The confirmation from Stagecoach that it has taken the planned investment in 34 new coaches for its Oxford Tube operation out of this year’s budget comes as no surprise.
Stagecoach says it has ‘deferred’ the investment but we suspect it will not just be added back into the investment plan in the future. More likely is that a completely new Business Case will need to be justified. Our view is that it could take many months, maybe years before business returns to pre COVID-19 levels.
Stagecoach has already suspended its Oxford Tube operation along with its Megabus services in England and Wales. The Cambridge-Oxford coach link now only runs between Cambridge and Milton Keynes. National Express has also suspended its coach operations.
Local bus services, not just those provided by Stagecoach but virtually all bus services, have been reduced to a minimum level to provide for ‘Key Workers’.
Bus and coach companies have mothballed huge swathes of their fleet - more than 60% in some cases and even more in an attempt to reduce costs.
What is unknown is when bus and coach services will return to ‘normal’ or even what a ‘new’ normal may look like.
How will ‘lockdown’ be eased? How long will ‘Social Distancing’ remain in an eased lockdown Britain? What other restrictions will remain?
The Country will not come out of ‘lockdown’ and the following day return to a pre COVID-19 state.
Recovery will, in our opinion, be slow. Yes, bus passengers will return but to what level? During ‘lockdown’ millions of people have been working from home. Already we are hearing of big companies suggesting that ‘working from home’ could remain post-‘lockdown’. That could mean massive reductions in commuter business.
We predict that huge numbers of buses will become surplus to requirement and confidence to order new buses will take a knock.
Coach operators may have to find solutions initially to maintain ‘Social Distancing’ on School contracts but that part of the workload will return. But what about those who would normally have busy holiday and tours programmes. It could be a long and slow rebirth. Again, what confidence will remain for fleet upgrades.
All this could spell bad news also for the bus and coach builders. They are already seeing companies scale back their planned investment this year and may find that it will be into next year at least before orders stat to be placed again.
What happens and how the industry responds and recovers will depend upon the Government’s post-‘lockdown’ strategy and also how much public confidence around bus and coach travel has been knocked.
We hope we are wrong and that industry recovery takes place at a faster pace but realistically it will be a long time before the industry fully bounces back.
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.