EXCLUSIVE: From Monday (17 May) many more seats will be available for bus passengers in England (outside of London), thanks to the easing of government restrictions and an industry-wide Risk Based Case review.
Transport for London remains responsible for social distancing requirements on buses in the capital, while buses in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales come under regulations of the respective devolved governments. As yet, these have not been changed.
With the move of England into ‘Step 3’ of the government’s ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ from Monday 17 May – meaning that indoor locations such as pubs, accommodation and hotels can re-open – the bus industry has come together to re-asses the capacities available on buses.
The result is that operators will make many more seats available, with only certain positions – such as rear-facing and face-to-face (for example rear bench seats) – still ‘out-of-bounds’.
To ensure a consistent approach across England, trade body the CPT has worked with operators to re-assess their risk-based safety case, issuing a seven-page document that develops the Risk Based Case it originally produced in July 2020.
The change does not apply to coaches, but the CPT is working on a separate, evidence-based risk case for the sector that it expects to deliver “very soon.”
“Wherever possible, operators should be encouraged to adopt a consistent approach across services to avoid confusion amongst passengers.”Baroness Vere, Transport Minister, Department for Transport
While it generally doesn’t mean that every forward-facing seat will now be available, the majority can be.
Each operator is assessing its specific vehicles, demand and networks, but the broad principles are the same.
The CPT has kept the Department for Transport informed and in a letter to it from Transport Minister Baroness Vere she says: “Each operator should be encouraged to implement safety measures, including social distancing measures, based on their circumstances and the unique nature of their operation, as well as learnings obtained throughout the pandemic.”
It is a long-awaited response to issues of overcrowding – increasing as lockdown is eased – that is seeing people occasionally refused entry due to the bus being ‘full’ due to heavily-restricted seating capacity.
Under current rules, typically more than half a bus’ seats are not allowed to be used.
The new assessments take into account the reduced levels of Covid cases and increase in the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated.
The approach will be pragmatic, for example standing may be allowed in certain cases, and the aim is also to ensure that for example on the last bus of the evening, people are not left behind.
Other measures, such as the wearing of masks, improved cleaning regimes, driver screens, stay in place, while the new measures still comply with the one-metre social distancing rules.
Adds the Transport Minister: “Wherever possible, operators should be encouraged to adopt a consistent approach across services to avoid confusion amongst passengers.”
“We appreciate that social distancing rules constrain seating and capacity and that these vary across fleets and individual vehicle configurations.
“We also understand that there will be certain circumstances where 1-metre social distancing of passengers and staff will not always be possible.
“As stated in the transport operator guidance, where keeping a 2-metre distance is not possible ‘reduce the risk by maintaining a 1-metre distance where possible, and taking suitable mitigations’.
She concludes: “The 1-metre distance is not, therefore, an absolute requirement. Mitigations could include enhanced cleaning regimes, the mandating of face coverings for all (not exempt) passengers, passengers not sitting face to face or directly behind others and protective screens for driving staff.”
In a statement the CPT says: “Operators are doing everything they can to keep the country moving and ensure people can travel with confidence. This includes running additional services where demand is high and providing up to date information on busy buses via apps and websites.
“As restrictions ease and more people begin to move around places public transport will be busier than we have seen during the pandemic. On busy routes at busy times this means it may not always be possible to socially distance and some passengers may need to sit next to each other.
“Where possible we are encouraging passengers to plan their journey in advance and travel off peak if they can.”
Says Tom Quay, CEO at public transport app and website provider Passenger: “The news around social distancing restrictions ending on buses marks a positive step forwards for both large and small bus operators, as they’ll be able to accept more passengers and boost revenue. But it also means even more needs to be done to reassure customers of their safety when travelling on public transport.
“There’s now nothing stopping strangers sitting next to one another in the forward-facing seats, and the evidence is clear that people are more nervous than ever before about mixing in public spaces. For example, research by entertainment channel Dave released yesterday showed that four in five (81%) Brits feel socially apprehensive as lockdown ends.
“It’s crucial operators are supported throughout this significant change period, and have all the necessary measures in place to give people peace of mind when using their services. Implementing partner technology, like our myTrip and Premium apps will be even more important, as such systems allow customers to see bus capacity levels ahead of travelling.
“Collaboration is key, and we all need to work together in our industry to increase confidence in public transport again as restrictions continue to ease.”