Dozens of family-owned and independent buses are on the brink of collapse, thousands of drivers could lose their jobs and “Mum and Dad’’ operators stand to lose their homes as an impact of COVID-19 restrictions.
To highlight their plight and lobby for a government rescue package, desperate small bus company owners will rally outside NSW Parliament on Wednesday, September 16.
Spokesman Rod Williams, who owns Near or Far Bus & Coach in the Blue Mountains, said while smaller bus companies were grateful for government help such as JobKeeper, many aspects of the industry had been overlooked.
Forgotten victims of the COVID-19 fallout, small companies needed help with crippling costs like depot rental payments, vehicle registration, insurances, fuel costs and toll fees to remain viable and provide job security for employees.
They called on government to share transport work with all accredited operators in NSW rather than just large companies.
“This isn’t about pitting small companies against big companies, but we do need a road to recovery plan,’’ Mr Williams said.
“Family-owned and independent bus companies are essential. We transported firies during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires. We’ve been there countless times when the trains or airlines go down. We transported your children on excursions, your guests to your wedding and took you safely home after your Christmas party.
“All of this is now at stake. Now we need help.’’
Pre-COVID, Near or Far had four coaches, a mini bus and a healthy turnover.
Within 24 hours on March 15-16, “everything was stripped from our calendar’’ as travel restrictions put the brakes on schools excursions, community group outings and sightseeing tours.
A second round of cancellations when the Victorian pandemic worsened gouged his business further.
Cyril Govender of Cyril’s Coach Tours at Narellan and Andy Leonello of Al Tours at Luddenham, who relied on the school transport market, haven’t “turned the wheel’’ of their vehicles since March.
“I don’t go to the letterbox anymore – the bills scare me,’’ Mr Leonello said.
He worried about the thousands of bus drivers, mechanics, cleaning and other ancillary staff employed by the bus industry.
“We’re not using our vehicles so we don’t need windscreens, tyres or technicians, which means we’re not bringing business to these people,’’ he said.
Like Mr Williams, many owners had coaches inspected, registered and serviced, ready to step in to replace trains or other modes of transport if needed as per their Emergency Bussing Standing Order commitments.
They hoped that Transport for NSW would share with smaller companies work like the transfer of returned travellers from the airport to quarantine hotels.
Scheduled rail replacement on the Blue Mountains line until September 18 was another opportunity.
“All of my coaches will be sitting at home available,’’ Mr Williams said. “I hope at least one of them will get a run alongside vehicles from outside the area.’’
Just one shift per week would be enough to keep a small business viable.
While owners were grateful for JobKeeper payments which ensured they could keep many staff, the allowance did not cover vehicle maintenance and running costs.
“It’s life and death now,’’ Mr Williams said. “I’ve got guys ringing me in tears and threatening suicide, and that impacts my own mental health.’’
As the end of loan repayment holiday periods loom, bus owners who invested in their business before the pandemic, now face foreclosure on their vehicles because they are unable to meet the payments.
Mr Govender invested in a fleet upgrade pre-COVID, financing it with a loan. The bank has since demanded he make half payments, with full monthly payments expected from the end of September.
Pick of the Crop Coach Tours from Riverstone owner Jeff Spence sold five of his buses, with four registered “just in case’’. The registered and insured on each costs $12,000 a year.
Nazio Fillipi, who owns Australian Bus & Coach Service which operates Bargain Buyers and Legend Shopping Tours, took a job driving trucks to cover his rent and lease payments.
His company has operated well known shopping tours for more than 30 years. This year was the first season ever cancelled. That meant sporting clubs, schools and charities which usually shared its profits did not receive those funds.
Mr Spence was concerned that drivers would disappear into other sectors, leaving the bus industry short of qualified drivers when buses are eventually back on the road.
Meanwhile, drivers like Glenorie Coaches’ Michael Wood and Kelvin Weatherburn from Near or Far Bus & Coach worried there wouldn’t be jobs to return to in an industry they have dedicated their working lives to.
Can you have your cake – and wine – and eat and drink them too? Indeed you can with the new Fantastic Aussie Tours (FAT) high tea and winery shuttle in the Blue Mountains and Megalong Valley.
The charter and tour bus company rerouted its itinerary to close to home locations after the COVID-19 pandemic forced interstate tours off the road.
From Saturday, September 5, passengers will be transported from Katoomba into the verdant Megalong Valley and the picturesque vineyards and cellar doors of Dryridge Estate and Megalong Creek Estate.
Alight at one and walk to the other before boarding the FAT bus back to Katoomba.
Passengers can also hop off the bus at the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath for high tea and a history tour before continuing on the Megalong Valley on a later bus.
One of Australia’s best kept secrets, the Megalong Valley features tranquil rural landscapes and native forests ringed by towering sandstone escarpments.
Next to the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area at the centre of Sydney’s water catchment, the Megalong Valley teems with wildlife.
Operated by Simon and Emma McMahon since 2015, boutique vineyard Dryridge Estate was founded by Bob and Barbara Tyrrell in 2000 and produces distinctive crisp mineral-flavoured wines from the pink granite soil.
Indulge in a leisurely cheese platter and wine tasting before strolling to the nearby kerosene shale mine ruins and Megalong Creek Estate and single vineyard wines.
Established in 2002 by the Draguns family, all grapes are grown onsite and handpicked and transported to Mudgee for wine making by highly regarded third generation winemaker Jacob Stein.
As well as viognier, pinot grigio, pinot and shiraz, Megalong Creek Estate also produces a sparkling they have named Prozzante, a lightly sparked Prosecco-style wine, and a late harvest unique dessert-style wine.
Both wineries are located along the famous Six Foot Track, an important Indigenous pathway linking southern parts of the Hunter Valley with the Blue Mountains and western tablelands for the past 20,000 years.
Blue Mountains Explorer Bus managing director Jason Cronshaw said: “The Megalong Valley has been linked to the Blue Mountains for millennia yet is largely unknown today.
“Our new shuttle service is a fantastic opportunity to reintroduce the area to a new generation of visitors.’’
The Megalong Valley high tea and winery shuttle “means you can have a tipple and we’ll navigate the road for you’’.
“We also have large storage bays under the bus, so don’t be shy about stocking up on your favourite drop.’’
Fantastic Aussie Tours coaches leave Katoomba at 10.15am, 12.15pm, 2.15pm and 4.15pm and Megalong Creek Estate and Dryridge Estate at 11.10am, 1.10pm, 3.10pm and 5.10pm each Saturday and Sunday.
Buses stop at the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath in time for a history tour and high tea or continue to the Megalong Valley on a later service. Alternatively, stay aboard and continue straight to the wineries.
Book the shuttle and receive complimentary pick-up and drop-off to any hotel in Katoomba or Leura on the famous red double-decker Blue Mountains Explorer Bus circuit.
Tickets: $59pp return shuttle.
Shut to visitors and volunteers for four months, a new resident has been stirring up dust behind closed doors at the oldest building in the Blue Mountains.
New property co-ordinator Annie Stevens has spent lockdown ensuring critical maintenance of colonial-era Woodford Academy and its historic National Trust-owned collection continued and developing an innovative curatorial plan in collaboration with the volunteer management committee.
The central Mountains property was forced to close just days before its popular annual Harvest Festival in March because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Fortuitously, the National Trust had appointed Ms Stevens to the role of the museum’s first dedicated property co-ordinator just one month prior.
The property had been managed by volunteers since the National Trust opened it to the public in the 1990s.
Woodford Academy Management Committee chairperson Elizabeth Burgess said Ms Stevens’ appointment by the National Trust was a significant step towards ensuring the sustainability of the multi award-winning museum.
“We were thrilled to welcome Annie to our dedicated team. At the time we had no idea what a tumultuous year 2020 was going to be and, in hindsight, Annie’s appointment could not have been more timely.’’
A Blue Mountains resident for the past five years, Ms Stevens has 17 years’ experience working in museums and heritage sites, including the lead curatorial role on the development of several exhibitions at the Museum of Sydney.
With a Bachelor of Arts (History) and a Master of Arts (Museum Studies), Ms Stevens has experience in conservation, maintenance and management of historic collections. This year she is also undertaking a Masters of Heritage Conservation at the School of Architecture, Design & Planning at Sydney University.
While Woodford Academy has been closed, Ms Stevens has ensured that critical maintenance of the museum and its historic collection continued and has developed an innovative curatorial plan in collaboration with the management committee.
“I am passionate about providing positive visitor experiences, crafting compelling stories and embracing new technologies to engage visitors with history in unique and meaningful ways,’’ Ms Stevens said.
“Legibly curating and interpreting the complex multi-layered history of this important heritage site and its unique collection is an exciting challenge.’’
The four-stage curatorial plan will be incrementally implemented over the next year and include engaging local creatives and artists to produce new interpretive displays.
Several projects identified in Stage 1 have already begun with help from a National Trust Women’s Committee donation, including custom-designed display units by Woodford-based furniture designer/maker Georgina Donovan and a replica of the Woodford Academy football cap by former artist-in-residence Christine’s Millinery.
“The curatorial plan became our lockdown project while the museum was closed, but it was only possible because of Annie’s expertise,’’ Ms Burgess said.
“We see Annie’s museum curation as a much-needed positive step, not only for this heritage property and the morale of our dedicated volunteers, but also for the wider Blue Mountains community as we recover from the devastating 2019-20 bushfires and the pandemic.
“We can’t wait to share the improvements Annie has already implemented during the shutdown including revitalising existing displays, and new interpretative signage and new displays with the community when we re-open the museum.’’
The National Trust (NSW) re-opened a selection of its properties on July 3 including Norman Lindsay Gallery at Faulconbridge and Everglades Historic House and Gardens at Leura with revised terms and conditions of entry such as pre-booking timed entry tickets. Details.
Woodford Academy is expected to re-open in the next few months, pandemic permitting.
In the meantime, Ms Burgess invited people working from home and looking for extra workspace to consider a tenancy lease at Woodford Academy. Details: Belle Property, Leura
Today owned by the National Trust, Thomas Pembroke was given the original land grant to establish a roadside inn at the Woodford Academy site in 1831.
Since then, the Woodford Academy property has operated as one of the first guesthouses in the Mountains and a Victorian-era country retreat for wealthy Sydney merchant Alfred Fairfax, who expanded the property to a 90-acre estate.
Distinguished scholar John McManamey leased the property in 1907 and operated an exclusive school – Woodford Academy for Boys – until 1925, then a co-educational day school from 1929 to 1936.
After his death in 1946, McManamey’s daughters Jessie and Gertrude lived on in the building.
Jessie died in 1972, and Gertrude, who bequeathed the property to the National Trust in 1979 and lived there until 1986, died in 1988.
Today, the property offers a unique glimpse into colonial life in the Blue Mountains as well as an insight into the modern Blue Mountains community through interpretive displays, artist residencies and site-specific arts events organised by the volunteer management committee which cares for the site.
All proceeds from Woodford Academy events directly contribute to the conservation of the property.
About the National Trust (NSW)
The National Trust is Australia’s oldest and largest independent conservation organisation founded in 1945 in New South Wales by Annie Forsyth Wyatt. Collectively the National Trust in Australia owns or manages over 300 built and natural heritage places (the majority held in perpetuity), is supported by 7,000 volunteers and employs more than 300 people nationwide.
The National Trust (NSW) is committed to engaging the community to celebrate and conserve heritage places and collections through events and education. With the support of our members, volunteers and dedicated staff and partners, we advocate on the protection of historical and naturally significant places and collections to ensure their preservation for future generations.