The UK bus and coach sector has grappled with serious challenges in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic, in particular, sent passenger numbers into freefall; although ridership has recovered since it remains below pre-pandemic levels.

The arrival of hybrid working has caused many passengers to change how they travel, with many people spending at least part of the week working from home. Other challenges, too, are piling up; these include cutbacks to government subsidies on some bus routes, the introduction of new technologies, difficulties in recruitment and the need to ensure greater accessibility for passengers.

What we do in the sector makes a difference.  We move people and enable them to live their lives, while transport also plays a crucial part in contributing to local economies by keeping communities moving.

As 2024 is a potential General Election year, addressing these challenges, is all the more important.  With innovative, capable leadership, the bus industry should be well placed to overcome the hurdles with which it is faced. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the biggest challenges facing the sector and how they might be addressed.

Boosting Passenger Numbers

While passenger numbers have recovered, according to Transport Focus, to about 80-90% of where they were in 2019-20 – that is, before the coronavirus pandemic hit – the UK bus industry still faces challenges concerning ridership.

As we have noted, the rise of remote and hybrid working has meant that many passengers have either stopped using buses to commute, or they’re only doing so for part of the week. This has impacted revenues and compounded the sector’s financial difficulties.

As an industry, therefore, we must consider why people choose or don’t choose to travel on the bus or coach to understand the real challenges we are facing.  Ultimately, we need to keep raising awareness of our brilliant sector and what it has to offer passengers.


Financial Challenges and Route Cuts

Many bus services, particularly in rural and suburban areas, rely on public subsidy to continue running. In a wider context of cutbacks in government spending, many of these routes are under threat as subsidies are withdrawn.

Bus travel can be particularly problematic in rural communities as services are less commercially viable due to lower population numbers and the longer distances involved. Keeping these routes functioning in the face of financial uncertainty, therefore, is a major challenge for the bus sector.

Given the importance of the bus sector in connecting communities, this could have serious implications for passengers whose local services are dependent on financial support from the government. Once cuts to services are implemented, getting them reversed can be very difficult.

Strong partnerships are needed with key stakeholders to help drive innovation and investment.  Organisations like BP, for example, have successfully collaborated with M&S to revolutionise petrol stations and the environment; it’s no longer just about filling up the car.  Finding the win-win will be a key success measure, and with public spending at a 70-year high, changes are inevitable.

Environmental Sustainability

With the need to meet environmental targets becoming ever more pressing, the bus industry is under continuing pressure to play its part in helping the UK meet its environmental goals. Its investment in greener, low-emissions vehicles has already been substantial.

But with rider numbers still lower than before the pandemic, the sector faces challenges in tempting people out of their cars and onto buses and coaches. Enticing more people onto public transport is widely recognised as being central if the UK is to meet its climate goals in the years ahead. In 2024 we are hoping to see the first hydrogen coach in service with National Express.


Keeping up With New Technologies

The increasing use of new technologies, such as mobile apps, has changed passengers’ expectations. People expect to be able to use mobile apps for digital ticketing when travelling by bus, and also to have access to accurate real-time tracking information.

Keeping pace with these technological advances is a challenge on its own, but there are also increasing expectations that bus travel should be better integrated with other forms of public transport, such as trams and trains. Greater Manchester’s new Bee Network, for example, allows passengers to purchase tickets for use across both its bus and Metrolink services.


Accessibility for All

Public transport must be accessible to the entire public – in all its diversity – as best it can. But it’s only in relatively recent years that the accessibility issue has been given the kind of consideration it merits by public transport operators.

Bus companies have responded, for example, by ensuring that modern buses include more spaces for disabled passengers and those with otherwise limited mobility. However, this commitment to accessibility also has to take route planning and frequency into account, so that bus services meet the diverse needs of the public as a whole.

Blackpool Transport’s customer base is made up of 25% disabled people with accessibility needs to consider, so we need to ensure we provide an experience and service that caters to all users equally, whatever their specific needs.


Recruitment and Retention

The bus and coach sector has faced difficulties in recruiting (and retaining) sufficient numbers of drivers in recent years. This has been compounded by labour shortages – which have affected many UK industries – which have in turn forced the industry to pay more for new recruits.

According to CPT, the sector’s trade body, there were 4,315 unfilled vacancies in the bus sector as of May 2023. Despite efforts to recruit more drivers from underrepresented backgrounds, the industry still suffers from a perception that it is mainly the preserve of older white men.

Changing this perception will require visionary leadership from the top, and more diverse leadership at that. All too often, bus sector boardrooms are insufficiently diverse, but to tap into a broader pool of talent when recruiting drivers, the industry needs leaders who understand the value of diversity.


Why Bold Leadership is Crucial

The scale of the challenges the bus industry faces means that decisive and innovative leadership is required. The sector requires a clear strategic vision, a deep understanding of how bus travel is changing, a willingness to adapt and a rock-solid commitment to serving the broader public interest.

The need for more diverse leadership in the bus sector must also be emphasised. Tackling its driver shortage will require the industry to recruit from a wider range of demographics, but to reach these demographics also requires leaders who are drawn from similar backgrounds themselves and who, therefore, know what it takes.

At Intuitive, we’ve spent the last decade helping forward-thinking employers in the transport sector find diverse and talented leadership candidates. Whether you’re an employer looking to recruit new leaders or a candidate aspiring to a leadership-level career in transport, contact the Intuitive team to learn more about how we can help.

WE would love to get to know you!

Please do give us a call, drop us a message or follow us on Twitter & Linkedin!

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