Coach and bus industry must ‘grasp opportunities’ in sector recovery

Road reallocation

Economic restructure and changing travel habits make recovery curve elusive; industry must remain agile during rebound

Recovery of the coach and bus market remains uncertain, but operators must grasp opportunities and realise that the industry is part of the solution to get “back to normal”.

That is the underlying message issued by Carla Stockton-Jones, the UK Managing Director of Stagecoach, in an examination of changing travel habits among public transport users.

Outlining her thoughts around the industry, Ms Stockton-Jones remains optimistic during the third national lockdown, adamant that public transport remains “critical to economic and sustainable recovery in the communities it serves”. She says she is confident the sector has positive long-term prospects, and that the global pandemic has presented an opportunity for modal shift away from the car.

That will be done through effective marketing strategies and industry collaboration, she says.

One operator paying attention to the changing travel habits of its customers is Greys of Ely. Managing Director Richard Grey describes how new habits formed during lockdown, such as a preference for online shopping and working from home, combined with an uncertain market place, may require operators to adjust their offerings.

In particular, he says one lasting legacy of the pandemic will be a low-touch economy, involving reduced close contact, tighter travel and hygiene restrictions, and an “unprecedented rate of change” in how the public eat, shop, socialise, and manage free time.

New opportunities will arise from this, he believes. Border closures may result in more domestic travel, production and consumption – and operators must inspire consumer confidence with a clear message of safety. “Tell the public it’s safe to travel, and of the work done to keep vehicles safe,” Mr Grey says. “The message has been that public transport is unsafe for so long, and we need to undo this.”

Being flexible to change is of utmost importance. “We’re going to need to adapt to clients’ new views and policies,” adds Mr Grey. “Greener and cleaner travel choices have been formed, and the use of e-fuels, battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell-electric are elements that will come more to the fore. How and why clients want to book these vehicles will become more important.”

Thomas Ableman, Chief Executive of coach connection platform Snap, says an opportunity lies where the pandemic has woken the public up to the massive effect reduced car travel can have.

Combined with the announcement of a new petrol and diesel car sales ban in 2030 and statutory guidance to reallocate road space to active travel as part of the government’s response to the virus, there are “huge opportunities” for the industry to change the market share of travel by coach and bus.

Paradoxically, Mr Ableman reveals the public remain as wedded to private cars as ever, despite the aforementioned measures. This is why operators must therefore take as much control of quality themselves.

Lobbying government to make the changes needed to offer quality to customers is one avenue, but star ratings on journeys and drivers may be another. “Star ratings allow performance management,” Mr Ableman says. “We can star rate journeys and drivers which is a huge benefit to drivers and passengers and helps operators drive up standards.”

While there may be little idea now of what a recovery curve for the industry looks like, data is offering an understanding of the picture of future travel. Critically, changing travel demands through economic restructure and conditioning of passenger behaviour through a cycle of lockdowns will require operators to remain agile.