‘We have been forgotten, now we are coming’ – 500 coaches from all over the UK descend on London.
A convoy of 500 coaches, from almost as many operators, travelled from across Britain, including northern Scotland, to London to protest about the industry’s plight as the Honk For Hope campaign steps up its action.
Many vehicles carried large vinyl messages on the front and sides to draw attention to the cause.
It comes as hundreds of family-run business are on the brink of collapse, with some owners suicidal as they face losing their homes as finance companies invoke seizure clauses.
The capital-intensive industry – which has been heavily investing to meet cities’ Euro 6 requirements – now has new coaches costing £250,000-£400,000 laying idle, but still attracting finance payments.
Exclusive interview and Podcast
In an special exclusive ITT Hub ‘Lunch With Leon’ 12-minute podcast, former TfL Surface Transport MD Leon Daniels interviews CPT President Steve Whiteway, and leading transport solicitor Ian Jones, who travelled on the convoy and gave an opening speech to operators.
Calling for sector-specific support Steve Whiteway told ITT Hub: “Coaches are the arteries of Britain, and you know what happens if you block your arteries.”
“Coaches are the arteries of Britain, and you know what happens if you block your arteries.”Steve Whiteway, CPT President
“We would like the government to overcome the 18-month winter for coaches, with £65m a month for around six months to get the industry through the winter.
“What’s the cost to the government if those 42,000 people are put on the dole?
“It’s a very capital-intensive industry, so it needs help with finance agreements – getting longer term payment holidays – as there are now operators whose houses are on the line, and worse
“Some are considering suicide. It is a big issue for people who’ve spent their whole life building up a business; most coach operators are family-run firms.”
Speaking from one of the coaches in the convoy Ian Jones was frank.
One of the Directors of the UK’s leading transport law firm Backhouse Jones – which since lockdown has been providing free weekly webinars to update operators and answer questions, along with heavily-discounted practical support – Ian Jones has personally taken many telephone calls from worried operators.
He tells Leon Daniels: “People have been calling me who are suicidal – and I’m not being dramatic. These are third-generation companies who have their family name on the side of the coach.
“Coaches contribute £6bn to UK economy. Today has brought to the attention of Parliament how important the coach industry is.
“Operators make their money in the summer, with enough in reserve to see them through the winter.
“They are now facing an 18-month winter, which started in September 2019, and will not finish until March 2021.
“We need three things – and it’s not going to cost the government that much money:
1. Extension of the furlough scheme for the coaching sector until March 2021.
2. Extension of the ‘payment holiday’ by finance companies until spring 2021
3. Personal guarantee protection, preventing enforcement of finance company debts against a person’s house until March 2021.”
In the exclusive podcast, Ian Jones sets out in more detail how the measures should be enacted and operate.
Listen to the podcast below, and find more episodes and subscribe to Lunch with Leon here.
Part of much wider campaign
The UK action is an extension of the operator-led Honk For Hope campaign that originated in Austria in April, and is now Europe-wide, as coach operators across the continent also face an ‘18-month winter’ without government support, unlike railways, buses and some airlines.
It follows a separate ‘Back Britain’s Coaches’ initiative, launched in April by UK operators under the auspices of the CPT.
The UK event was organised by Jenna Rush, MD of Seaton Burn-based North East Coach Travel, working with Matthew Forsyth, GM of Northumberland operator M J Forsyth Travel, Sam Archer of Fleetwood-based Archway Travel and Dhillon of London GM Alan Chown.
The campaign was created by Alexander Ehrlich, of City Tours Europe, which has operations based in Germany, Italy, Poland and Austria.
He flew into Gatwick for the convoy and travelled to London with Matthew Forsyth of Northumberland-based MJ Forsyth Travel, recording an onboard video which has since been shared by the campaign.
Alexander Ehrlich says: “After months of waiting for the government to act, while seeing the terrible situation the COVID-19 pandemic brought the coach industry into, and then not helping out, our patience has ended.
“If we don’t get financial help, companies are going to die like flies.
“There is no time left to negotiate, and hesitate. We need something to happen, quickly.”
A coach is for life, not just an election
The irony of coaches being used to display political messages and used as ‘battle buses’ during election and political campaigns was not been lost on the industry, as it headed for Parliament Square.
Said Alexander Ehrlich: “A coach is a tool for life, not just an election tour bus.”
The 500 Honk For Hope coaches met at Beaconsfield, Cobham, Reading and South Mimms motorway service areas before heading into central London via the M4, joining a further group at Heston services on the way.
In a route agreed with the police, the convoy travelled non-stop through Parliament Square – in contrast to the road blocking tactics used by taxi drivers’ and climate change protests – as organisers were insistent that coaches would follow the rules and get the public on their side.
However, due to traffic light phasing only allowing two coaches past per sequence in Parliament Square, the convoy was very slow moving.
Third and biggest gathering in England
It was the third, and so far largest, gathering of coaches this month. Lightwater Valley theme park, North Yorkshire, which relies heavily on coach trips, hosted 150 vehicles in the first protest on 1 July.
It was followed by 250 coaches driving to Blackpool – where the town sees coaching as a vital part of its economy – on 14 July.
Lightwater Valley and Blackpool both welcomed the convoys, as they understand coaching’s vital role in their business and local economy
The protests were followed by an online meeting with trade association CPT attended by almost 300 operators, where they were told that government Ministers had rejected the industry’s campaign for financial support.
Operators were told by the government that no extra help, beyond schemes that capture the wider economy, are possible.
Coach firms are also not eligible for the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund, as the government had previously decided to specifically exclude coaches. Early in the pandemic the government said coaches were ‘not classed as being in the leisure industry’.
But at the same time the government also ruled that coaches don’t qualify as public transport – under which trams, buses and railways are receiving special grants.
The railways are receiving £25m a day under Emergency Measures Agreements (EMA).
As a result, the organisers chose London for the venue on Monday 20 July’s convoy.
Anger and frustration
The convoy was covered by Sky News, but ignored by the BBC and ITV national news, despite being the most London-centric story of the day, giving rise to conspiracy theories.
Despite this, reporting by news agency Reuters meant the campaign made the news in other parts of the world, including Australia, where coaches have also been mothballed since March.
The convoy was covered by UK national newspapers including the Mirror, Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, plus local and regional newspapers
A number of BBC regional TV news reports covered the protest and interviewed operators.
The campaign has been making extensive use of social media and many videos of the convoy’s progress were shared.
“Today was a time to show the fears for the end of the coach industry and the 42,000 directly employed losing their business, job, home and dignity.Geraldine McIntyre, MD, Golden Boy Coaches
Typical of the frustration and anger felt by operators is expressed by Geraldine McIntyre, MD of Hertfordshire-based Golden Boy Coaches: “Today was a time to show the fears for the end of the coach industry and the 42,000 directly employed losing their business, job, home and dignity.
“But our media decide it’s more important to concentrate on a couple of Beefeaters who may be losing their job as there are no tourists!”
Government response: ‘Please keep the noise down’
The protest did attract the attention of government – which responded by asking convoy organiser Jenna Rush, with the help of law enforcement, to keep the noise down – proving the protest was being noticed.
Said Mr Ehrlich: “Boris Johnson just crossed the way of our convoy, three coaches ahead of the one I am riding on. He must have seen and heard us: We gave him some extra honking.”
A number of MPs tweeted their support and conservative Greg Smith, MP for Buckingham, said: “Westminster has been particularly noisy today with the #honkforhope procession of coaches making the case for a sector-specific support package to keep them going through the COVID pandemic.
“I have been working with local coach firms for some weeks now, including Countrywide Coaches, and Masons Minibus and Coach Hire.
“It was great to see both firms send coaches to London today and have the opportunity to chat to Candice Mason about the crisis facing the coach sector.
“With sad news coming in of some coach companies going bust, I will continue to work to help coach companies get the support they need to secure a prosperous future.”
Drivers face uncertain future
Dale Robinson, a driver at Johnsons Coaches in Lincolnshire, says he has not worked since 18 March after 15 years of coach driving.
He says: “When COVID kicked off, the government wanted coaches to go to airports and RAF bases to collect people.
“Then, if you looked on Facebook, comments said ‘those drivers don’t look very happy’.
“But you wouldn’t be if you’ve been told you’ve got a job to bring people back who might have COVID-19 that could kill you. It’s not a nice thought having them behind you a confined box, so to speak.
He adds: “Theatres and arts have been given grants but, if it wasn’t for coaches, a lot of these places would end up empty. We’re just asking for a bit of help really.
“My boss has been able to get finance holiday payments on some of the coaches but it’s still only three or six months maximum.”
Pop star support
Mike Nolan, a singer with Bucks Fizz, that won the Eurovision song contest in 1981 for Britain, endorses the campaign for recognition and support from the Government.
He says: “Boris Johnson says he has ‘given millions to the bus industry so what is all the fuss about?’
“But that completely misses the point because the bus industry is completely different from the coach industry in every respect.
“The coach industry has done more than its bit to keep us and our children safe every single day. Please do your bit to support them now and insist the government do the right thing too.”Mike Nolan, Bucks Fizz singer
“Many big and small coach companies have invested heavily in their fleet to provide safe modern vehicles, brilliantly trained staff and they will make sure they are legally compliant.
“The coach industry has done more than its bit to keep us and our children safe every single day, on the school run, at home and abroad.
“Please do your bit to support them now and insist the government do the right thing too.
Honk for Hope – how the campaign has grown
Like many UK coach operators, the effect of COVID-19 was felt by operators across Europe a long time before lockdown.
The first cancellations by group travel from Asia came at the end of December, well before the shutdown in March.
Since then, the wave of cancellations took on unprecedented proportions. Even bookings well in the future are being cancelled.
This prompted Alexander Ehrlich, director of the City Tours group of companies (offices in Austria, Germany, Italy and Poland) to create Honk For Hope on 29 April.
The campaign initially sent a request to the Austrian government “Save tourist coaches in Europe,” and this spread to the first pan-Europe protest convoy taking place simultaneously in 35 cities in continental Europe, including Vienna, Dresden and Bratislava.
He says: “Together we are strong and combine our strengths alone with the aim of emphasising the economic hardship of coach companies.
“The coach is a symbol of travelling. Travelling is freedom. Freedom and travelling is an important part of our British and European identity. Also, the coach is the motor of tourism, and an important factor in the economy.”
“The coach is a symbol of travelling. Travelling is freedom. Freedom and travelling is an important part of our British and European identity.”Alexander Ehrlich, Director, City Tours
He is at pains to point out that the campaign has nothing to do with the EU – and that Britain’s exit of the EU does not affect the crisis – as it is a geographical, not political pandemic.
The fundamental messages the campaign wants to convey to the public and governments of Europe are:
1. Do you want citizens of your country to be able to travel again after coronavirus? If so then please save coaches in your country.
2. Do you want people from other countries to return to your country after the coronavirus to spend money in hotels, restaurants and museums? Then please save coaches across Europe.
3. The coach is a symbol of travel. Travelling is freedom. The freedom to travel is the engine of the European Union. The tourist coach is the torch of hope on the way back to our beloved Europe.
While the specific requests vary from country-to-country, the campaign calls for sector-specific grants, state-backed loans, access to credit, all of which are necessary to provide the liquidity to survive.
He tells governments: “You asked us for solidarity to protect the public by closing our businesses, and we obeyed. Now we need solidarity.”
“The loans do not solve the problem, since even after the coronavirus, a coach cannot ‘work overtime’ to recover losses. We need a non-refundable compensation.