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.
Kids can experience edge-of-the-cliff thrills in the Blue Mountains from the safety of a double decker big red bus these school holidays – for free.
Travelling to the best sights and sites of Sydney’s grand backyard after months of Covid-19 hibernation, Blue Mountains Explorer Bus has expanded its route from 29 to 37 stops.
A highlight of the 45-minute trundle around Katoomba and Leura is the jaw-dropping vista of Cahill’s Lookout overlooking the Megalong Valley and Narrowneck peninsular, with plenty of room for little legs to run around.
Hop off the bus at Everglades House & Gardens, where children can work through the activity book.
Immerse yourselves in Australia’s most accessible wilderness along one of the 12 bushwalking tracks along the Explorer Bus route.
From the easy stroll from Honeymoon Lookout to Echo Point, the medium grade walk from Gordon Falls Lookout to the Pool of Siloam or the hard yakka trek from Fairmont Resort to Wentworth Falls, every fitness level (and leg length) is catered for.
When mums and dads are tired of piggybacking tiny tots, the whole family can simply reboard the big red bus at the nearest stop.
After walking up an appetite, recharge in a café or restaurant in upmarket Leura Mall or the eclectic shopping strip of Katoomba.
Operating every 45 minutes between 9.15am and 5.30pm, Blue Mountains Explorer Bus is the only hop-on/hop-off double decker bus in the world in a national park and the only one that doesn’t live in a city.
It is operated by the family-owned Fantastic Aussie Tours, which was established in 1974 and the first tour operator in Australia to be 100 per cent carbon neutral certified.
The Explorer Bus has given visitors to the Blue Mountains the chance to tour the area in their own time with no traffic and parking hassles, no rush and no rules for 30 years.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck it operated 365 days and carried about 65,000 passengers a year.
Managing director Jason Cronshaw said: “Like many others, our business has been hard hit by the virus restrictions, but we have used the time of hibernation to make the big red bus bigger, better and even more value for budget-conscious families.’’
Every bus is cleaned and sanitised regularly throughout each day, hand sanitiser is provided aboard, and social distance seating measures are in place.
“That means there’s plenty of room to see the fantastic view we are blessed to share with visitors, and there’s no fights over the front seats on the top deck.’’
Blue Mountains Explorer Bus will operate every day of the school holidays until July 20.
Guests of the Fairmont Resort can use the Explorer Bus shuttle service to Leura Village for just $5.
Blue Mountains businesses are adapting to the “new normal’’ by creatively embracing new business practices and digital technology.
Blue Mountains Tourism president Jason Cronshaw praised the ingenuity and flexibility of businesses, especially small enterprises.
“The response has been fast and enthusiastic,’’ he said.
“Of course there’s been tears and tantrums as people are understandably upset to see their business and livelihood evaporate literally overnight as government restrictions come in that they weren’t prepared for and can’t control.
“But we’re so blessed to have a creative community that is pragmatic and innovative and steps up to a challenge.’’
“[But] we’re so blessed to have a creative community that is pragmatic and innovative and steps up to a challenge.”Jason Cronshaw – Blue Mountains Tourism
Many Blue Mountains businesses sell online vouchers to redeem when restrictions are lifted, encourage forward bookings and direct customers to online sales platforms.
Here are just some examples of how tourism and hospitality businesses in the Blue Mountains continue to operate under the strict new opening hours and social distancing regulations:
– CafeXpresso (Katoomba) station is one of numerous examples of fast food shops, cafes and restaurants offering takeaway food only.
– Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (Katoomba) has a Virtual InSight program featuring staff insights, tours of the space, art classes with local creatives, tutorials, recipes from the cafe and more. Details: BlueMountainsCulturalCentre Facebook page (a new page will be available on the bluemountainsculturalcentre.com.au website soon).
– Mount Vic & Me (Mt Victoria) takes online orders and posts a swag of quirky Australian Made items, including the Blue Mountains Socks range, tea towels and greeting cards. Details: www.mountvicandme.com.
– Avalon Restaurant – Katoomba (www.avalonkatoomba.com.au) offers takeaway meals, along with most cafes in the Blue Mountains. Several such as the Ori Café & Bistro (www.oricafe.com.au) and Finn & Co (www.finnandco.com.au) at Springwood offer a home delivery service.
– GalleryONE88 Fine Arts – Katoomba (www.galleryonefinearts.com), Talisman Gallery – Hartley (www.talismangallery.com.au) and other galleries have uploaded many photos of artwork to their website and social media and have restricted sales to those platforms or email.
– Blue Mountains Chocolate Company (Katoomba) serves takeaway food and drinks, with a home delivery service within a 20km radius of Katoomba. Details: http://www.bluemountainschocolate.com.au/.
“New normal” for Blueys