Busworld hosts Webinar to debate COVID-19 issues

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Busworld, the trade association that represents Belgian Bus & Coach operators and organisers of the Busworld Brussels exhibition, hosted a webinar, with the main topic asking the question: ”How can Governments contribute to the survival of bus and coach operators during and after the COVID-19 crisis?”

Three sub topics were discussed within the main agenda: Economic and financial measures to keep bus & coach operators in business; Measures for keeping bus systems operational; Measures for keeping bus drivers and our staff safe, presented by three guest speakers from India, United States and Europe who also outlined on how the Coronavirus has affected the industry in their regions and what their Governments were doing to help. The webinar was especially interesting for owners, planners and management staff of public transport companies, coach companies and national and international federations.

Fleet Bus & Coach tuned in to get a perspective from other parts of the world to see if the situation in Ireland relating to Irish Operators is much different than that of the rest of the world.

India: Prasanna Patwardhan, owner of the biggest bus and coach operator in India (Purple) and President of BOCI, (Bus & Car Operators Confederation of India),  a national that represents 1.5 billion buses and coaches on the road in that country.

BOCI is a non-governmental, non-profit, passenger transport industry led and managed organization which plays a proactive role in India’s development process. It represents eight important passenger transport segments : Stage Carriage, Intercity, Tourist, School, Company, Tourist Taxis, Maxi Cabs and PPPs (Private Public Partnerships). Shri Prasanna Patwardhan is also the current Chairman & Managing Director of the Prasanna Group, founded by his father. The group has three companies: Prasanna Purple Mobility Solutions Pct. Ltd (Passenger Transport), Prasanna Transport Network Pvt. Ltd (Goods Transport) and Smilestone Motels Pvt. Ltd. Prasanna Patwardhan is a science graduate with professional management education. He has been instrumental in introducing new activities such as passenger, goods transportation, domestic/international tours and travels and highway restaurants/motels.

Europe: Anna Grönlund, Deputy Managing Director Swedish Bus & Coach Federation and Vice-President Passenger Transport IRU also spoke. She explained that the Swedish Bus & Coach Association, is part of The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) and is Sweden’s largest and most influential business grouping, representing 49 member organizations.

Previously, Anna has worked as a public transport official at the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, SALAR. She started her career as a journalist at several newspapers and as a public relations and communication manager within business sector, specialising in public transport, infrastructure and construction. The Swedish Bus & Coach Federation is the trade organization representing the professional bus and coach industry in Sweden. BR has 400 members, representing 90 % of the total bus and coach industry in Sweden. These companies collectively own 11,000 buses and coaches.

United States: Peter Pantuso, President & CEO of the American Bus Association (ABA). In addition, Peter also serves as President of the National Bus Traffic Association and of the ABA Foundation. He has nearly 40 years of experience in association work, at all levels. Prior to joining ABA, Peter directed the Government and regulatory affairs efforts at the Rubber Manufacturers Association and the National Confectioners Association and was a regional state lobbyist for the Glass Packaging Institute, all based in Washington.

Peter began his career working in the Pennsylvania State Senate, then at Brockway Glass in Pennsylvania. Under Peter’s leadership, the ABA has grown to become North America’s leading and largest coach, tour and travel association, representing 3,800 members and 65 percent of all coaches on the roads. A native of Bradford, PA., he holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master’s degree from George Washington University’s School of Business and Government.

Here are the views from the aforementioned countries with some figures on the size of their markets and what their respective governments should be doing to help bus and coach operators get back in business when the threat of the Coronavirus declines. Let’s see how much of it is familiar to Irish operators.

India

With a population of over 1.5 billion and a fleet of circa 1.5 million buses, operating coaches in India was a challenge even before the virus arrived. Practically all of the buses operating there are engaged in public service, over 90% in fact. All of this activity has stopped completely, including tram services. Tourism activity has also stopped. There has been no Government support of any kind. An added problem is that as a creditor, the Indian Government takes extended credit from bus operators, which is now a big problem. Six million people are employed directly by operators and they are now all unemployed. Payment to these staff is down to the operator’s ability to carry the cost, but effectively these people are unemployed. At the moment India is in a total lockdown and this will likely stay in place until early June. Indian operators are very clear about what they need to kick start their industry.

  • Government to pay salaries for a defined period
  • No Road tolls – tolls are very expensive in India
  • Reduced taxes on fuel – fuel taxes are expensive also
  • Interest free loans to all operators
  • On time payment from the Government

Europe

Although representing operators from Sweden, Anna Grönlund, began her presentation with some figures on the European market (European Union, including UK, Switzerland & Norway) pointing out that from a regulatory point of view there are big variations from market-to-market. 841 million people live in this region, 11% of the world population. In Sweden, tour coach operation has ceased completely, about 5% of inter city services are still working and 50% of city / town services continue to operate. Unusually in Sweden the primary schools are still open, as are some crèches.

Looking around Europe, it would seem that the Danish Government has been of most assistance to bus operators and small business in general. Financial aid is being paid directly to companies who have had a drop off in turnover of 40%, with full pay for drivers on short time lay off. All State contracts being honoured up to 70%. Across Europe, Anna Gronland stated that we need to look at two sets of challenges. “Firstly, we must hope we can avoid a recession and if we do, what will the industry look like? Will people feel safe traveling by bus in future? Will all the gains made in getting people out of their cars be lost? Will tourist prefer to rent cars, walk around cities instead? Nnone of this is clear.”

“But to kick start the industry we will need the following assistance:

  • Direct support. Operators will have to get direct financial support from their Governments
  • Indirect support, by way of interest free loans, moratorium on finance agreements and loans
  • Temporary change in legislation. This will vary from country-to-country. Driver training, passenger rights. Exceptional circumstances need exceptional solutions.

United States

In the United States, the Bus & Coach business is worth a staggering $15 billion, combine this activity with tourist activities and it grows to $239 billion. Figures like this present an idea of how important the industry is in the bigger economy. In the States there are 3,000 companies over all sectors with 36,000 buses and 100,000 direct employees. However this figure increases tenfold when associated employees are included.

A statistic that Irish tourism should be aware of is that it is estimated that a coach tour of 40 people is worth $15,000 to a local community for an overnight stay and between $3,000 to $7,000 for a day trip. Although these figures are calculated in America, I am sure rural TD’s across Ireland would see the significance of them. As of now the industry is closed with limited town services and some inter city services. Across the Atlantic, the UMA (United Motorcoach Association) and the ABA (American Bus Association) have pooled their lobby strength and resources to go to Government. They estimate that collectively their members will lose $8 billion in the next five months. Their request to Government is simple. As well as the assistance employees are getting, they want $10 billion in grants, a further $5 billion in interest free loans. Annoyance in the industry has is on the rise because the Government seem to be giving more support to the railways and airlines.

Conclusion & Verdict

All three speakers relayed similar stories – compounds full of idle buses, uncertainty for the future and a fear that people may be reluctant to travel by bus in the short term. Similar too are the demands made of their Governments. Will they listen?

In Ireland we have the same problems. For everybody the biggest challenge will be restarting their business, having enough money to do it. Here, the assistance of the State is vital. If this were a conventional War, we would have an infrastructure to rebuild, thankfully that is not the case. Rebuilding and restarting the economy is the real test, there is no doubt there is still a lot of uncertainty about how this will pan out and how soon we will see any normal consistent trading. When the medics have the virus defeated, bus and coach operators will be the new front line. One comment singled out was made by Anna Grönlund when she suggested there was a need to relax some legislation, a big statement for someone involved in the inner workings of the IRU. Maybe this is a front operator associations should focus on.

Sean Murtagh