Time to plan for 2021 – but based on what is still unclear

Coach and bus industry planning for 2021

The coach and bus industry goes into 2021 with a modest amount of confidence in many quarters, perhaps if only because the light at the end of the tunnel that is an accelerating vaccine roll-out means that it cannot be as bad as 2020.

Hopes of a ‘big bang’ recovery for 2021 have been dashed, however. The first quarter is destined to be dismal. Even beyond that, there remain questions about how quickly restrictions will be relaxed.

A survey of coach operators conducted at the end of 2020 showed that they thus remain cautious in their projections for 2021. But many expect to see recovery as the year progresses, albeit generally not to where the sector was before. That may have to wait until later.

For buses, the year will bring contrasting emotions. The good work done to recover passenger numbers in the latter months of 2020 has been undone. Furthermore, societal change poses a big challenge to getting customer volumes back to where they were before ‘coronavirus’ was a word in most people’s vocabularies.

But in the longer term, the bus industry is talking increasingly bullishly about zero-emission. Go-Ahead is pursuing what it says will be Europe’s biggest order for hydrogen fuel cell-electric buses. National Express West Midlands MD David Bradford wants his fleet to include 500 zero-emission members by the time of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July 2022.

What is clear in the current industry landscape is that some things have changed permanently. The enhanced cleaning regimes brought on by the pandemic will be going nowhere, for example. Customers’ use of apps and other technology will grow and their overall journey expectation is likely to be higher than it was before.

That poses a challenge for the coach and bus industry in 2021, but it also presents an opportunity. The ‘life reset’ that many individuals have undergone leaves, for perhaps the first time, an opportunity to take a clean sheet of paper and realign a business to what society will want in the future.

There is an increasing awareness of the benefits of supporting local businesses, just as there is a growing level of societal astuteness among many individuals. Those will play into the industry’s hands. It employs local people by default, and its environmental credentials are beyond question.

Never has it been more important to have a plan. That plan may not look like any other that has crossed your desk. But the most successful businesses have always seen what was coming, prepared for it and then leveraged it for dear life when it arrived. The trick in the current uncharted territory is working out exactly what ‘it’ will be.