Like many small businesses we have felt the effect of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’. Specifically this meant we had to delay the publication of Stagecoach East Midlands and Stagecoach Oxfordshire Fleet Handbooks (now due in August 2020) and the Stagecoach East Fleet Handbook (which we expect to publish in October 2020).
We had planned to publish these three books in March 2020 and the publication delays are also as a result of short notice changes to the fleets and the cancellation of investment plans in new vehicles.
A number of retailers through whom we sell our books were also closed. All are now open and we thank them for their continued support.
As a result of these challenges and their effects on us we have reluctantly taken the decision to cease publication of commercially-produced Fleet Handbooks and other publications once the Stagecoach East Fleet Handbook is published.
We will continue to provide updates to the Stagecoach, Go North East and East Yorkshire Fleets through Fleet Ramblings on our website and will also, for the foreseeable future, continue to produce the monthly allocation documents. We will also be continuing with our media and PR work but feel the time is now right to start the journey towards full retirement.
The COVID-19 restrictions and the fact that several OpCos closed their paint shops means that there acre currently far fewer buses in the new Stagecoach liveries that would have been expected.
Where repaints have taken place they are now appearing with full branding, after a period when buses were pushed into use in the new livery but without company logos. We here that in a couple of areas this confused intending passengers.
We still haven’t seen one of the Stagecoach ‘Local’ vehicles in the flesh, but we are still unsure on what the livery brings to the Stagecoach brand.
It now seems that the livery template has been refined and recent repaints are generally to a single design. There was a ‘tweak’ in recent weeks to the ‘magic bus’ livery in Manchester where the amber design on the back has been omitted.
What has become evident is that some previous liveries and brands have been allowed to remain, whilst the three basic ‘new livery’ designs have been expanded. We still hear of some older vehicles being painted in the former corporate ‘beach ball’ scheme.
We now think that the following generally summarises the generic Stagecoach UK livery plan:
2000 corporate ‘beach ball’ livery - discontinued but still being applied to some older vehicle types
2000 corporate ‘electric hybrid’ livery - being discontinued
2000 corporate ‘InterConnect’ - off white with purple and violet graphics (used in Lincolnshire.Norfolk)
2000 corporate Stagecoach Gold - gold/dark blue (was being discontinued but appears to now being retained)
2020 Stagecoach ‘Local’ livery - off white with blue, amber and ocean green graphics
2020 Stagecoach ‘Specialist’ livery - off white with ocean green graphics
2020 Stagecoach ‘distance’ livery - all over amber
2020 Stagecoach ‘magic bus’ livery (Manchester) - off white with blue graphics and white stars
Lakes Connection/Lakesider - Green-based with Lake District branding (Cumbria fleet)
Cambridgeshire Busway - ocean green with white Busway branding
Cambridge electric bus - white with ocean green graphics and electric bus branding
Manchester electric bus - ocean green with electric bus branding
Oxford Tube - Red with branding
Megabus UK - Blue with ‘megabus’ branding (replaces darker blue with ‘megabus.com’ branding
So much for the three livery variations plus Megabus and Oxford Tube announced earlier this year and the list above doesn't include the myriad of local identity liveries and branding currently widely used across the Stagecoach UK operation.
It is good to see bus services returning to ‘close to’ pre-lockdown service levels in terms of timetabled frequency, but social Distancing remains a limiting factor for passenger numbers.
We hear that some operators are having to duplicate some journeys but generally two double deck buses can cater for 40 passengers - a huge reduction on the 150 seats normally available. We have heard prospective passengers say they are fearful of using the bus because they don’t know if they will be able to get home again, or will be forced to wait for a bus with vacant seats.
We have said it before but with vastly reduced carrying capacity bus operators will struggle to maintain a viable business with many still unclear on what any Government subsidy will look like and when they will see it.
We also hear of passengers complaining that they cannot get on buses when there were ‘dozens of empty seats’. That poses the question. ‘Are operators doing enough to publicise Social Distancing seating capacities? The answer is yes, and no. Online and App-based information is available, but generally nothing exists at bus stops. Why, where real time displays are provided cannot they be programmed with scrolling messages. Perhaps it is because most are operated by local authorities and not the bus companies.
In a recent discussion with a former bus industry colleague we discussed the removal of roadside timetables in some areas. In place are notices advising prospective passengers to consult the App or go online. My colleague doing his best Victor Meldrew impression said: “don't get me started on the switch from printed timetables to journey planners via technology. the benefit is to the operator not the customer!”
We do wonder whether the bus stops that have lost their timetables for a ‘look online’ poster will ever see a proper timetable being returned. Let’s not forget that as restrictions are eased and more passengers are allowed on buses operators more than ever will need to attract passengers back. And it will be a real challenge.
During ‘lockdown’ people have been walking or cycling and even taking to their car. Then there are those who have been working from home. That presents bus operators with another unknown. How many commuters have they lost to home working?
With all these challenges we suspect that the major groups will be reviewing their back office and admin functions and we have even heard of an operator looking at dispensing with its remaining revenue protection roles.
What we can predict is that the bus industry going forward will be looking to reduce cost and that means that redundancies and job losses are likely to take place.
We wonder how long it will be before service frequencies are reviewed. Will be see seven minute frequencies become ten minutes and ten minute frequencies become 12 or 15 minutes. Such actions will save costs through reducing vehicle and driver requirements.
We hope the bus industry can bounce back, but being realistic that bounce back could take many years. That said the post-COVID bounce back will be a challenge for many industries and businesses in many sectors. Will be ever experience life as we knew it pre-‘lockdown’ again?
The last few months have been, err… strange.
We have gone through ‘lockdown’, shortages in the supermarkets, a block on leisure activities, the rise of home haircuts, queues for the shops, reduced opening hours and essential activity only at banks to name but a few.
Then there has been the lack of clarity at times from Government. Announcements made but then having to wait for the guidelines. Lots of instructions but are they guidelines or statutory instructions. What seems like ‘U’-Turn after ‘U’-Turn and senior figures failing to understand instructions and guidance.
We think, though, we have missed the change to the requirement of ‘double yellow lines’ on our roads. We are sure that at some stage the law must have been changed to signify that ‘double yellow lines’’ demotes a parking or unloading area. The in narrow streets cars should be parked opposite each other.
We are also convinced that the definition of footpath has also been changed to “an area where cars can be parked” As a result roads have become “and area where pedestrians are allowed to walk round cars on the footpath”.
The serious comment here, though, is that we hear of buses being delayed due to poor parking, buses unable to pull into bus stops due to poor parking and in some cases sections of bus routes having to be omitted due to parked cars.
If bus companies didn’t have enough challenges to deal with……
When I worked in the bus industry in the 1970s and 1980s it would have been unthinkable to be peddling the message of ‘please do not travel’ or use buses only if essential.
That is no way to run a business and keep it afloat. But it seems that is what our Government wants the bus industry to do.
Bus we should remember the 1970s and 1980s when it was commonplace for companies to promote cars and dealerships on their buses - including all over adverts. Could a return to those days generate some much needed income?
In normal circumstances such an idea in 2020 would be absurd, but these are not normal times.
After almost three months of running a bare minimum of service most of the bus operators are increasing frequencies. Costs are returning to somewhat approaching pre-lockdown levels but passenger numbers and the important revenues are not.
Yes, there is the promise of Government support, but we are hearing from some quarters that bus companies are still unsure on how much they will receive and indeed when they will receive it. In the meantime they are expected to continue to ramp up their bus services to near normal service levels.
But let’s remember that service levels may be near normal but that carrying capacity is not. A 76-seat double deck generally has capacity for 20 Socially-Distanced passengers. On a midibus, such as an Enviro 200 the capacity drops to around ten and on a Solo is it really worth putting it on the road when capacity is around seven.
The Government needs to make clear what the support package is, how it will be allocated and when it will be paid. Then there is the reimbursement of Concessionary Travel - not that many pass holders can use the bus given the reduced seating capacity. Local Authorities are also struggling to balance the books. Will this also mean that they will struggle to pay bus operators in a timely way.
From our observations and the latest set of revised timetables from many operators we suspect that bus service levels in many areas are returning to around 90% of normal but that doesn’t mean that they are carrying 90% of normal passenger loadings. Our estimate is that it could be nearer to 215-20% of normal and at best in some areas pushing 25%.
Again that does not mean that 25% of normal passenger numbers means 25% of normal revenue. I stand corrected here but my assumption is that in many cases current revenues in percentage terms is in single figures when compared against pre-lockdown levels.
If my calculations are anywhere close, then bus operators will need a massive cash injection to keep them afloat.
My prediction is that capital investment, as we have seen in recent years, will become a thing of the past. New vehicle orders will be paused as the oldest vehicles in fleets - which ordinarily have been due for replacement - will remain parked up and will not be required.
By the end of the year will we start to see service levels cut?
Let’s not forget the advice has been to walk or cycle (or use the car). We are no longer being urged to use the bus.
I hope that my prediction is wrong, but I would be surprised if it is…..
Steven Knight is a Transport Specialist who has over 40 years experience in the bus and rail industries as well as in specialist transport journalism. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.