Running on empty: bus firms must do more to bring passengers back

Rows of empty seats on the main route Inverness to Aberdeen service.
by Colin Campbell

THE Highlands’ largest coach operator says its fleet is “clean, safe and ready to go” thanks to an intensive deep clean and new health and safety regime.

D&E Coaches have implemented a “far-reaching package of new measures to ensure the safety of passengers and staff alike”.

Gayle McEwan, transport director, said: “We have invested in a machine which covers each coach in an anti-viral mist, reaching in to every nook and cranny. The fleet will now be sprayed with anti-viral mist daily. In addition, we now introduce a deep clean after every journey. We’ve also invested in handheld infra-red units which take the temperatures of passengers and drivers to ensure we don’t travel with anyone who has the virus.”

If that isn’t considered thorough enough to encourage people back on public transport then I don’t know what would be.

And people do need to be encouraged back on public transport – for their own convenience and to ensure they don’t add to our chronic traffic problems by deciding to invest in new or second-hand cars.

I made my first out of town journey for months on Saturday, to Elgin, to meet up with relatives from Perth on their first weekend away-break to the Moray coast.

I travelled there and back by coach, and tried to book online in advance but was unable to do so. With passenger numbers being reduced and restricted seats could have been in short supply.

There was, however, absolutely no problem with that. The coach was completely empty at Farraline Park and in the journeys to Elgin and back the combined number of passengers added up to just six.

That particular service, en route for Aberdeen, would normally be fairly busy. Not any longer.

And there was no anti-viral mist around, and no infra-red units, and far from having my temperature taken the driver didn’t give me a second glance.

I’d expected to see some defined seating arrangement – even just with tape or stickers -to ensure passengers were spaced apart. There was nothing. There weren’t any “covid-19” alert warnings in evidence. Frozen in time as the world has changed so dramatically, it was an “old normal” bus trip exactly as it would have been this time last year, except with virtually no passengers.

Not that it was anything to dwell on at the time. I just enjoyed sitting back surrounded by empty seats as I left Inverness for the first time in months and appreciated the fact that, even on my relatively short journey, there’s still a big, wide world out there.

Should other bus companies, however, be doing what D&E Coaches are doing and making publicised efforts to inform people that they’re putting greatly increased emphasis on safety? Many people will need some visible reassurance that these measures are being implemented and that every effort is being made to make journeys risk-free.

Buses have been running all across Inverness for the past four months with almost no-one on them. Many I’ve seen have been completely empty.

Maybe passenger numbers will pick up gradually but it’s obvious many people are still shunning bus and coach travel

It was fine to have a main route coach almost all to myself on Saturday but it can’t go on. Bus companies can’t go on operating indefinitely with hardly any passengers at a publicly-funded loss.

From what I saw on my journey, it’s as if the virus threat didn’t exist. D&E Coaches have been publicly proactive in encouraging people to get moving again in risk-free surroundings. Other bus firms running on empty should make more of an effort to follow their lead.

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