The appointment of Jane Cole as the first female Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) President in January was received warmly by the industry. She brings experience of transformation from her role as Blackpool Transport Managing Director, while earlier time spent in the rail industry bodes well for the political engagement that inevitably comes with the President’s position.
Taking on the CPT Presidency during what is the most difficult period ever seen by the coach and bus sector is no small decision. The eyes of the industry will be on CPT over coming months as recovery gets underway and dialogue with politicians remains key.
Bus operators are now starting to look at how they exit revenue support measures. Coaching remains eager for a Westminster funding package. Jane is mindful that while the industry needs to speak with a collective voice, solutions for each sector – and in some cases, individual businesses – will often differ, sometimes greatly, if a prosperous future is to be secured.
Constructive engagement is central to delivering what the industry wants. Jane remains hopeful that central government will deliver funding for coaches. Meanwhile, it and devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales must be convinced that money supporting bus services should be tapered away in a nuanced manner and not in a blunt fashion.
“Our way forward needs to involve convincing governments that not every operator will need the same help or package,” she says.
“Recovery will not involve a one-size-fits-all approach. Because of that, my job is to speak to as many people as I can and to contribute what their feelings and hopes are for revival.”
Jane Cole: Assertive approach from CPT to government messaging
A big task for CPT over coming months will be to undo government messaging that public transport should be avoided. That is one of the things that will mandate a common approach.
“We have got to be more assertive and proactive on it,” Jane continues. “Once vaccines are out there at scale, we have to get customers back.”
The government has already said that it will mount a large campaign to promote public transport use when restrictions are loosened.
Jane is among many in the industry to welcome that. But she adds that operators and CPT must hold politicians to their commitment. Otherwise, recovery could take years. “We want it to be measured in months,” she says.
An assertive stance from CPT on this matter, and others, is something that Jane hopes to see in 2021. While its basic structure is “sound,” she notes that the pandemic has been a challenging period for the Confederation, just as it has been for the wider industry.
When questioned on other trade associations, Jane believes that there is room for them and CPT to coexist. That answer refers to both the recently formed RHA Coaches body and the well-established Association of Local Bus Managers (ALBUM).
Blackpool Transport is a member of both CPT and ALBUM. “I sit on the ALBUM Executive and I am CPT President. That makes me better informed and means I can serve operators [as President] by having a diverse view. I do not see it as a barrier.”
Thoughts must now turn to industry recovery during 2021
From a Blackpool Transport perspective, Jane advocates an aggressive approach to recovery. The municipal operator has been required by its owner to compose a five-year plan documenting its plans over that period. “We will not be in profit for at least four years, but by year five we hope to break even,” she says.
Few privately-owned businesses will have the luxury of being able to adopt such a position, but they can still take away from Blackpool Transport’s business development strategy over the recovery period.
Echoing the thoughts of Stagecoach UK MD Carla Stockton-Jones, Jane says that innovation will form a central part of the Fylde operator’s revival. Its approach to retail offerings and joined-up promotions with stakeholders and other operators will be one area of focus.
“But we must remember that the bounce back period will vary for different businesses. We cannot sleepwalk into the coming months: We must all keep our eye on the ball, and that includes paying attention to what other operators are doing.”
Jane has praise for Transdev Blazefield’s take on building buses back better. Its CEO Alex Hornby has adopted an upbeat, collaboration-based agenda. That is “brave,” she says. But the opportunity to observe best practice from industry colleagues has never been more important.
“We can learn so much from each other and the good things that our fellow operators are doing. That is a good way of obtaining intelligence and being on the front foot for businesses that do not have the time or the resource to do huge amounts of original work themselves.”
More room for cross-industry collaboration in the future?
Funding to support buses looks set to continue for the medium term. In England, COVID-19 Bus Service Support Grant is open-ended. In Scotland and Wales it is inconceivable that taps of similar schemes will be turned off any time soon. But for coach operators the situation is different.
Some within coaching believe that the sector’s contribution to essential services should be leveraged. In controversial comments made at the CPT UK Bus and Coach Conference in January, Transport Minister Baroness Vere gave credence to those views. She intimated that Westminster’s primary interest in coaches sits with what ministers view as a relatively narrow essential element, made up of home-to-school and rail replacement services.
But coaches’ other workstreams should not be overlooked as part of the dialogue, says Jane. “They have a great opportunity to ride on the back of the boom that is predicted for domestic tourism,” she explains.
“In Blackpool, the coach industry underpins the local economy. If we don’t get coaches back this year the town is in trouble. Other areas will be in the same position.”
Jane suggests that on the Fylde coast, scope exists for the municipal operator to work more closely with coach companies. As an example, visitors could be sold the benefit of using Blackpool Transport’s buses and trams while they are in the resort in an arrangement that would be jointly, and equally, beneficial to all parties.
Bus’s removal from revenue support must be nuanced
How the bus industry exits revenue support schemes that have enabled it to continue running through the pandemic has been the topic of much debate. Jane believes that an individual approach would best serve the sector as it aims to return to commercial operation.
“Politicians now have a better understanding than ever of how buses work. They grasp the funding implications, but also the socioeconomic return for the public,” she says.
It is imperative that they also comprehend that the pace of recovery will vary between operators and individual routes, Jane continues. She advocates the creation of frameworks that wean businesses and services off financial support at different rates.
That could be a multi-year undertaking and tie with wider government ambitions regarding social mobility, air quality and congestion.
For that approach to succeed, operators, politicians and local government would need to collaborate. Industry representation would act as the foundation of that.
“If it happens, it will create a foundation for bus to be king. If politicians want returns on sustainability and to see less car use, then a few years’ hard work and investment will get us there.”
‘Proud to take on the mantle as CPT President’, says Jane Cole
Despite the challenges that will accompany the role of CPT President in 2021, Jane says it comes with the opportunity to do work that will leave a long-lasting benefit on the industry. Restoring coach operators’ confidence in the Confederation is among those aims, but there are many others.
“I am proud to be CPT President and I am keen to hear ideas or feedback that will help the industry to move forwards.
“We have got to keep our foot on the pedal around promoting a deal for coaches. But my job as President is to give time and listen to and understand what members want CPT Chief Executive Graham Vidler to say to government. Hopefully by early 2022, when I hand over the Presidency, the industry will be in a much better place.”