Social distancing: The elephant in the room

There is an elephant in the room that is going to affect every coach and bus operator in the land: Social distancing.

Numerous calculations have already been done on how few passengers can be carried safely with social distancing measures in place. For a double-decker bus it is around the 15-20 mark. For a full-size coach, 12-15. For smaller vehicles – in the Optare Solo and Plaxton Cheetah categories – it looks like being around seven.

Currently, accommodating the number of customers that wish to travel while still respecting social distancing needs is not difficult. Numbers are minimal; vehicle resource is plentiful. But, despite Boris Johnson’s less than helpful advice, that will not always be the case.

For bus operators it is not easy to say when difficulties will begin. But for the industry collectively they will start to mount in September. Children are likely to return to school en masse then. Come October, university students will be back in number. Then it will be time to dial C for crisis.

It is not clear how the matter will be tackled. While the PM’s encouragement to cycle, drive or walk will be taken up by some, for many passengers it is not an option.

Hiring vehicles to bolster capacity may be possible. But it will not suit every application. In any case, coaches that would otherwise be idle thanks to the vast drop in tourism sector activity, and which perhaps could have acted as duplicates for buses, will likely be needed to enable social distancing on home-to-school journeys. They may also be in demand from train operating companies as they seek creative ways to comply with social distancing requirements.

Where additional vehicles are deployed, the immediate question will be of who pays for them. For contracted services, the answer to that is clear. But for bus services, long-term government funding will be necessary if a ‘capacity crisis’ is to be avoided.

There are a huge number of demands on public funding currently. Amid the clamour from other sectors, it is undoubtedly in the national interest for coaches and buses to be given their share.