Government policy change halts Go-Ahead’s plans ‘to get back to normal’

The boss of one of Britain’s biggest bus and rail operators has said the business abandoned plans to return to more normal services after Government advice changed earlier this week.

David Brown, Go-Ahead Group’s chief executive, said the company was hoping to increase capacity on its buses until the announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“We were starting to believe over the last week that things were going to get back to normal, and one of the things that we were saying to the Government was that in order to stop us receiving funding, for instance on buses, we need to increase capacity on buses,” he told the PA news agency.

Mr Brown suggested the company could have restricted certain seats, but opened most forward-facing seats, as has been done in parts of Europe.

However, with the new restrictions, it is sticking with current capacity restraints.

After weeks of saying that employees who could return to work should, the Prime Minister on Tuesday asked them to again work from home if possible.

Go-Ahead is yet to see any knock-on effects on travel from Tuesday’s announcement, Mr Brown said, as full data had not yet come in.

“All of these trends take time to understand, but there is a real dichotomy about people needing to work,” he said.

Mr Brown also highlighted increased leisure travel, juxtaposed with decreased work travel, and asked why if people are allowed to be in pubs, they cannot travel on a train.

He pointed to a study from the Rail Safety and Standards Board which found that the Covid-19 infection risk for an hour-long journey on a train with no social distancing or face coverings was just 0.01%.

Go-Ahead’s regional buses are now carrying between 50% and 60% of their pre-Covid passenger numbers, the company revealed on Thursday, showing a big recovery from earlier in the year.

But it is also seeing regional variations, Mr Brown said.

“We operate buses in Oxford, where a large amount of middle class people would have gone to office-based jobs, and we’re down to 45%, but in places like Plymouth where there’s more blue collar jobs, and Covid hasn’t been such a big issue, we’re getting up to 70%,” he said.

Meanwhile, rail services have recovered slower and are carrying 30% to 40% of their usual passenger numbers, but even this hides regional variations, the chief executive added.

“If you dig deeper on that, there’s a huge difference on rail between Tunbridge Wells and Dartford. Dartford people are still going on the train, but Tunbridge Wells people aren’t,” he said.

Go-Ahead said it lost £200,000 before tax in the year ended June 27, after making a £97 million profit last year, on revenue of £3.9 billion, up 6.1%.

It is impossible to provide “meaningful” financial guidance, and dividends remain suspended, the company said.