RHA Coach: one year on

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Jonathan Welch speaks to RHA Coach’s Andy Warrender about the trade body’s first year.

Much has changed over the last 18 months, and whilst last Christmas saw the industry – and the country as a whole – in the midst of the dark days of the pandemic, this festive season is at least one of hope even if we are not yet out of the woods. As the pandemic took hold, some operators felt that their needs were not being met by existing trade bodies, or that the focus was too much on buses while coaches were ignored.
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Sensing the disquiet, the RHA, expanding from its traditional remit of the haulage sector, stepped in to offer a new coach membership package, buoyed by a number of operators including the vocal Richard Bamber of Runcorn-based Anthony’s Travel. Another early signee was Jenna Rush of North East Coach Travel, instigator of the Honk for Hope protests and recipient of industry accolades including an RHA Heroes award and the award for Impact on the Coach Industry by an Individual at the recent UK Bus & Coach Awards.

Andy Warrender

Industry voices

At the time of the launch, Richard summed up the aim of the new RHA membership option: “The coach industry is an essential but unheralded part of the UK transport system which usually tends to go under radar and unheard. By joining forces with the RHA we are able to finally provide a voice that will be loud and proud for coach operators. This is truly part of new beginnings for the industry, where operators will benefit from the RHA’s long-established strength within Government, its expertise and increased access to commercial partners. It provides assurance at a time we need it most and puts the coach industry in a much stronger position for the future.”

In an RHA interview, Jenna explained: “The coach industry does not have a strong enough voice and I think it will be refreshing to not be lumped into the ‘bus and coach’ category when we are two completely different industries and require completely different things. The RHA understands the difference between both, and its experience of lobbying Government to lead change puts it in a unique position to support our sector.”

 

Jenna said that her company would be making use of the training offered by the RHA, both online and in person, and noted that the round table meetings were proving to be informative and allow operators to share our concerns and thoughts and support one another. “Bringing in Andy Warrender as the coaching expert has been fantastic,” Jenna said. “His career has spanned far and wide, in operations, in coach and bus sales, vehicle manufacturing and marketing. He’s represented the industry in so many ways. We are really lucky to have access to his expertise. There are so many people who will learn from him, and I feel like they have already made such an effort to learn more about the sector.”

Looking up

I spoke to Andy to find out how the first year has been. “There was still a lot of doom and gloom,” Andy started, “but speaking to operators recently, things seem a lot more upbeat than they were. I was speaking to one operator who was looking at making redundancies towards the end of September, but he has since acquired a number of school contracts plus a local authority contract which will keep one driver busy full time and others busy with fill-in work. He was loathe to let them go, he knows he’ll need them come March, but such has been the impact of the last 18 months. It was touch and go whether he could sustain those jobs through the winter period. It’s encouraging to hear that things are picking up now. It’s still a difficult time for the industry but there’s a bit more optimism now.”

So how have things progressed since December 2020’s launch of RHA Coach, and how has the situation evolved? “Our policy document is very much a live document,” said Andy. “What is written is what the issues are at that time, and they will change and evolve. Some issues will fade away, some will be dealt with, and others will doubtless emerge.”

Andy referred to the current ongoing driver situation, which has been on the horizon for some months and is starting to hurt some operators more than others. Speaking before the recent outbreak of the Omicron strain, he said: “The one thing that is universally accepted is that if we are anywhere near normality come March or April next year, we’re going to have a real problem. The word crisis is perhaps no exaggeration. The potential for incoming tourism next year, which a few months ago wasn’t even a prospect, is now a very real possibility. Within days of the relaxation of restrictions for visitors from the US being announced, it seemed to add impetus to the tourism trade overall.”

Talking about the driver shortage, Andy said that there was a very mixed picture. Looking to the future and possible solutions, he said: “At the moment there’s no natural link between education and going into the industry. The age restrictions don’t lend themselves to getting young people into the coach industry. They often don’t know what they’ll be doing in two years’ time. By the time we can get them at age 20, they’ve already gone off and done something else. Some of those who go down the bus route will gravitate but it’s a bit of a gamble. If we can bridge that gap we see that as a potential solution not just for the immediate problem but also the future. You have to have it as a vocation for people to come in.”

A combination of restricted duties, structured training, supervision and driver monitoring and tracking could be used to help overcome the reluctance to allow young drivers to do more, Andy suggested, to help bring in younger drivers. “The coach industry has always been reluctant to train people, but at the end of the day the drivers are still the biggest resource that we have.” And whilst the focus is generally on long hours or rates of pay, Andy said that it’s equally important to look at the bigger picture; the chance to travel across the country and abroad, meet new people, visit new places is a big draw for many drivers. Not to be forgotten, he added, are those who take early retirement, of whom many come into the industry.

“It’s not a new problem, but it has certainly gotten worse recently,” he added. Addressing the related topic of Brexit, Andy commented that it seems that the bus and haulage sectors have been affected more than coaches, since they perhaps rely more heavily on migrant workers.

Left: The number of RHA Coach members is steadily increasing, the trade body said. ANTHONY’S TRAVEL

Resilience

“The one thing I will say,” Andy added, “is that the industry is amazingly resilient. It doesn’t matter what’s thrown at it, and it might have a gripe and a groan, but it gets on and does it. If something needs doing, they’ll go away and do it. If it were the rail industry, one of their guys once told me they’ll set up a committee, consult on it, and come back six months later with an answer!”

Speaking of the rail industry, rail replacement has been a key driver of PSVAR compliance. “The certainty is that there will be a full review of PSVAR in 2022-23,” Andy continued. The current round of exemptions will take us through to March next year. We would like to see some certainty sooner rather than later on what happens beyond that. We’ve got some fairly clear indications as to what ministers would like to see but we need to be more clear now. Given where supply chains are, if substantial changes need to be made to vehicles currently in service, in order for those exemptions to continue, we need to be able to get on with that. If all of a sudden things like destination screens are needed in large numbers, that won’t happen overnight. We need certainty and we need it fairly quickly. There is also an issue that there simply aren’t enough vehicles out there to meet the needs of the services which fall into scope of PSVAR. I have been aware of some local authorities continuing to take bids for services on the basis of lowest cost, and assuming that exemptions will still be there to see them through to the end of the school term.”

 

 

 

Everybody’s problem

The industry is at a point where it is everybody’s problem but nobody’s fault, Andy continued. “We are where we are, and we have to move forward with it. There is no question that greater access to coach travel is going to be the way forward. We’ve put forward a proposal that we think is viable for the industry and that meets the needs of everybody on board,” he said, referring to the proposal by RHA Coach that journeys, rather than vehicles, should be accessible, which could mean that for example, not every coach in a convoy of rail replacement vehicles needed to be PSVAR compliant.

Looking more closely at rail replacement, Andy suggested that whilst ministers might look at the figures and see that PSVAR compliance on such work has been well into the 90% bracket, the flip side is the number of vehicles which were stood idle and which, in a normal year, would have been employed elsewhere. “The focus on the vehicles has been a flaw from the outset. Others have said that it was an extremely poorly drafted piece of legislation. You can make every single vehicle accessible but it still doesn’t make every single journey accessible by a long way, and that’s something that has to be borne in mind when the review of PSVAR is underway.

“It’s not just the financial aspect. We have to bear in mind that it is adding in the region of a quarter of a tonne to a vehicle’s overall weight. It’s then consuming more fuel, so the green credentials don’t look good,” he said, noting that even with a battery-electric coach, operating a lift is power-hungry as well as adding to the extra weight of the batteries. “We’ve said all along, the current arrangements for access on coaches are pretty rudimentary. The arrangement hasn’t really changed in 40 years, other than the introduction of front entrance lifts in the 2000s. The whole arrangement doesn’t reflect as being user-friendly. It’s not the way forward, there has to be better. We’d like confirmation from Government that that will be part of the review – and if there is a better way out there. Our concern is that we could be forcing investment in technology that could be obsolete in a few years.”

Richard Bamber, Managing Partner of Anthony’s Travel. ANTHONY’S TRAVEL

Membership

Looking at the wider picture of the industry and where the last year has left it, Andy commented that it has left a lot of operators looking for answers that weren’t always available, something which the RHA, along with other trade organisations, has looked to address. He noted, though, that of the around 3,000 coach operators in the UK, only a minority are currently members of a trade organisation. “You have to wonder why,” he asked. “The industry was looking for a new voice. We’re at 60-plus members now and growing fairly consistently. Around half to two-thirds of our members had either not previously members of any organisation at all, or had let their membership lapse. Around 70% of operators are currently not members of any trade organisation. Over 60% of coach operators who joined said they joined for the lobbying rather than operational support. My perception was always that operators join for the operational support – and there’s a lot available for them should they need it, but many saw the policy side as more important.”

Andy noted that where operators were taking advantage of RHA Coach’s operational assistance, a significant amount of those enquiries related to European travel, including Christmas market visits and winter ski trips, though considering the latest developments with growing rates of infection across Europe and the emergence of the Omicron strain of the virus some of these journeys may be in doubt once again.

Talking about the RHA’s broadening of its membership base, Andy continued: “There are a lot of issues which are comparable to the freight sector,” he said, noting issues such as congestion and clean air zones. “As far as buses are concerned, there’s been a fairly consistent structure in terms of funding for exhaust upgrades on vehicles. Because it’s been locally applied, it has been lost on the coach industry. I can understand why, but there’s a need for a more national approach for coaches and HGVs. The devolution to local authorities just hasn’t worked for coaches. There are a lot of synergies with issues that the RHA has been working on for years.

“Another key lobbying point at the moment is that we need to sort the issues with the DVLA. The major question in the longer term at the moment is: if an operator is going to invest, what does it invest in?” Andy asked, highlighting worries that there needs to be a clearer roadmap for the future to allow for a 15-year lifespan of coaches and avoid operators investing in the wrong technology today and suffering for it tomorrow, be that in regard to PSVAR or fuel type. “There are a lot of prospects out there, but at the moment its like Betamax and VHS. We just don’t know. I don’t think we can leave it to the market to decide. There has to be some clear direction and it has to be something that is definitely viable. If the industry is forced to invest in a technology that is short-lived we are in serious trouble. We can look back for or five years on Euro VI. In 2015 it was the bees knees, and now we’re saying diesel will be dead in 10 or 15 years but at the moment we don’t have much of an alternative. We have to get this right.

“There is an awful lot of common ground between coaches and HGVs, it covers a lot of ground that the RHA is well versed in. We’re always keen to get members who will engage and contribute, and it’s good to see that members have been willing to provide input in areas such as PSVAR. What we do is member-led across the board, and what we come up with we can say ‘that is an industry view.’ At the last count, we represent around 1,500 vehicles across our membership, and growing.”

 

Jenna Rush of North East Coach Travel was another early voice to join RHA Coach, and has since received a number of industry accolades for her work in promoting coaches during the pandemic. JONATHAN WELCH
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