National Express has slumped to a £445m loss for 2020 after coronavirus travel restrictions led to an 80% fall in passenger numbers last year.
The coach and bus operator swung into the red after making a pre-tax profit of £187m in 2019. Revenues declined by 29% to just under £2bn.
However, José Ignacio Garat, the chief executive, struck an optimistic note, noting that the final three months of 2020 had been the strongest of the year and revenues had improved slowly so far in 2021, as the UK and other countries started vaccinating against Covid-19.
“When travel restrictions have been lifted, we have seen a rapid recovery in demand,” Garat said. “Across the business we have reduced costs, exited certain contracts and accessed government support schemes, to ensure that when we emerge from the pandemic the group will be leaner, fitter and financially stronger.”
At the peak of the global pandemic lockdowns, 40,000 employees across the business, which runs coaches and bus services in the UK, Spain, the US and other countries, were either furloughed or temporarily laid off, helping to save more than £300m of operating costs in the second quarter of 2020.
During the first national lockdowns a year ago, coach services were suspended for almost three months in the UK and drastically reduced in Spain. Over the summer, as travel restrictions were lifted, services were scaled back up in both countries and demand returned rapidly, National Express said. During the latest lockdown, coach services in the UK have been suspended since early January and are set to resume on 29 March.
While local bus operations in England have been underwritten by a government bailout, which is giving operators assistance equivalent to lost revenue, inter-city coach services have not had similar financial guarantees.
Despite the rocky ride, National Express said it had won new contracts worth almost £900m, including in Lisbon and Porto – its first contracts in Portugal – and school bus contracts in Idaho, Alaska and California. In the UK, it secured a contract to run employee shuttle services for Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer.
The company also said it was on track to reach its target of having a fully zero-carbon-emission fleet by 2030, with 29 electric buses now running in the West Midlands.