The boss of Go-Ahead, one of Britain’s biggest bus and train operators, has accused the government of maintaining “absurd” and contradictory coronavirus policies over public transport and pubs.
David Brown, Go-Ahead’s chief executive, urged ministers to change an approach that has encouraged people to go to pubs and restaurants while staying cautious about using public transport.
Brown said that testing of commuter trains and reports from official rail safety bodies showed public transport was safe.
Brown said: “It’s absurd to say you can’t allow people to manage themselves and choose how to socially distance on trains and buses, when you tell them it is OK to go down the pub.”
He added: “We’re here and ready to carry people, and if the government is allowing people to go down to the pub, why would you go by car, when you could go by public transport? It’s really slightly absurd to be saying we should all drive to the pub; that brings a load of other health issues to mind.”
Rail operators have been privately frustrated at the government’s reticence to declare train travel safe, after the public took to heart calls to avoid transport at the start of the lockdown. The industry has lobbied unsuccessfully for similar promotions to the “eat out to help out” scheme, which gave taxpayer subsidy to diners to boost the hospitality sectors.
A Rail Safety and Standards Board study found there was less than a 0.01% risk of infection from an hour-long journey in a train carriage, even without passengers wearing face coverings, Brown said. “And we’ve done regular swab tests on SouthEastern trains, on touch points at stations, looking for the virus, and we’ve had no evidence of it.”
Rail travel dropped to as little as 4% of pre-Covid levels during lockdown and the London commuter market Go-Ahead serves – as the owner of SouthEastern and Govia Thameslink Railway – has been particularly affected by moves to home working.
The government this week extended emergency contracts for Go-Ahead’s train operations until autumn 2021, capping its profits at 1.5% of the operating costs. Brown said: “We are not going to get back for some considerable time to the [pre-Covid] numbers – it’s not going to happen.” However, he said that meant people who did travel would “feel considerably safer” without the crowded trains of old.
Brown, who has taken a 20% pay cut during the crisis and waived bonuses, cutting his total pay to £558,000 in 2019-20 from nearly £1.3m the previous year, said the firm was resilient, with 90% of the business now operating under contracts that did not rely on passenger revenues to be profitable.
The only part of the transport group’s business that was currently at risk due to falling passenger numbers was the regional bus market, Brown said, which is propped up by a government bailout that covers revenue loss.
He said the bus industry had to recognise there was a huge change in travel demand. However, he said experiments in demand-responsive travel pioneered by Go-Ahead had not been a success, with the PickMeUp service in Oxford axed this year – a decision taken pre-Covid.
Brown said the prospects for such bus services – touted by some as the future of public transport outside cities – were not encouraging: “In the end you need a substantial amount of support. You will not make rural demand-responsive travel work on a commercial basis.”