Standing out in Stanningley

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Jonathan Welch speaks to J&B Travel to find out more about a company which has been vocal about the industry’s plight during the turbulent year of the coronavirus pandemic

J&B Travel is a name that will be familiar to many in the industry now, even if it wasn’t already. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, J&B has been one of the more vocal operators, appearing on TV, radio and in local and national media to help raise awareness of what was going on in the early, dark days of the crisis. So it was with pleasure that CBW was able to pay a visit and speak to those behind the name, to find out what has been going on behind the scenes and hear the operator’s view of how the ‘coach crisis’ has been handled.

Before we start looking at the ‘now’ though, let’s have a look at where the company’s routes lay. I spoke to Managing Director Paul Lynn to find out more. “J&B was started by my dad and late mum. They ran the Ringway pub, which had a 150-member social section. They were big on rugby league, and purchased a Bedford Viceroy from Broadbents at Stamford Bridge for taking supporters to matches. That was back in 1985. They got requests for hires through word of mouth.

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“Then they purchased a Bedford Dominant II from Tetley Motor Services, and picked up some home to school transport work. They bought two Leyland Leopards from West Riding, and the company grew from there. In 1994, they started doing European tours and purchased a Bova Futura and a Plaxton Premiere. Sadly my mum was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and died in January 1996. I came off the road in July 1995.” In the intervening years, the business has been through many changes, not least the decision to only buy new coaches. We took the decision in 2015 to start purchasing brand new. We could see what was happening with Euro VI and emissions regulations, and also for the warranty. Then in 2018 there was more noise about PSVAR and its implications for the coach sector, so we began purchasing PSVAR-ready Euro VI coaches. In 2019 we were advised that the Leeds Clean Air Zone (CAZ) was going ahead and was non-negotiable. We’ve done all we can. We’ve upgraded or replaced all our vehicles so they all comply with the CAZ, and 14 are PSVAR-compliant. We’ve spent around £1.9m on upgrading our fleet. Then the council made the decision to cancel the CAZ in Leeds.

“The Government help has kept us open for rail replacement and emergency work, but the rail operators are wanting Euro VI and PSVAR but at the same time wanting to pay the lowest rates. Something has to give. Over the years, we’ve continued doing the same kinds of work we started with, and still do a lot for rugby league teams and supporters, including the Bradford Bulls, Keighley Cougars and Dewsbury Rams, as well as Bradford Park Ave and Farsley Celtic football clubs. We do supporters coaches for Leeds United and Harrogate Town too, plus others.”

Traditional

Paul describes J&B as a very traditional operator, and besides sports does a mix of private hire, schools and rail replacement. The fleet is quite varied, reflecting the different needs, and includes a number of MOBIpeople coaches. Two were delivered last May, one being an MAN 55-seater, the other had been destined for another operator and is a 74-seater on a Scania chassis.
The firm’s Barbi Galileo will be well known to those readers who have followed the Honk for Hope and McCarron Coates ‘Wish You Could Hear’ campaigns. Another unusual vehicle in the fleet is a rare King Long C12, the only one in the country Paul believes. “It was the last before the company’s UK demise,” he explained, lamenting that at the same time it ceased trading, King Long seemed to have reached a point where the product was right for the market.

“We have had King Longs in the fleet since 2010,” he continued. “Parts are easy to acquire as they use Cummins engines, and passengers like them too. It ticks the box for them, and that’s what keeps people coming back. They’re not interested in the marque, they want a nice interior and comfortable seats. King Long had got it right with the C12, but had the wrong importer, although they gave good back-up. It’s not PSVAR but it’s a great motor.” Never having come across the C12 before, I had the opportunity to have a closer look, and from a passenger perspective had to concur with Paul’s comments. The saloon appeared very much fit for purpose, well appointed and with a pleasant atmosphere.

The year that was

When I first spoke to Paul, the situation ahead was still somewhat uncertain. The time since March 2020 has been hard for everyone, and it is fair to say that some operators have fared better than others. “It has affected lots of people’s mental health,” he said. “Lots in the industry have gone from working 70 hours a week to nothing. Many won’t talk about it but to lose your livelihood overnight is stressful.”

For drivers too, the time was a stressful one, and Paul said that it was important that they are given some time to get back into the swing of things, with a period of re-familiarisation to allow them to get back behind the wheel with confidence. “I’m big on training anyway,” said Paul. “When a driver starts with us, they do two weeks of training with an experienced colleague, to familiarise them with each of the different vehicles.” Paul said he was keen to encourage new blood into the industry, and recently took on a new member of staff, who is ex-Forces, and paid for his PCV training, including a CPC course done through local firm Slatter Training of Pontefract, which carries out all of J&B’s CPC training.

Planning for the future

“We’ve got to try and find a younger workforce,” Paul continued. Worried about post-Covid staffing levels, especially if older or part-time drivers decide to hang up their driving gloves amid ongoing Covid-19 fears, he highlighted the importance of the rapport between younger drivers and younger passengers, something which could help encourage younger travellers and dispel the image of a coach trip or tour as something mainly for older people, and a potentially vital way to increase uptake and income as the industry rebuilds itself. The industry needs to have a big think. Do we need to be bringing in more people at 18, rather than 21, before they get into the Monday to Friday rhythm and develop a full social life? We need towns and cities to become more welcoming for drivers too. They want a pleasant vehicle to drive, and something to do at the destination, at least toilets and refreshments. That will breed passenger-friendliness too. We also need to look more at apprenticeships.”

During our chat, we were joined by Terrie, who says she only joined the company ‘between jobs,’ but is now one of the key office staff who help keep the wheels turning, and deals with much of the customer-facing side of the business. She highlighted the safety regime which the company has implemented, and which all drivers have had to make themselves familiar with before returning to the road. “Right from the beginning, we asked ourselves, ‘what can we do?’ So we bought a fogging machine, and every coach is fogged at the end of every shift. We bought disinfectant sprays, which are used at the end of every journey, and we installed AuraAir filters on every coach. There is a lot for the industry to learn from the pandemic.”

Besides the AuraAir filters, which are said to kill 97% of all bacteria, all of the company’s double-deck bus fleet has been fitted with Centrad temperature sensors which check the temperature of every passenger as they board, in another step to prevent transmission of Covid-19 and reassure passengers that coach and bus travel can be done safely.

Worrying times

Although things seemed to be looking up, there are still uncertainties. “I worry that there will be another lockdown, one that might come later in the year,” Paul continued. Like a lot of owners and operators, Paul said he worries that while the furlough scheme will last through to September and may be enough to see firms through, it still might not be. “It has been a big worry for the sector. We rejoined the CPT last year, we believe that now is the time for one voice for the sector. The RHA said a lot of the right words when it came in to the coach sector, but it will be judged by its actions.”

Speaking more about the dissatisfaction expressed by some operators during the pandemic with the CPT, Paul said that it was a catch 22 for the organisation, and that operators needed to also stand up and be counted, and work with the CPT if they want it to be a success, rather than sit back and wait for things to happen. This belief led not only to the firm’s involvement in the ‘Wish You Could Hear’ campaign, but also to Paul and Terrie spending time going through the last two years’ worth of diaries to draw out hard figures to present, and which Terrie turned into graphs and charts to highlight the potential huge losses facing the industry and its customers.

“I don’t think the ‘tourism’ conversation was necessarily the right one to have, as coaches do so much more. We needed to talk about the home to school, the rail replacements and air diverts, we could have embodied PSVAR inclusivity and diversity with that as well, as a way to promote what we can offer.”

Paul said that although J&B, like many others, has invested heavily in PSVAR, if rail replacement is taken out of the equation then in practical terms coaches which need a wheelchair lift account for less than 1% of the firm’s operations.

Money matters

“We’ve been doing home to school and rail replacement work during the pandemic,” he continued. “We’re fortunate to have the right fleet. But all it has done is cover our costs, we didn’t make any money. And our finance holidays have left us with £12k of extra finance to cover. I think we’ll lose more operators yet,” he said, reflecting on the fact that many might be able to sustain themselves during furlough, but the combination of that scheme ending, and finance or loan payments restarting, might be enough to push some firms over the brink. Things have started to pick up, but I think it will be March 2022 before we are anywhere near normal again, as we are still going through the last lockdown and easing of restrictions. And we’re finding that people are asking us for lower rates. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that rates should be higher. The industry needs to stand firm and refuse to accept low rates. That’s one of the great things Jenna Rush did with Honk for Hope, she brought the industry together.

“We’ve heard lots about promoting venues like theatres and tourism, but it’s our industry that feeds them. There’s no point pushing the environment agenda if everyone goes by car. Just one of our school contracts saves 122 car journeys every day. With 11 vehicles on home-to-school every day, imagine how many cars that would be! As a sector, we’re good at keeping things in-house, we’re not good at shouting. Too often people only see us when we turn up at the school, or at the airport or station when there are problems. As an industry, we have to show what we can really do.”

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