Last year, D&G Buses took over services 109 between Macclesfield and Leek and 108 between Leek and Ashbourne. When that happened, I was looking forward to the services being operated by a more mainstream operator and even travelled to Leek to commence hikes from there.
The first of those was in September of 2020 when I walked from Leek to Buxton and the experience was a satisfactory one apart from there being a group going to Leek for what appeared to be a day of drinking. The first period of lockdown had passed and things were opening up though coronavirus case numbers were rising. Social distancing was being observed and only one passenger was not wearing a face covering.
Several lockdowns later, I travelled again from Macclesfield to Leek in June of this year. That was not such a happy experience and reflects how cordiality on the part of a bus driver makes things feel much better. Using a card with the ticket machine did not go smoothly and even attracted a comment like “I could wait here all day…” before the ticket was issued. The bus was quieter and I got off at the same time as another passenger to leave only the driver on the bus; it felt better not to be braving a soul that had the air of being a grumpy old jobsworth who was putting down time until retirement. If anything, there is a need to be careful how you come across to others.
After that sour experience, I did not let it ruin my day as I hiked from Leek back to Macclesfield again. Though parts were busy because tier 3 restrictions remained in place, the glorious sunshine, the wonderful scenery and the occasional friendly soul all made it worthwhile.
What I was not to know was that D&G were to give up routes 108 and 109 at the start of September. Given my June experience, I now wonder if others were put off by driver attitude because I did overhear a conversation discussing that subject with regard to one of the D&G drivers on another of their routes in July 2020. There have been multiple lockdowns so it might not be just that but there was a break in service when things got complicated.
For one thing, Hulleys of Baslow decided to offer a limited stop service between Ashbourne and Manchester Airport. This was to be numbered X1 with calls at Waterhouses, Leek, Bosley and Macclesfield along the way. In the event, nothing came of it and D&G Buses won a contract for service 108. That left route 109 but Aimee’s Travel have stepped in there with a new contract so services between Macclesfield and Leek have been restored.
The outcome is what was wanted but execution felt clumsy. Communication was not what it should have been and changes continued until everything settled down again. It all is a reminder of what we lost when the original X1 between Derby and Manchester was broken up into different sections. Another point is that we need a national networks or a set of regional ones in England to do what TrawsCymru does in Wales. Leaving everything to local authorities does not make for joined-up thinking and you only have to look at the decline of route 130 that once extended from Macclesfield to Manchester to see what that means.
This has been a rough year for the railways and it is little wonder that Rail magazine constantly bangs on about getting passengers back. The safety of travel by train is espoused by various authorities and my own experiences during the past summer do little to contradict this but there is a flaw in the argument that safe travel by train is enough to bring back paying passengers.
The real issue for me is actually having somewhere safe to go. After all, many cities have been blighted by COVID during the last few months and that is likely to remain the case during the coming months too. Vaccination is ongoing but will take time to take effect, assuming that the virus does not evolve faster than the rollout. Going to rural areas could be an option and I certainly enjoy exploring hill country but those living in such places are understandably nervous about incursions from elsewhere.
The same problem affects bus services and there is the added issue of travel restrictions applying to areas such that you cannot go into or out of them. With a new strain of virus proving to be more infectious, that is not so likely to change for a good part of 2021 if not after that.
In tandem with all of this, many office workers have been developing a taste for working from home so will commuting be reduced in the future? It is a consideration being pondered by railway commentators but we have to get that far first. Thinking that far ahead when progress appears slow seems premature.
For now though, the government has stepped in with financial support for rail and bus services for those who need them. For rail services, that gets us into 2022 and looks sensibly farsighted while funding for bus services could do with extending.
To finish, 2020 felt a long year and signs are that 2021 may not be so different. Hope is facing a stern test so we need to find any kind of positivity that we kine so it can be relished. The ongoing pandemic looks like a long haul right now.
During the summer, I have been returning to some sort of normality in myself. It helped that things were emerging from lockdown when they did and a three week break from work proved enormously helpful. Returning to work afterwards overcame other obstacles to leave me with some more peace of mind at the end of the summer.
It also helped that I returned to using buses and trains again. The journeys were relatively short with Sheffield and Chester marking the extent of my comfort zone. Still, I did find that buses and trains were not so crowded though there were moments when things felt more cosy than was comfortable. Still, there were no lasting aftermaths so that added some confidence even as passenger numbers appear to be rising a little.
When there is talk of incentivising a return to public transport usage as suggested in a recent Transport Focus editorial, I confess to having misgivings. Confidence is something that can be slow to return and my finding more crowded surroundings remains outside my comfort zone right now. Also, scary talk of possible train service reductions in a previous issue of Rail magazine a few weeks ago did nothing to calm any sense of unease. After all, the pandemic is far from over at this point even if many things are on their way back to normality.
Nevertheless, I continue to make train and bus journeys to locations where I can find quiet spots so I hope that can continue. These may be rather short but they do what is needed. Longer trips to places like Edinburgh can wait and the same applies to air travel. Even going to Ireland is not such a possibility for now so travelling further afield does not feel like a possibility. A slow return suits and what is needed on the part of all of us is patient for experience is not acquired quickly and that needs to precede a sensible amount of confidence. While the situation continues to remain manageable, it remains important to avoid the rash foolishness of overconfidence.
Last weekend, I caught a bus from Macclesfield to Buxton. It was something that I felt I needed to do, a bridge to cross on the way back towards a sort of normality. Even though I had travelled this way many times before, it also was something of a journey into the unknown.
After all, there were several unanswered questions. My journey was for leisure so would the driver ask me the purpose of my trip? Though the messaging regarding bus services in Cheshire East is much softer than in other areas and certainly more permissive than that from train companies, there was no cause for presumption in favour of travel. Would a Buff be accepted as a face covering? How many other passengers would there be and would social distancing be an issue?
In the end, there was no problem travelling and someone else even declared that they were going for a walk from near the Cat and Fiddle pub to Bollington and that did not stop them travelling. My own plan was similar except that I was going to walk back from Buxton to Macclesfield so that was one fear dismissed. After that, there only ever were three people on the bus at a time and my face covering was enough.
One thing that I did notice was that the two female passengers on board only covered their mouth and not not their nose. Unfortunately, that defeats the exercise since you really need to cover your nose as well though I do accept that some are concerned about their ability to breath. In a photo of passengers boarding a tram in Dublin, there was one man who had done things like those women and that defeats the exercise somewhat. Only children, the disabled and those with breathing problems are exempt anyway.
Thankfully, we all were far apart from each other on my bus ride so there was no reason for getting uptight even if bus windows were closed. After nearly four months without using a bus, that was reassuring and we have to await a more permissive message on train travel as well. That possibly depends on the status of the current public health emergency but Rail magazine has been critical of this stance with one contributor even calling it an act of sabotage for the problem might be getting passengers to return at all.
In parallel with all this, Transport Focus did a survey on how people felt about using public transport in the current circumstances. They have put a preliminary summary on the their blog and the results are interesting so far. Those who have not used public transport are more apprehensive about doing so while regular commuters who are key workers feel safe doing so.
As might be suspected, it is all about your experience during this emergency. Scaring people away could be too easy and getting them to return then becomes much harder but that could help others who only have buses, trams and trains to get around to feel more confident in doing so.
There have been many reductions in service frequency while most choose not to travel using public transport as advised. Service frequencies still are being enhanced though many Cheshire East bus services operate only on a Monday to Saturday or Monday to Friday basis. Sunday travel by bus remains very restricted and it was not extensive around Macclesfield before the introduction of the pandemic restrictions anyway.
Normality remains elusive even now and it is unlikely to return to how things were before in any event. If an added reluctance to use public transport persists, that will cause big changes on its own. Bus use already was declining and commuting by train was under threat so it may be that services become less frequent in time. So far, that is only a thought so we will need to see how things work out in reality. Active travel (walking and cycling) has grown during a dry spring but what could a prolonged period of wet weather, like what came in February, do? Only time can answer such a question and any more that we may have.
2020 is turning out to be a year that is unique in so many ways because of the ongoing pandemic. While it is true that some things are opening up, possibilities are not so good for those among us who depend on public transport as our only means for getting around. After all, those with private transport have greater freedom and that is set to remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Train travel is utterly out of the question for all but essential journey so I have lost the leisure travel possibilities that I once enjoyed. Though they are running largely empty around my locality, the same thinking applies to travel by bus too and services have been heavily reduced too. Some routes have been discontinued while others operate less frequently.
If the cost of getting more mobility is the use of face coverings and cashless payments, then I am more than open to accepting those and that is a price worth paying. So far, I have got to dreaming about going to Buxton or Congleton by bus and walking back to Macclesfield from there since it would get me out of the house for a day. Getting those possibilities back would make for a significant morale boost.
Good health remains a priority though even if some may be getting complacent and others could feel frustrated. The latter is understand if you feel cut off and something of a second class citizen when you see others having greater freedom when it comes to getting around. All in all, this needs patience but those who only have buses, trams and trains for getting around need not be forgotten either and it can feel like that is how it is for now. In fact, if the pandemic makes public transport less attractive to many, it could have the effect of making it easier to allow further steps towards a restoration of added normality.