Stagecoach hopes for easing of bus restrictions amid plunging passenger numbers

The boss of UK bus group Stagecoach has said he hopes lockdown restrictions on passenger numbers will be lifted “sooner rather than later” as services remain less than half full.

Martin Griffiths said social distancing capacity restraints need to be eased as soon as possible and government messaging on public transport should encourage Britons to get back on buses.

The chief executive told the PA news agency that bus passenger numbers had recovered a little since the height of the lockdown, when they were 90% lower than a year earlier, but said they are still 60% down year on year due to social distancing measures.

He warned that he expects a “lasting effect” from the coronavirus pandemic on demand for public transport as it has accelerated the trend for long-term home-working.

He said the challenge is “to get people out of cars and on to buses” after being told to avoid public transport amid the lockdown.

Speaking to PA, he said: “At the right time, it’s going to be important that we get people back on public transport and have the right messaging and information campaign, and I hope that happens sooner rather than later.”

Stagecoach confirmed it is cutting costs to weather the storm and furloughed up to 55% of its drivers and engineers at the height of the lockdown.

While many have been returning to work as services have increased, around 20% remain on furlough and the company refused to rule out job losses.

But it said it has “taken all of the right decisions to put us in the best place possible to meet the immediate challenges”.

Mr Griffiths added that he is hopeful the demand for public transport will recover faster than the battered airline sector, following recent warnings from the aviation sector that demand may not bounce back until 2024.

He said: “We’re pretty fundamental to people’s day-to-day lives.

“The economy will need to get moving again and people will have to travel.”

But he admitted “it will be some time” before demand for public transport services returns to pre-Covid levels.

His comments came as Stagecoach reported statutory pre-tax profits slumping to £40.6 million in the year to May 2 from £101.2 million the previous year as results took a hit from Covid-19 as well as the ending of its rail operations in the UK.

Underlying annual pre-tax profits fell 32% to £90.9 million.

But shares in the group rose as much as 16% as it said cost-cutting actions and government support would help it avoid hefty operating losses.

“In the short-term, management actions and continuing support of Government should ensure we remain EBITDA-positive (underlying earnings) and poised to benefit from any new opportunities,” the group said.