Work, not handouts

It is very gratifying to see that Parliament – or at least, some parts of it – have woken up to the extreme distress faced by the coach industry.

It does seem astonishing that virtually a full year had to pass, after campaigning which started with Honk for Hope blaring horns in major cities, before the potential loss of an entire industry together with transport for our most vulnerable people was really noticed by the government. You’d have thought that the alarm bells would have been ringing at the Department for Transport, and civil servants would have been banging on ministers’ doors raising the issue. But then, no, you wouldn’t.

Before the pandemic struck, the coach industry had already fallen victim of a succession of corrosive and pointless new rules, some – incredibly – inflicted by the desire to clean up city air, and others such as PSVAR wrought by the very government department which is supposed to have the expertise to manage transport wisely.

I use the word ‘incredibly’ with regard to low-emission zones because in our biggest and most important city, coaches had long been identified to be virtually blameless in causing the pollution which we are, quite rightly, doing something about. A figure of 3% of London emissions, later revised to 6%, were known to be coming from coaches, by a blunt measure which, crassly, did not measure the huge number of people coming into London aboard those vehicles.

There was never a need to force the coach industry to upgrade to Euro VI at a pace out of kilter with the vehicle replacement cycle, since even Euro V coaches were massively more efficient in emissions terms than the cars causing the vast majority of the pollution, and much more efficient of city road space to boot.

But the coach industry has long become used to being the inadvertent whipping boy of government policy. It’s lumped in with the bus industry when it suits the legislators, yet carries none of the political weight which attaches to bus. As such, it’s casually ignored, or worse. The coach and its passengers are the victim of jokes and jibes at every level including snobbish culture, with no recognition offered of coach travel’s importance to the social, mental and physical well-being of the elderly, children and the poor, much less the industry’s environmental credentials. Coach travel is viewed by some councils as an embarrassment and an irritation, with absolutely no recognition of its importance to tourism, especially inbound tourism for which it is absolutely essential.

So, long before human activity was curbed by the coronavirus pandemic, the coach industry was already needlessly financially stressed by a succession of legislative dead ducks. I sat through a, frankly, jaw-dropping presentation in which school vehicle operators were being told they’d have to install real-time vehicle locators and machinery to capture ticket data for publication to the general public. As I wrote at the time, I don’t blame the individuals making the presentation, but before Bus Open Data Service went ‘live’, the DfT should have flagged up out the pointlessness of letting the public know about services they could never board or use. But they didn’t.

It was no surprise to me that the unique nature of coach services would not be recognised, because they never are. It’s telling that local authorities did not see coach as part of the leisure industry which got grants, I guess because they just mentally lumped them in with buses. Yes, operators could claim CBILS but, aside from the fact that fewer than one in four operators have been given access to the loans, they are often being used to chase debt which the government itself had already inflicted on the coach industry; operators who had borrowed heavily to meet high emissions standards, and to install wheelchair lifts which will never be used.

I was watching TV a week or so ago, as quarantine measures for airline passengers were being mooted, and pondered the fact that, at that point, 21,000 people a week were disembarking from planes in which they’d spent three hours or more sealed hermetically, rubbing shoulders with each other, literally, with no more protection than a face mask. Yet for some reason, Grant Schapps thinks it’s OK to discourage people from sitting next to each other on a coach. Indeed, discourage them from travelling on ‘public transport,’ as if planes are not also public transport.

So while £150 billion has, globally, been pumped into airlines, and millions have been doled out to bus companies, coach operators holding out the begging bowl have been turned away. Of course, government ministers are never cross-questioned when they say that airlines are ‘essential’ for business. I have yet to hear an explanation of why, in any practical sense, businesses cannot function without sending people backwards and forwards across the planet by plane. What are they taking with them? Ideas? Conversation? Anything at all that cannot be done by phone, email or countless other communication methods? We are even told that grounding aircraft would damage the supply of goods, as if it’s ever been claimed that Chilean asparagus is a vector for transmitting viruses.

Emma Hardy and others MPs deserve great credit for pressing the government to recognise the appalling damage the pandemic has inflicted on the coach industry, and I sincerely hope that those efforts result in targeted grants, not loans, to ease operators through the crisis; for the sake of the communities they support, as the most important reason of all.

But when lockdown ends, maybe the coach industry should stop asking for money. Ask for something else; ask that PSVAR and BODS for school runs is dropped for good. Ask if you can go back to work. Ask for the DfT to publicly acknowledge that travelling by coach is no more dangerous than travelling by plane, and ask the government to encourage everyone to take a coach trip to reduce traffic, reduce pollution, and support the revival of tourism. That way, the coach industry can avoid becoming a public money junky, and thus never be in the pocket of a government which neither understands it nor seems to care about it.

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