LIGHT AT THE END OF THE COVID-19 TUNNEL
Today’s population has never experienced anything like the coronavirus pandemic! It has had a dramatic impact on many lives and businesses across the world.
It is having an impact on the bus and coach industry and all its suppliers and customers. But our industry is resilient and will recover. It has been around for a long time and has survived other crises.
The very first buses appeared in the 1890’s and were steadily developed until the First World War. After that, there was rapid progress in vehicle design with the introduction of major features like pneumatic tyres, diesel engines, automatic gearboxes and so on. Many buses were owned and operated by the towns and cities that they served, or by independent companies. Coaches tended to be owned by family organisations which passed down the generations.
The first integral vehicles had been introduced in the United States in the late 1930’s and the first European examples appeared around 1950. These had rear mounted engines. Further development saw the introduction of important features like air suspension and air conditioning.
The whole industry consisting of manufacturers, component suppliers, operators and passengers has been around for 120 years and will survive!
Coronavirus is another challenge, another major disruption, but also one that the industry will overcome. Life may feel tough at the minute but there are strong grounds for medium and longer term optimism.
Many nations have signed to meet more strict limits on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. It is reckoned that transport is often the greatest single cause of carbon emissions in developed countries. Cars are by far the largest numbers of vehicles in transport and there use must be curtailed in cities.
Politicians and legislators will have noticed that, during periods of lock-down in many countries, the quality of air was much better in many urban centres, especially major cities. Buses continued to provide services that were necessary for essential workers so the improvement in air quality came because there were far fewer cars.
If nations are to meet air quality standards they will have to continue to place limits on cars in urban centres. When they take those steps they will have to ensure that there are more bus services so that many people will be able to travel easily from home to work. If there are fewer cars on the streets, bus journeys will be faster. Contactless systems for paying fares will reduce time spent at bus stops, making journeys quicker.
In many countries, all or nearly all buses used in cities meet Euro V or Euro VI emission standards so they are extremely clean at the tailpipe. Even so, there is demand to move to zero emissions and that can be achieved either by battery electric buses or by fuel cell drives. In 2019, registrations of electric buses were more than the combined total from 2012 to 2018.
There is a golden opportunity for bus companies to promote the merits of emissions per person per kilometre. The average car in the city has around 1.5 people including the driver. A high capacity bus can carry up to 100 people, sometimes even more, so emissions per person per kilometre are miniscule. Furthermore, the saving in road space is enormous.
Vehicles used on interurban services vary in design. Some are derived from low floor buses, but with more seats and fewer doors. Others have a higher flat floor, reached by steps but also carrying a lift for any passenger in a wheelchair. Their routes will still be necessary and they will benefit from shorter times spent in urban areas with restricted car use.
Politicians have to be sensible about the health and safety of passengers on all buses and coaches. Social spacing of anything from one to two metres is simply not practical. Health is of great importance and no one wants to risk a second round of the coronavirus pandemic. Drivers have to be properly protected but that is not rocket science. Passengers might have to get used to wearing face masks at least until a reliable vaccine has become widely available and the virus has been conquered.
The coach industry has been hardest hit by the pandemic but it has to demonstrate to politicians that it is a major contributor to national economies. Coaches provide a network of express services that are attractive to people where price is more important than journey time, or where there are not direct rail services. They offer a guaranteed seat and a secure place for luggage.
Coaches are vital to inbound tourism. That might take a year or two to recover but inbound tourists are an important contributor to national economies. They spend on hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenirs and so on. Coaches carry all kinds of sports teams and their supporters. Coaches take passengers on extended tours across national borders and in many countries they also carry children to and from school. They are also used on private hires, particularly to theatres, concerts and historic towns.
The pandemic entered countries at different times and with different results but lock-down periods have generally been of similar duration across Europe so we can look at countries and predict when we will start to see some form of normality. If we can take measures to minimise the risk of a second round of the virus, recovery could start as soon as August/September. There will be a gradual ramp-up from then onwards as more and more businesses and activities come on stream and need coaches.
In Europe and North America, coaches are receiving little or no support from their Governments to bridge the gap until normal business returns. Some countries have contributed to the wages of drivers who have been laid off but that is not enough. There is a dark cloud for fleets which have a high level of finance on their coaches. Banks and finance houses must take a sensible approach and agree to a reasonable extension of the loan period. If they repossess vehicles they will find few, if any, purchasers in the present climate!
This will be a difficult time for manufacturers but orders for city and suburban buses, and for interurban vehicles will recover quite rapidly. They will have to lobby politicians about achieving clean air limits. Recovery in coach manufacture will take longer but demand will resume. Another challenge will be to get all the supply industry up and running at the same new speed.
Coronavirus has been the largest disruption that we have seen in our lives but it is also going to change many of the ways that we think and work. It is going to be an opportunity for the whole industry to get back on its feet and to be a strong force in helping to meet strict air quality limits in urban centres. The whole industry has to demonstrate to politicians its ability to minimise emissions per passenger per kilometre.