Bus industry fears mass closures as lockdown anniversary nears

SHONISANI TSHIKALANGE

The coronavirus pandemic could bring the long-distance and charter bus industries to their knees.

Bus operators who spoke to TimesLIVE after Greyhound and Citiliner announced this week that they were shutting shop said they feared they would follow suit.

Tumisang Kgaboesele, CEO of Africa People Mover (APM), said the demise of Greyhound has laid bare the structural challenges facing the long-distance bus industry.

“The industry is going through an unprecedented crisis, with available capacity [of coaches] far exceeding demand. Most operators are labouring under a huge debt burden and are not generating enough revenue to cover monthly operating costs. The loss of about twomillion jobs, and a decline in the GDP during the initial lockdown, has a direct bearing on the number of travellers. The lockdown will hasten the demise of other operators,” he said.

Kgaboesele said the only way for any operator to survive was to cut costs to the bone. There were also concerns about the possibility of violence as fights over decreasing passengers threaten to mount.

“Our migratory labour pattern, that is people moving between economic hubs and the rural provinces, means that there are fewer people to ferry as direct result of job losses.

“The long-distance bus industry has unprecedented excess capacity vs demand. As a result, we anticipate violence and strife in the next couple of months from the taxis for the few remaining passengers. These incidents are on the increase, especially in the Eastern Cape,” he said.

The Private Charter Passenger Association (PCPA) said that if private coach operators did not get help soon, operators in the industry would disappear. The industry said it had not been able to work since the lockdown came into effect in March last year.

PCPA chairperson Fiona Brooke Leggatt said that if the non-subsidised bus and coach operators were not helped, the industry would collapse.

“Either they are going to assist us or the whole industry is going to collapse, and thousands of drivers will be out, and when the tourism industry opens up there will be no buses to move people. What are we going to do when all these private sectors close down? How are we going to transport our tourists?” she asked.

She said they were not able to make up any lockdown losses as they had not had a chance to operate since the pandemic hit.

“Even as domestic tourism opens up a little, we won’t be able to operate and won’t operate until the whole coronavirus issue is solved,” she said.

She said she has contacted political parties for assistance, but nothing materialised.

In her business, Champagne Shuttle and Coach Hire, Laggatt said she had to lay off about 18 full-time employees. She said if nothing was done, thousands of people would be without jobs.

Nicolas Motshabi, the owner of Letlhabile Coaches, said he hadn’t been able to operate his business since the lockdown started. The 58-year-old, who has been in the business for 14 years, said that if the business doesn’t get any intervention they will have to close down.

“We operate differently because our business is not subsidised. We get 100% of the money we make from transporting schools when they go on tours — tour bookings. This is where we get our income. Now there has been no business for us since the first lockdown announcement,” he said.

Motshabi said the company has been losing about R1.5m every month in lockdown.

“We have about 20 buses. Each month we used to make about R1.5m that we would use to pay for all our expenses. So we have not been getting anything that for the past 10 months.

“The challenge is that some of the buses, we still owe them through the bank. Even the building we are housed in we haven’t finished paying off. We were about to finish paying last year. We are struggling,” he said.

Motshabi said he had to retrench employees.

“It is very difficult. In March it’s going to be a full year of non-operation. If we are not going to get assistance somewhere it means we simply have to close down because the bank is going to take all the buses that we still owe on and we might also lose the building,” he said.

Pieter de Beer, an accountant at P Bier Buses, said he didn’t understand how they were expected to survive when even bus companies with routes and subsidies had failed to survive.

“We have no routes, we are not subsidised. We are just based in Gauteng. Greyhound had specific routes and they were working during this time, and they could not make it. So how do they expect us to make it if we don’t even have that type of work that giving daily income?

“We have been trying to negotiate with the minister of transport to assist us with licensing fees alone, because it is costing our company almost R1m a year that we have to pay towards licensing fees, and we haven’t been able to use those vehicles for the past months,” said De Beer.

He said all he and other operators needed was a break on licensing fees for the year.

“All our competitors are in the same situation. In our company we haven’t had much work because people were not allowed to travel, and the market for us is mainly school groups, international tour groups and private hire groups — and none of those three customer groups were travelling in the past 10 months.

“We had to lay off all our staff simply because we can’t pay them. We are looking at 45 employees that we had to lay off,” he said.

– TimesLIVE

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