Message from coach Mecca

The City of Westminster arguably sees more coach activity than anywhere else in the UK, and Westminster City Council says that it is doing its best for the industry in a challenging environment. But the industry must do its bit if it is to prosper there. Tim Deakin reports

Coaching in London is getting no easier. Congestion continues to plague the industry, while complaints about parking difficulties are legion. Many coach men and women regard visiting the capital as no more than a necessary evil, and believe that they are not welcome there.

If those are your thoughts, says Westminster City Council, then take a step back and look at everything else that’s going on in London, and particularly the volume of other users all fighting for their own piece of the capital’s scarce road space. It’s the quart and pint pot problem.

From an impartial viewpoint, it adds, you may see that meeting everyone’s needs is a juggling act that gets more difficult by the day, and the odd ball is bound to be dropped occasionally.

Moreover, there is a tiny element of the coach industry that does the remainder no favours among local residents and visitors. Its actions in parking illegally and unnecessary engine idling jeopardises those facilities put in place for the use of every operator.

“Coaches are a key part of the tourist industry in London, and working with operators I’m sure that we can find solutions to these issues,” says Councillor Heather Acton, Cabinet Member for Sustainability and Parking.

“We want coaches to bring tourists and other visitors here, but they have to do so by the rules.” Those rules include parking responsibly and not idling unnecessarily.

Pull up socks

Victoria is a particular problem area in Westminster. “The Victoria Business Improvement District (BID) tells me that it still receives a lot of complaints about idling,” says Cllr Acton, although she adds that coaches are by no means the only, or even the most significant, culprits.

Nevertheless, the Victoria BID is looking to carry out monitoring work on the environmental impact of idling coaches. In a worst case scenario that could lead to more changes to the parking provision there; some bays have already been moved as a result of complaints.

Communicating the importance of being a good neighbour to drivers is thus imperative for operators who may have coaches in and around Victoria.

The Victoria BID is an influential organisation with some significant businesses as members, and while the coach industry has raised its game immeasurably over the last two decades, the occasional bad apple runs the risk of spoiling things for everyone.

“Over 25 years I’ve received many complaints about idling, and historically coaches were always the worst offenders. Some drivers would leave the engine running all day,” says Cllr Acton.

“There has been an improvement [in the meantime] and the coach industry is definitely not the worst culprit now. It has been highly receptive and there is more understanding,” she says, and operators must retain this momentum if unnecessary idling levels are to continue to reduce.

“We want Westminster to be a growing and successful city, but also green and healthy.” She explains that coaches are more than welcome in Westminster when they play by the rules – and that in a nutshell, if they don’t, they’re not.

Air marshals

The principal tool in Westminster’s efforts to combat idling is its army of street marshals. Previously known as civil enforcement officers, they ensure that traffic regulations, including those concerning unnecessary idling and illegal parking, are observed.

According to the City Council, they also have “an ambassadorial role.” What that means in practice is that they will attempt to educate those who flout the rules through a lack of awareness. That’s demonstrated by the results of Westminster’s clampdown on idling, which began in May 2015.

“Since then, our marshals have taken 1,500 actions against idling vehicles,” says Cllr Acton. “Coaches form a small proportion of that number, but there are definitely coaches in there.

“Once the marshal asks the driver to turn the engine off and gives the reasons why, most want to comply. A lot of it is to do with not understanding the impact that idling the engine has.” Of the 1,500 drivers approached by marshals so far, only six refused to switch off. Four had valid reasons, such as needing to run equipment in a HGV’s load space.

The maximum punishment for failing to abide by the anti-idling rules is not earth shattering. It is a £20 penalty charge notice (PCN). Westminster City Council is yet to issue one, but when it does, it may only be challenged in court. But that’s not to say that it won’t in the future, and nor does marshals’ focus on education mean that they are an easy touch.

“Every intervention is recorded, and if we start to see repeat offenders then they will be fined,” says Cllr Acton.

A fine would be issued to the driver, but Westminster does not rule out notifying the operator that a PCN has been handed out. If that happens, the operator should take it seriously and ensure it is raised with the driver concerned.

“Our message to drivers is simple: Please don’t leave your engine idling. You will be asked to switch it off because of the adverse impact idling has on health, and you will be fined if you’re not receptive,” she adds.

Palace problems

Westminster City Council remains committed to working in partnership with the coach industry, but one area where continuing misbehaviour by drivers could lead to “draconian” measures is at Buckingham Gate and Palace Street, near Buckingham Palace.

“There are particular issues there,” says Cllr Acton. “Passengers want to see the Changing of the Guard, and there is a lot of illegal parking and idling from coaches.

“We have received many complaints from local businesses and residents, to the extent that we have looked at, and may again look at, putting a coach ban in, to the extent that they couldn’t even drive through. That may be one measure that we have to take if coach drivers still fail to comply.”

As an alternative, Westminster has made arrangements with The Royal Parks to provide pre-bookable space that will reopen soon for around 14 coaches off The Mall close to Buckingham Palace.

“I sympathise with the needs of the industry, which is why we have created coach parking in The Mall. We already have coach ban areas, but they do allow access; Great Cumberland Place is a coach ban area, but if coaches are going to the Cumberland Hotel they may use it,” says Cllr Acton.

“In Buckingham Gate and Palace Street, besides a ban there could be no drop off or no parking regulations. I realise that’s draconian, but it could be the final step if [illegal parking] continues.”

Give and take

A more pragmatic approach is taken to the age-old problem of groups failing to return to the coach by the agreed time and putting the driver in a very awkward position. Abuse of limited stay bays by a minority of drivers is another on-going issue, something that Westminster acknowledges it may not enforce as strictly as it could.

Where operators are aware of such abuse, they should report it. Equally, if they think that bays with a maximum stay of one hour would be worthwhile, they should tell Westminster City Council.

Such short-stay provision has been suggested as useful for drivers arriving in London who are approaching the legal maximum driving time.

“Mostly the complaints that we receive are that drivers need longer, not shorter, maximum stopping times, although they don’t have to pay for the whole period; they can pay for an hour, if required,” says Cllr Acton.

“But if the coach industry thought that short-stay bays were a good idea, we could certainly look at that. We want the parking that we provide to be used, and if it’s not being used, we want to know why.

“But there is definitely improving trends in air quality and parking. As long as coach drivers respect the rules concerning them, they are welcome in Westminster.”

routeONE commentAlthough running coaches in and to London is fraught with difficulties – and will remain so – there is still a tiny element of the industry that, unfortunately, spoils things for the vast majority of operators and drivers who go to great lengths to ensure that they act responsibly.
   The uncaring parties are often the most difficult to reach. They seldom join trade associations and rarely read the trade press.
   While their actions continue to jeopardise parking provision in the capital, the rest of the coach industry should take heart that – in regard to idling, at least – Westminster City Council is recording who the offenders are, and will target them for stricter enforcement.
   While that may not entirely mitigate the problems they cause, it is important that the responsible majority ensure that their drivers do their utmost to respect the rules. And that means parking legally and switching off as soon as possible.