‘Coach industry has little to fear from LA in-house moves’

Coach industry should not fear local authority in house moves

For us, January always goes painfully slowly. We are quiet, the days drag, drivers are scratching around for things to do. In the 20-odd years I have been doing this job, it has always been the same. I don’t let it worry me.

With not being overly busy, I set some targets for the year ahead and take a general look at what is going on in the industry to see if there are any potential challenges on the horizon that I need to be across.

I was drawn to an article on this very magazine’s website about a local authority (LA) buying a coach business and running it in-house. About 10 years ago, to much fanfare, my own LA got itself an O-Licence and 20 American-style school buses and began to revolutionise home-to-school transport in our area.

I can only speak for my own location, but post-COVID, contract prices have gone up dramatically, and are now at a level that they probably should have been anyway. Lack of supply is undoubtedly the reason, so in a way it is logical for an ambitious LA officer to decide that it should run things in-house and purchase a going concern of set up one of its own.

Anyone reading this will well know that making lots of money out of coaches is easy and stress free. Drivers are plentiful, decent vehicles are cheap, parts are reasonably priced and readily available, and best of all, you start work at 0800hrs and are home in time for The Chase. Said nobody, ever!

My local council quite quickly found that this was not the case for numerous reasons. First, public sector sick pay tends to be generous. Soon the LA had a huge driver shortage, as some staff began to take advantage of that.

Next, the managers didn’t really have a stake in the business. If any operator I know is short of a vehicle or a driver for the next day, they don’t go home and see if it is The Beast who is doing the Chasing. They stay at work until it is sorted.

Then comes the hassle. We run a modern fleet, but it takes a lot of looking after, which is expensive and time-consuming. Our LA had not factored that into its costings, or what is to be done when a vehicle will not be out of the garage in time. When the drivers were at work, they found that the job – while easy – was not particularly well paid. No overtime, or whip-rounds, on a standardised hours contract, so recruitment and retention became difficult after the initial enthusiasm wore off.

Finally, of course, there is the fiscal side of things. My LA did not need to make a profit, but it also didn’t need to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds per year, which is what quickly happened. It ended up having to subcontract in the operators that it had replaced, and for more money than they were being paid in the first place.

The council couldn’t wait for the leases on the buses to run out, to send them back, and quietly chalk the whole thing down to experience.

The older you get, the more you find that ideas aren’t new. Running in-house may work in West Wales and in the Highlands of Scotland, but I won’t be betting my new coach fund on that.

We are a funny bunch, coach and bus operators. We do the hours, make sacrifices and have a pride in the businesses that we run. And that is why we will probably survive this latest attempt to eat into our markets.