Adapting to the new normal: How National Express became Covid-safe

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The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect across the industry. Jonathan Welch spoke to National Express about how the company has handled the outbreak and disruption to its services

Long distance and airport coach services have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus outbreak, with all operators’ journeys across England and Wales and to/from Scotland being completely suspended for a while, whilst those within Scotland continued at a reduced level.
For many people, the mention of long distance coach travel brings to mind one name: National Express. It has been an icon of highways and motorways across the UK for decades. We spoke to Service Delivery Director Ed Rickard to find out how the operator had handled the crisis as it unfolded and put in place a plan to safeguard its business and allow a phased return of services.

The wheels of the National Express network came to a stop on 5 April when the last coach arrived in Birmingham from London at 2355hrs. “The decision to suspend our services was incredibly difficult,” Ed began. “Apart from on Christmas Day, the network hasn’t stopped running since it came into existence. It was almost a bit eerie with nothing going on, but there was actually still a lot of work behind the scenes.”

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Minimising risk

“Right from the start, we were closely monitoring advice from the government, World Health Organisation and Public Health England and had a continued dialogue with the Department for Transport. It was a fast moving and continually changing world. Pre-suspension, we reduced the capacity of our coaches to under half the number of seats. To protect our drivers we closed the front row. We continued monitoring customer feedback on what we were doing.”

National Express introduced screens around drivers’ cabs and issued comprehensive Covid guidance to drivers. NATIONAL EXPRESS

Airport services have been hard hit, although they continue to play an important role in transporting airport and airline staff to and from their place of work. However, at the start of the outbreak, National Express’ coach services were vital to helping those returning to the UK to get home. “We finally shut down the network on 5 April, when it was primarily focussed on airports. There were flights coming in to repatriate Brits who were abroad, and we kept on a skeleton service to help them get home,” continued Ed.

Looking ahead

“They were tough times, it was really difficult for all of us, but as soon as we closed, thoughts turned to our return. We started to prepare for the restart, most importantly consulting with our partner operators. We work with the best operators across the country, and it is fundamental to work closely with them. We issued weekly updates to our partner operators, and we use an app called SLIDO which allows anonymous questions to be asked. We have used it before, and have answered as honestly as we can. If someone is thinking about something, the chances are someone else is probably thinking it too.

“We held regular video conferences, for example we did a call with all our partner operators on driver risk assessments. And as the situation has progressed, we have looked at predictions for future growth so we can advise operators. There is a lot of information for operators and drivers, and to help that we produced a comprehensive ‘welcome back’ pack containing checklists, documents and links to useful information. We also have our digital Driver Handbook which has a dedicated Covid section.

Supporting operators and staff

From the start, National Express knew it had to take a long term view of the situation and maintain the close working relationship with partner operators if it was to be able to restart services successfully. “We have a great service delivery team, who are in touch with operators several times a week. We always work closely but that link is critical at this time. We need to make sure there are no issues,” continued Ed.
To that end, National Express saw it as vital to help its partner operators weather the storm. “Right from the start we decided to financially support operators to cover their fixed costs. The furlough scheme has been incredibly helpful, and we covered lease costs so that they can come out the other side.”

Passengers were temperature checked before boarding and staff had their temperatures checked when arriving at work. NATIONAL EXPRESS

In a further gesture to help operators who are struggling financially, National Express relaxed restrictions on the use of its coaches on other work during suspension, allowing them to be used on work such as rail replacement providing the operator sought permission beforehand. “It was a small thing but nice to do, it helped them maintain an income,” said Ed.

“The vast majority of our operators are up and running again at smaller volume. Once services did resume we quickly saw high demand on some routes, allowing us to get more vehicles and drivers moving again. The spare capacity in the network also meant that should any area where an operator is based go into a more stringent lockdown as was the case in Leicester early on, other operators took up that slack and covered those routes.”
National Express’ own staff have not been forgotten: “We’ve been doing updates for our own workforce, and we called every member of staff on furlough every two weeks. We’ve worked hard to bring people back from furlough as soon as possible and have been doing things to help people keep in touch when working apart.

“People have taken to working from home and video conferencing is easier than we thought. I think we will see more of that even when things are back to normal. In our offices we introduced enhanced cleaning, one way systems and reduced the number of people going into our head office as well as introducing maximum capacities in rooms and each floor.

Getting back up and running

Services resumed at a reduced frequency on the National Express network across the country from Wednesday 1 July after an 86-day suspension, with measures in place to allow passengers to travel in confidence as the country found its feet again.

At the time, Chris Hardy, Managing Director of National Express UK Coach, said how great it was to have around 500 drivers back behind the wheel and emphasised that teams had been working hard to get ready to safely welcome customers back on board. “We’re happy to be back on the road and playing our part in getting the country safely moving again by providing a safe option for those who have no alternative to public transport.”

The first service to return to the road was the 0505hrs departure from Poole on 1 July, arriving at London’s Victoria Coach Station at 0850hrs. The revised timetable saw the operator focus on major towns and cities, connecting over 180 locations across the UK and operating equivalent to around a quarter of the mileage of the pre-Covid network, and has continued to be revised over the following months.

Coaches are disinfected using fogging devices and aisle seats taken out of use. In coach stations, contact points such as ticket machines are being cleaned more frequently. NATIONAL EXPRESS

At full strength, the network saw around 550 coaches needed. On 1 July, that was down to around 75 required for service but that has grown and the network is now operating to approximately 50% of its pre-Covid mileage, with around 300 coaches in use daily having initially grown faster than expected.

In addition to the revised network came revised terms and conditions to help people who needed to change their journey at short notice. As services returned, Chris highlighted: “For anyone unsure about committing to travel plans at the moment, we’ve introduced the option to amend the date, time and journey origin and destination free of charge if circumstances change. We know there’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment but want to reassure customers old and new that they can travel in confidence with National Express. We’re ready when they are.”

Managing risk

Ed continued: “Risk assessments have been critical, we’ve been consulting with partner operators and ensuring they are all aligned and that we follow best practice. We’ve put in place any measure we thought was reasonable and sensible, and believe coach travel is very safe. Compared to rail, you are guaranteed a seat and the driver is on hand and can manage the flow of people.”

The safety measures don’t just start when a passenger steps on board though, and National Express has given thorough thought to the whole process from booking to travelling. “We have made a lot of change on our website with clear customer communications telling them what to expect and what the rules are. We’ve done lots on social media using animations and videos. We have lots in place so people know what to expect before they board.

“We have been using fogging machines and sanitising key touchpoints, as well as providing clear signage so that everyone knows what they are doing. We’ve completely changed our queueing systems, which has been challenging. In some places we’ve had to barrier off coach bays. Ticket vending machines are being cleaned regularly too. We have introduced temperature screening for staff, and they are being asked not to come to work if they have any symptoms or may have been in contact with anyone who has Covid-19.” Additionally, passenger screening was introduced and anyone with a high temperature over 38°C is not permitted to travel. Passenger details are collected to ensure that should it happen, the operator can follow up thoroughly if any passenger were to become unwell during or after a journey.

The reduced demand has had one benefit as far as cleaning is concerned, Ed explained: “Because there are fewer coaches on the network, it was easier to manage the new cleaning regimes. We also recognised the opportunity to reduce any risk from our air conditioning systems and installed enhanced filtration and UV-light systems to kill the virus. We’ve had very few problems with that, and it is reassuring for passengers. We have introduced screens to protect our drivers and made sure that hand sanitiser is available at the front of coaches and at the rear by the toilet.” On board toilets remain in use, as Ed points out that it is unreasonable to ask a passenger to make do without on journeys which can be four hours or more.

Undoubtedly there has been much change for passengers across all transport networks, and whilst there has been inconvenience most have taken it in their stride. “On the whole, the public’s response has been super. Normally in a business like ours, you get more complaints than praise,” Ed said, “but the amount of commendations has been high and our satisfaction scores the highest ever. Most passengers have taken it really well, and the exceptions have been very minor.”

Taking a fresh view

Although no one would argue that the lockdown has been a good thing for businesses across the country, many like National Express have chosen to take positives from it and use the situation to look at themselves and how they operate, to see what could be done better in future, and what needs to change. “Lockdown has presented a unique opportunity to look at the network,” continued Ed. “Our network is around 40 years old and the changes have been evolutionary not revolutionary.

“At the start of the return, the demand was mainly in the city to city market. Airport services have been unsurprisingly hit hard, while we have seen some demand as a result of the growth of the staycation market.”

Regaining that airport business is vital, said Ed, as airport journeys account for a significant proportion of National Express’ business, and he foresees challenging times ahead as that side of the business will inevitably take longer to recover. He remains optimistic, however: “Hopefully by this time next year we will be back to where we were before.”

Speaking of airports and staycations inevitably brings to mind another debate which has been going on in the industry regarding airlines being allowed to operate at full capacity whilst coaches are not, despite both being essentially the same format in terms of seating and space. “It would be great to reduce social distancing,” said Ed, “but only when it is safe to do so and that will take time.

“The crisis has shown how quickly things can change and taught us that we can be dynamic as a business,” Ed concluded, and as the pandemic continues that positive attitude, flexibility and dynamism will likely be needed for a good while yet.

 

Demand for services between city centres has picked up much more quickly than those serving airports which have been hit hard by the pandemic. RICHARD SHARMAN
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