Cast adrift – does the minister understand the problems?

Our coverage of the Transport Select Committee evidence session raises some serious questions about the intention or the competence of government to aid our sector.

The evidence was presented very well, with all three operators – Mick Pearson, Candice Mason and Nigel Skill – setting out their case, the Chairman, Huw Merriman MP, and his predecessor Lillian Greenwood, both acquitted themselves well in their job, and Graham Vidler of the CPT was on great form. I should also make special mention of the other MPs who cross-examined the Transport Minister, in particular Greg Smith, who has been dogged in pursuing our case.

But how far did the meeting take us? No further, I think. Once again, Baroness Vere gave the impression she had not been listening to the evidence at all and only got on her laptop two minutes before her appearance, because her answers not only failed to offer hope, but failed to understand the issues. I hope the CPT’s best guess is wrong and that 40% of coach operators’ businesses are not in jeopardy, but the cause of failure for some businesses will be two of the government’s own policies, both of which make little sense.

I’m referring to the drive for Euro VI vehicles in our cities and the PSVAR regulation, applied to home-to-school services where parents or pupils pay.

There was never a need for Euro V vehicles to be driven out of cities when those vehicles are so far from the end of their working lives. They offered a cost-effective way for cities to achieve modal shift, from cars to coaches, and that would have driven down emissions without additional restrictions.

But, as we expected, local authorities ran scared of the car driver vote and penalised the vehicles whose passengers are polluting the least, regardless of Euro VI. Had the Clean Air Zones phased Euro VI in over five years, with increasing charges for Euro V, operators would have had time to adapt without filling their books with debt. And as Graham Vidler said, with a 15% upturn in loadings, coaches could take 47 million car journeys off the road.

Baroness Vere seems to think that this pace of change was quite normal. There are fields and yards full of Euro V vehicles, at depressed prices, waiting for new owners, which prove her wrong. The sheer scale of the investment was unprecedented, the book depreciation on coaches in fleets was stark, and the investment was made with tragic timing.

‘Then there’s PSVAR. Baroness Vere said at the session that the industry had 20 years to prepare for it. This is not true. It was only in the last two years that it became apparent that it would be applied to school services’

Then there’s PSVAR. Baroness Vere said at the session that the industry had 20 years to prepare for it. This is not true. It was only in the last two years that it became apparent that it would be applied to school services, and not for any practical reason. Just because the journeys are scheduled and have paying passengers.

I must say here and now that coach operators back the idea of inclusivity fully, and would support any measure to improve the lot of wheelchair users. However, we have noted before that schools usually contract separately for pupils who need wheelchairs. Maybe that should change, and the contracts themselves become inclusive; combined, the contracts may be enough to pay for the accessible coaches needed. But then, many if not most rural stops are unsuitable for using a wheelchair lift.

No parent of a child who uses a wheelchair is going to tolerate that child being hoisted five feet in the air on a platform on a rainy winter’s day, nor should able-bodied pupils have to sit there getting wet, while a stigmatised child boards the coach. This indignity is upwards of £15,000 to install, and will rarely be used.

Yet Baroness Vere and her department continue this farce.

As Nigel Skill pointed out, companies like his which did the governments bidding and took all of this on to their balance sheet are now on a cliff edge, while operators who did not, have a better chance of surviving the summer.

The lack of understanding of coach operators’ place in their communities was even more depressing. It seemed that the message that vulnerable people – the elderly, children, the disabled – trust and depend on their local coach operator not just for travel but to relieve loneliness seemed lost on the minister.

She doesn’t equate coach operators with the local pub or post office, but perhaps with on-line banking services which can be switched at an instant. She believes that operators 50 miles away will swoop in to fill the void left by defunct coach operators. That may be true, but they won’t know the geography, the people and their needs. Coach travel isn’t just vehicles, it’s people who have engaged over generations to trust each other. Literally from the first day of school to the graveside

It’s depressing. But what I do know is that the bus and coach industry does understand the value of localism, and that this is a resilient industry. I hope that our family-run businesses survive for the sake of their communities. Maybe some will re-emerge under new ownership but with the same talent at the helm because, even if it is lost on government ministers, the value of coach businesses to their communities is not lost on the wider industry.

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