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Stagecoach Highland chief says social distancing is a major problem for the firm and school transport is under the microscope

By Louise Glen

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The head of Stagecoach Highland said social distancing requirements are a major problem for the firm.

Stagecoach Highland’s managing director David Beaton also said the company was losing a six-figure sum every week since lockdown compared to its normal operating income.

He told a meeting of the Inverness Community Planning Partnership Transport group: “Public transport is up in the air.

“Seventy per cent of all pupils travel by bus to school in the Highlands. How we do that with social distancing is an unknown just now.

“Joking aside, all suggestions gratefully received.”

Social distancing will severely retstrict the number of passengers able to travel on buses at one time.
Social distancing will severely retstrict the number of passengers able to travel on buses at one time.

As lockdown eases more people are expected to return to work, with the demand for public transport growing.

However, social distancing measures will remain in place, meaning buses will have to run at a maximum of 20 per cent capacity.

That means smaller electric buses will only be able to take up to five passengers, while double-deckers – which normally seat 88 – will be able to take fewer than 20.

“We are changing vehicles, which will help. We are working with Highland Council and with other partners to come up with a plan that works for as many people as possible – but it is a huge issue,” Mr Beaton said.

He said the company was working to make sure all appropriate signage and other safety measures, including special screens, were fitted to buses but added: “There are no hard and fast plans for the future.

“Until we get written guidance, there is no way of knowing what will work for us all and any questions about transporting pupils and people are very difficult questions to answer.

“During the coronavirus restrictions we were asked by the Scottish Government to provide 30 per cent of our normal operation.

“We have provided 35 per cent to keep routes open, including night services to New Craigs and Raigmore Hospitals.

“We are working very hard behind the scenes and working up various service plans and routes, but nobody knows who is going to be comfortable with using public transport or not.”

The firm’s commercial manager, William Mainus, said: “We need flexibility on journey times when we get back up and running as everything will depend on the number of vehicles on the road. It is a huge challenge to us.”

Transport partnership chairman, Councillor Ron MacWilliam, said: “Bus operators have been hard pushed by the virus and every precaution has to be taken.

“There remains a huge number of questions about the future of public transport, and no one is immune from this problem.

“If, as is expected, 50 per cent more cars are on the road after this – so that people can self-isolate on the way to work – then we have a huge problem on our hands.”

Meanwhile the chairman of Highland Council’s education committee, Councillor John Finlayson, said there will be no “one size fits all” approach to the reopening of schools for pupils after the summer.

As the Scottish Government revealed its plan last week for schools to begin reopening from August 11, Cllr Finlayson said it was widely recognised different schools would need to manage things according to their particular circumstances.

“Some Highland schools have three or four pupils, making the return much easier, while others have 1000,” he said.

On school transport he said cost was “paramount” and solutions such as double runs for services may have to be considered.

Related article: Coronavirus transition plan for transport sector and passengers announced

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