Stagecoach boss Mike Watson tells of ‘heartbreaking’ times during pandemic

Stagecoach SW managing director Mike Watson

Stagecoach SW managing director Mike Watson - Credit: Archant

Stagecoach boss Mike tells of 'heartbreaking' times during pandemic

It was great to return to my old role and once again meet the great team we have down here. Since moving to Dawlish in 2013 from Manchester, my family and I have fallen in love with the South West and settled so the chance to once again manage my local bus company was a great opportunity.

When Covid19 came along, I went through a phase of denial and I remember discussing with my team that I felt 'it would all be over by the summer'. Little did I know that this might turn out to be the biggest impact on the economy and society since World War II.

As the government messages became stricter and lockdown started to become a reality, I watched as the economy seemed to shut down in front of our eyes and our customers became fewer and fewer. Like many businesses, we were faced with so much uncertainty around how long the pandemic would go on for and the first thought was to reassure passengers that we were still there and still running and make sure we were keeping passengers and staff safe. For a while, we kept on significant service levels and proudly did this to ensure key workers were able to still carry on travelling to work.

Despite having concerns of their own about being out in a pandemic, our staff kept the services going and I have never been so proud of a team. We blocked off screens on the buses, issued personal supplies of hand sanitiser and provided gloves and masks for those who wanted to wear them. We also launched a completely enhanced cleaning regime on our buses. We blocked off every other seat to encourage social distancing. But the situation was becoming increasingly bizarre and unusual. At one point, it seemed like our buses were the only vehicles on the road and they were largely empty. It was heart-breaking quite frankly.

With discussions having evolved between government and our industry, it became clear that the government wanted to support a level of bus service that would enable key workers to get to work and so we reverted to operating 40 per cent of our usual level of service. We were carrying around 10 per cent of our usual numbers of customers and so buses were still quite empty. Half the staff needed to be furloughed. It really was strange and you wondered how we would ever get out of this.

As other economies in Europe started to open up gradually, you sensed that we would be several weeks behind them and we found that more key workers were going into work. We enhanced our social distancing so that only 20 per cent of the bus could be used but this would put us under pressure as parts of the economy opened back up and passenger numbers started to increase.

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Face coverings became mandatory for passengers and this brought with it a whole new challenge. With some passengers being exempt, we had to handle the situation with sensitivity. Although it is anecdotal and some others have a different view, compliance has built up over recent weeks to over 95 per cent now as we proactively get the message out over destination blinds, on tickets and over social media. Wearing face coverings has helped with reassurance to passengers and we have been able to relax social distancing as a result, and in line with latest government guidance. We are now at 50 per cent capacity levels.

So, we're now pleased to be running around 80 per cent to 90 per cent of our pre COVID-19 normal levels. As the hospitality industry opens up, and brings more leisure travel and with the change in government messaging that encourages using public transport, this helps to ensure that we can get across the message about how safe our bus services are.

Passenger levels are understandably still significantly lower than normal and we are potentially facing some shifts in society travel behaviours, but we are starting to see our customers return and our focus is on how we can get on recovering our service levels and supporting the wider economy. We look forward to seeing you soon!