Honking for hope helps highlight the plight

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Inspired by events in Dresden and Berlin, a North-East coach operator was inspired to rally the troops in Britain to raise awareness of the extent of the industry’s difficulties.

CAPTION: Coaches from across the north of England gathered at Lightwater Valley along with local media to raise awareness of the difficulties facing the coach industry even as moves to ease lockdown start to take effect. JONATHAN WELCH

At relatively short notice, but with the help of social media, Managing Director of North East Coach Travel Jenna Rush was able to organise a well-supported event at Lightwater Valley theme park near Ripon on Wednesday 1 July, with the aim of reminding the government and the wider public of how important the coach industry is to travel and tourism alike, and put the point across that while bus operators have received significant help, the coach sector is feeling forgotten. Whereas bus operators, who are carrying significantly reduced passenger numbers, have received financial aid from the government, Jenna and fellow operators were keen to make clear that many of them had lost all of their work, with little or no prospect of it returning any time soon. [wlm_nonmember][…]

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Jenna explained: “We looked at the situation in Berlin, where operators received €170m from the German government. We thought ‘why not get together as a group to show our support, and show how big the UK industry is and how much support we need.’

Managing Director of North East Coach Travel Jenna Rush used social media to gather together operators from across the north of England to raise awareness of the coach industry’s struggle to survive. JONATHAN WELCH

“The response has been brilliant, I was very nervous last night. We had lots of people say they were coming, but I was worried whether the press would come. Unless the media turn up to get the message out, it’s pointless.” Thankfully, Jenna needn’t have worried, with two local BBC stations carrying out interviews, as well as the Yorkshire Post and other local media.

The coaches travelling from the north-east had congregated at Washington services on the A1, where a reporter from the Sunderland Gazette carried out an interview with Matthew Forsyth of Blyth-based MJ Forsyth and David Dove of David Dove Travel, before the convoy left at 0930hrs, being filmed passing under the A690 interchange at Carrville, where Jenna was waiting to film it. Drivers had been told in advance, and there was a cacophony of horns as around 40 coaches passed beneath.

“When I saw the 40 coaches at Washington, I was very relieved,” continued Jenna. “It has been devastating for our industry, people have lost all of their work overnight. We could probably have managed without some of the incoming tour work, but things like schools and college work are our bread and butter, it’s all just gone.

Garnett’s sent along an impressive line-up of brightly-coloured coaches, with suitable messages of support on their destination screens. JONATHAN WELCH

“Overheads are high, operators are trying to modernise and invest in Euro VI, as well as PSVAR, and lots can’t see a way out. Lightwater Valley re-opens on the 18 July, but they won’t be taking group bookings. It’s the same across the board. We have our fingers crossed that schools do go back in September.”

Coaches from operators large and small across the north of England, from Stoke to the Scottish Border, were in attendance, along with Glasgow-based Hire Society who made the long journey south to show support for their English colleagues. Among the first to arrive was a convoy of bright yellow Plaxton and Caetano coaches belonging to Garnetts, which operates a fleet of 56 vehicles on schools and private hire work from depots in Bishop Auckland and Darlington.

Operators gatherd behind Jenna Rush of North East Coach Travel and Andrew Scott of Stanley Travel as they spoke to the media about the problems the industry is facing. JONATHAN WELCH

Director and Transport Manager Paul Gernett said that his company had decided to come as they felt it was important to show support. “We’re all in the same boat. We’re all doing really well to just stay alive, but the industry is on borrowed time.” Paul suggested that it was unfair that airlines are now allowed to fill planes to capacity with people wearing masks, yet coaches designed to carry 53 people can only take 10 to 15. A large amount of the company’s work is schools, which are expected to return in September: “We’ve been told by Durham Council that from September, a 70-seater will be carrying 70 people,” he said. “During lockdown, we’ve been receiving 40% of the normal rate for school work from Durham. We have a massive fleet, it isn’t enough to cover our overheads. We’ve furloughed our drivers to keep them safe.”

 

Paul went on to explain that even when schools do return in September, the worry for a lot of operators won’t end there, as it will be mid-October before they start receiving the first payments from local councils, meaning operators will have to ensure that enough money is in the bank to get through those first six weeks, a worry which could be alleviated by a combination of financial support and a clear way forwards for getting people back on coaches in viable, sustainable numbers.

J&M Travel owner Mark Rayner said that with current social distancing rules, coaching remains unviable. JONATHAN WELCH

 

Andrew Scott, Director of Stanley Travel, was interviewed by the BBC. He said: “The thing to remember is that we’re coach operators, not bus. This time of year is our busiest, we’d normally have 3 or 4 coaches here every day in summer. We’re running at about 2% of our normal workload.”

Besides the big regional names, there were many smaller operators attending the event.

Mark Rayner, owner of J&M Travel, which operates three full size coaches plus a number of minibuses, was also keen to attend to show strength in numbers. “We need to make sure the message is received that coach operators play a vital part in the tourism industry,” he said. “I do a lot of school and university work, but that dried up overnight in March. I haven’t had one single phone call since then. It’s as though someone flicked a switch.

“The next week after lockdown I spent dealing with cancellations. We had bookings for Weston-super-Mare and Southport with regular groups that go there every year. I think it’s going to be really bad, I don’t think the wheels will really start turning again before next year. Ten people on  a 49-seater is just totally unviable. We need at least 22 to 25 minimum. We have a group booked for Flamingoland in August, they keep phoning and asking ‘can we go’ but I’ve got to wait until I know what the government guidance will be. It works out at about £80 per person if we follow the 2m social distancing guidance, that’s just not viable for a family day out.

Scottish operator Hire Society made the journey south to show solidarity with English operators. JONATHAN WELCH

Mark stressed the need for both clarity of guidance and support to allow small companies like his to keep going forwards, and raised the point that the promised ‘payment holidays’ and other financial help has not always been the help it should have. Talking about payment holidays, he said “We were told that if we took it, it would affect the business’ credit rating and my own personal credit rating.”

“The government classify it all as ‘looking after buses’ but coaching us different, and they need to be aware of that. Especially people like me, a small one-man-band, I’m trying to look after three staff, that’s three families depending on me, as well as my own.”

A-Line Coaches were represented by its Wrightbus Solar-bodied Scania, complete with appropriate message on the destination display, and seen here with Assistant Manager Dan Annis behind the wheel. JONATHAN WELCH

If there were an award for the furthest-travelled participant, it would most likely have gone to Hire Society owner Robert Hood, who made the journey from East Kilbride. “We wanted to come down and show a wee bit of support for our English colleagues, and the coach industry as a whole,” said Robert. “We’ve had no work whatsoever. Touring work, schools, private hire, football, it’s all completely dried up. We won’t have anything in July, we would have been fully booked. It will be August or September at the earliest.” Hire Society operates a fleet of 10 coaches and employs 15 staff, all of whom are currently furloughed.

Dan Annis, Assistant Manager of Tyne & Wear-based A-Line Coaches didn’t have a coach available, but joined the convoy in the operator’s Wrightbus Solar-bodied Scania single-decker, complete with specially programmed “Lightwater Valley” desination display. A number of operators had messages of support programmed into the desination screens of attending coaches, to help spread the message en-route. Dan said “We’re here to show the effect this has had on the coach and bus industry. We have some Nexus contracts, but we’ve lost all our private hire work.

Paul Thompson and Gary Gillespie of family-owned CLG Travel were looking forward to a good year in 2020, with a full diary. JONATHAN WELCH

Family firm CLG Travel was also in attendance, having travelled from Birtley, Tyne & Wear, in its newly-acquired Van Hool Altano. Set up by father and daughter Paul Thompson and Clare Gillespie seven years ago, the company was looking forward to a good year in 2020, having invested heavily in its latest coach. It employs five staff and runs a fleet of four coaches. Paul, along with Clare’s husband Gary were at Lightwater Valley. Gary said: ”This year we were going to start moving forwards. To have this happen is really heartbreaking. Our diariy was near full for summer and into winter. We usually get calls day after day to book, but it was just cancellation after cancellation. Pretty soon, if nothing is done, the tourist industry will die. We’re ready to go whenever the government say we can. It’s going to be hard but we’re working as a family to get through, and will fight until we can’t fight any more. I think we all understand it had to happen, but we expected some help.

 

Nick Mole, Owner of Platinum VIP Chauffeurs, joined the event in his high-specification Marcedes-Benz Sprinter-based 8-seat minicoach to show support to the industry. He agreed things were bleak, and added: “We’re all striving for the same, and we’re starting to see green shoots, enquiries are starting to come in.”

David Foster, Operations Manager of Sounds Travel, which specialises in travel for musical groups such as brass bands, said that it was important to attend to show support for the industry. “We need to get the government tor realise that coach is not the same as bus. We need some back-up. The government is leaving us to get in debt. It seems unfair to allow the airline industry to fill a plane but we’re only allowed 10 or 15. Coaches keep people moving,” he said.

Sounds Travel specialises in musical groups such as brass bands, and has seen its work evaporate as events are cancelled. JONATHAN WELCH

Although for many operators, there had been a significant cost involved, to re-licence and re-insure coaches, carry out PMIs and of course fuel, all felt that it was money well spent to raise awareness of the acute level of suffering in the coach industry, which finds itself feeling largely forgotten as the government focuses on buses and essential key worker routes.

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