Coach and bus industry reacts as COVID-19 crisis deepens

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After a week of daily updates from the Prime Minister, operators are now putting measures in place to help deal with the drop in work and the mass reduction in passenger levels

Coach and bus operators across the UK are currently addressing the COVID-19 pandemic situation after Boris Johnson released further advice and voluntary travel restrictions on all non-essential travel. Many operators acted immediately by cancelling tours and coach holidays from the end of last week, whilst the vast majority of bus operators are scaling back operations due to passenger numbers falling following advice from the Government to work from home where possible.

Below are examples and links to the changes announced so far.

First West of England was one of the first operators to announce it was making plans to run a Saturday service during the working week from Monday 23 March to ensure it sustains services for those needing to travel across the region.

James Freeman, Managing Director of First West of England, said: “The Government has made it clear that it now wants people, wherever possible, to work from home and avoid any non-essential travel and contact.

“The number of people travelling has reduced significantly and is continuing to diminish, making this an extremely dynamic situation which is changing day to day, hour to hour. By way of bringing some order to the situation we are looking to reduce our Monday to Friday services to a Saturday timetable. This will mean that about 10% of our fleet will be stood down.

“Where we can, we will add extra buses into the morning rush hour to ensure that workers are catered for, It’s important to emphasise that this is a fast-moving and unprecedented challenge and we are monitoring new developments as they happen and will respond accordingly and keep all of our customers informed of any further changes.

“This is not a decision we take lightly,” he continued. “However, with more and more people choosing to stay at home, this is our best option to ensure services continue running and are as close to ‘business as usual’ as we can possibly make them.

“In addition, we are working closely with our trade union leaders and will do everything possible to deploy staff across our operations with a view to minimising the impacts for everybody. One way or another, we will endeavour to keep services running through this unprecedented time of uncertainty.”

Chris Coleman, Managing Director at Stagecoach in Oxfordshire, said: “Along with other bus operators and key sectors, we are working hard to support the national effort to tackle the current challenging situation.

“The safety of our customers and our employees is at the heart of everything we do. We also know that bus services play a vital role in keeping the country running and ensuring key sector personnel get to work.

“Following the latest government advice, we have reviewed our timetables and made temporary changes which reflect the reduced level of travel. Our objective has been to focus resources on where we know they are needed most at this time.

“We are working hard to best maintain essential services, safeguard jobs and ensure the long-term sustainability of a sector which is central to our economy and communities.

“We will continue to monitor the position, liaise closely with government and other authorities, and respond as appropriate to what is a dynamic situation.”

Robert Williams, Managing Director of Reading Buses, outlined how the company will operate during this period: “We are already planning for which members of which teams can follow government advice and work from home and which workers need to be physically on site.

“Obviously, our drivers, engineers and cleaners cannot work from home so we will be monitoring their health and wellbeing during this critical time. It is important that we all stay calm and keep things moving where we can.

We will, of course, continue to monitor both the number of customers travelling on the buses and the advice of the Government.”

Ensignbus issued an open letter to its passengers that said “This is, without doubt, the toughest message we have ever had to put out. Yesterday we wrote a timetable that maintained most services, by yesterday evening it was out of date as schools were closed and the government advised against using public transport and we lost more and more staff to isolation.

“We had also hoped for government support to help maintain services but as of now, none has been forthcoming. Indeed, unlike the retail or restaurant sector, there is not even the business rates or tax holidays available to us.

“Thus the choice was complete closure or an even more heavily cut timetable. We have chosen the latter, to try and keep our loyal staff in work and help get those, who still need to travel, to get where they need to be and also hope that government will step in and offer something more than loans and interest rate cuts to banks. Clearly, some people are going to be upset by the loss of certain services and we feel for you and regret the cuts are as deep as they are but hope you will understand we really do have no other choices.

“Even the reduced timetable with 90% less passengers is not sustainable in the long term and without some immediate assistance, the next change will be the final withdrawal of even this skeletal service timetable.

“To say we are devastated is an understatement. We are a local family run business and our staff are both employees, colleagues and friends and that we cannot shield them from this global pandemic is heartbreaking.”

Additionally, many local authorities and operators are temporarily allowing concessionary bus passes to be used before 0930hrs so that the vulnerable and elderly can take advantage of the supermarkets and banks making special arrangements for exclusive access to food and services.

Bus operators throughout the country are providing driving staff with optional PPE. RICHARD SHARMAN