please allow extra time to transfer from bus stop to supermarket or shopping centre if toilet facilities are unavailable at the bus station. (You might want to do a bit of shopping for essential items to make it worth your while).
- Wear a Face Covering: by far, this is the most important thing you need to do. Joint first with paying your fare or producing your concessionary permit, it is a legal requirement. Exemptions do apply on medical grounds. This not only applies on the bus; it also applies at bus stations, railway stations, bus stops and tram stops.
- Maintain social distancing techniques: whether at the bus stop or in your state-of-the-art transport interchange, please keep two metres (6′ 6″) apart from your fellow passengers. Though you can stand one metre (3′ 3″) apart from the next person (if you wear personal protective equipment), we recommend sticking to the two metre rule. Please observe the social distancing signs aboard your bus and place that bag on the next seat (unless you are sat with a member of your family or support bubble).
- Pay with debit or credit cards or your smartphone, or buy your ticket before you travel: don’t forget the driver! If you can, using a credit or debit card or a smartphone saves your friendly driver from handling cash. You might prefer to pay in advance before you board, especially if you have a season ticket or Carnet style tickets such as those offered by First Greater Manchester and Stagecoach Greater Manchester.
One more thing…
Consider your health and your fellow passengers’ health. If you do not feel well, please stay at home, no matter where you live (Isle of Wight or Isle of Sheppey as well as Ashton-under-Lyne).
S.V., 26 December 2020.