The frontline in the battle against Covid-19 can take many forms. There are the doctors, and the nurses, the cleaners, the shop workers. And of course, there are the people who help them to get to the hospitals, offices, shops, and businesses.

For the last few fraught months Ray Coyne, the chief executive of Dublin Bus, has had 2,500 bus drivers on the road ferrying 50,000 people each day from home to work.

Behind that number are another 1,000 staff doing everything from maintaining buses to cleaning them, to making payroll, to running depots.  

New processes had to be implemented fast – from cleaning down buses multiple times a day to ensuring social distancing between passengers, to effectively sealing drivers away from the public in their cabs.

The ability of Dublin Bus to keep going, carrying vital passengers who were needed to keep hospitals running, supermarkets open and so on, was essential and brave work.

Its team rose to the occasion. But now, as the economy begins to restart, the commercial semi-state faces a new set of challenges. These are both operational and financial, ranging from working out how to get more people onto buses safely, to figuring out how to pay for it all.

If Dublin is to get moving again it will need Dublin Bus. How the semi-state responds to this new phase of the crisis will be vital to the capital’s economic success. But, as Coyne knows, there are serious challenges ahead.


Ray Coyne is in the spare room of his home in Porterstown, Castleknock, Dublin 15, when we speak. At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, he had tried, with the rest of his management, to be a visible presence on the ground in its seven depots.

But once travel restrictions came in, Coyne, like most people, was confined to a few kilometres around his home. A keen runner, he confesses to being delighted about being able to run in his beloved Phoenix Park again, now restrictions have been eased somewhat.

Coyne kept in touch with his 3,500 employees during lockdown by using Microsoft Yammer, and other communication tools. It has been a testing time, he admits.

“It’s been unprecedented,” he said. “We have had tough situations before like foot and mouth, or heavy snow, but never anything like this. It is amazing how our people adapted.”

A 25-year veteran of Dublin Bus, Coyne joined the semi-state after school but has since completed an MBA in UCD and a degree in management from the Dublin Business School.

Every year Dublin Bus carries about 150 million passengers. It operates under rolling five-year contracts with the National Transport Authority, that limit it to only making what is termed a “reasonable” profit.

In 2019 it made a profit of about €700,000 on turnover of €300 million. The year before its profit was €30,000. Its modest profits came after Coyne and his team implemented cost-cutting, as well as Dublin Bus enjoying the fruits of a recovering economy.

It also receives state support to allow it to do things like offer free travel to old age pensioners and operate on certain loss-making routes. “Our subvention in 2014 was €60 million, but we reduced that by 33 per cent by 2019,” Coyne said.

Coyne is not a fan of the word subvention. “It is investment or prioritisation rather than subvention,” he said.

Booking modest profits in recent years compares with the five years of the recession from 2008 to 2014, when it made a combined loss of €70 million.

This year Dublin Bus, he said, predicted it would cost €325 million to operate its network. While its expenditure is relatively fixed, its revenues are anything but predictable at the moment. “Passenger revenue has dropped by 90 per cent,” Coyne said. It is a point to which we return, but first, we discuss costs. 

“We are a semi-state body and are very aware that we have taxpayers money and need to manage accordingly,” he said. “From the start of Covid-19 we started to reduce our service levels to reflect the new reality,” he said.

“We dropped it to 82 per cent. At the same time, we brought in a number of cost efficiency measures from week one,” he said. Overtime was slashed, rest day working reduced, and annual leave was managed. “We did what we could to manage our cost line,” Coyne said.

“We have never seen anything like north of 90 per cent falls which we saw happen within six weeks.”

Passenger numbers on Dublin Bus are one way of measuring the economic vibrancy of the capital. “We are a bellwether,” Coyne admits. In the build-up to the financial crash, he said Dublin Bus saw its numbers fall before other indicators like the live register or emigration numbers.

“We could see about six months early, that it looked like we were going into a recession, as we could see numbers fall off the edge of a cliff,” he recalled. “Similarly, as the economy began to recover bus numbers started to trend up early.

“In the last recession it took us five or six years to recover,” Coyne said. “But what happened this time is quite stark. We have never seen anything like north of 90 per cent falls which we saw happen within six weeks.”

“My own view is for anyone in a close confined space be it in business, the community, or on a bus… I think they should use face coverings.”

Ray Coyne

Normally, Coyne said, Dublin Bus would expect to be carrying about 11 million passengers a month on its buses. On an individual workday, this works out at about 440,000 people. It is a big number relative to Dublin’s size.

“We saw that drop to just under 50,000 people in the middle of lockdown post-April 1,” Coyne said. “For the last two weeks, we have seen a steady increase to just shy of 100,000 a day.”

Dublin Bus, he said, was engaged with the NTA and the Department of Transport around how it will fund itself in what is promising to be a torrid year financially. “We can see there is a full commitment that public transport will be funded as that will be required to replace the revenue lost,” Coyne said.

How much support will Dublin Bus need from the state? “You could be looking at in the order of north of €200 million,” Coyne said.

“This goes back to the higher purpose of public transport. Everybody benefits from public transport even if you don’t use it.”

“It is a key component of the urban environment. The government understands that. I think the public understands that and policymakers certainly do.”

“The bus is the most flexible public transport, best value for money and it will drive economic recovery,” Coyne said. “The car will always have a role but it shouldn’t be primary.”

“Even in Wuhan the buses still kept moving.”

“We knew our employees would be among the last on the frontline in terms of the supply chain.” PIC: Bryan Meade

There were three teams: Amber, Blue and Cherry.

At the end of January Ray Coyne met a friend who was working in the textile industry in Beijing while on a trip to the United States. “He said to me there is talk about banning flights in China. This is a very significant virus.”

At the time Covid-19 was far from front-page news in Ireland. It was weeks before the WHO would name Covid-19 as “public enemy number one,” on February 11 but Coyne was concerned. Dublin Bus was a member of UITP – a giant association of public transport operators in 100 countries – and it was part of the International Bus Benchmarking Group – a consortium of 15 medium and large bus organisations from Sydney to Seattle.

“We started making calls to see what is happening, talking to people in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Moscow.” Dublin Bus had prepared for a pandemic over 15 years ago when Sars emerged and before that dealt with foot and mouth in 2001, so it dusted its old plans off. In the last two weeks of February, it was clear to Dublin Bus that it needed to step up its preparations. “We knew we needed to get the right processes in place,”

Coyne said that Dublin Bus set up three teams of 14 people that were cross-function and from different levels of seniority in the business. Mary Ryan, a 15-year veteran with the bus group who is its marketing and information manager, was appointed project manager.

Coyne was on team Amber which set the strategy for the Dublin Bus response to Covid-19. Team Blue was charged with implementing agreed actions, while Team Cherry’s role was to ensure as much as possible there was business as usual. “In the early stages we hoped it wasn’t going to come to Europe – like Sars,” Coyne said. “But we could see through our international contacts that it was creeping across East to West towards Ireland,” he said. “From March on we were in the thick of it. Daily meetings, constant phone calls. It was very fast-moving.

Were bus drivers infected by Covid-19? “The short answer is no,” Coyne said.

“As a management team we needed to be prepared, resilient and we would need to be able to adapt as we went along,” he said. “Safety is always our primary value both for employees and customers.

“We knew that public transport is the last thing removed from any city impacted by Covid-19. Even in Wuhan the buses still kept moving. When they didn’t carry people anymore they still carried medical supplies and food. We knew our employees would be among the last on the frontline in terms of the supply chain.”

“There is a strong community ethos within Dublin Bus and that was a strong base to work off,” Coyne said. Dublin Bus, he said, wrote to all staff giving them the option of stepping back from interacting with the public if they were at risk.

“We were not going to force anybody to do something they didn’t want to do,” Coyne said.

“We have a history in Dublin Bus of stepping up to the mark whether that is in storms or snow…and from the start of this I had a sense that this would be the case again. We have an internal mantra every journey matters and that has stood us well.

“Our bus drivers are travelling into the city every single day. They’ve seen their regular customers disappear and seen shutters come down on shops,” Coyne said.

“They can see how important it is to keep providing a bus service. There is the commercial reality of the business but there is also a community aspect.

“I had no doubt our employees would stay the course, but we had to support them.”


“What will you do if someone can’t get on the bus because they have left their mask at home?”

“It is a great testament to the individual and the collective what has been achieved,” Coyne said.

As the crisis moves to an easing of lockdown, Dublin Bus has set up two new additional teams codenamed Fish Bowl and Green Lantern. “Fish Bowl is about reemergence and remobilisation,” Coyne said. “Green Lantern is about keeping the behaviours and activities we have been doing going forward.” 

Were bus drivers infected by Covid-19? “The short answer is no,” Coyne said.

He said about 200 staff did have to self-isolate for a variety of reasons. “We are down to around 50 people now,” he said, adding that keeping Dublin Bus staff safe had required individual and organisational responsibility.

Dublin Bus had, for example, installed Perspex screen dividers on tables within its city centre canteen. Only two people could sit at one table. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. Drivers used to chat during their changeovers, but now they stay apart. “It is a great testament to the individual and the collective what has been achieved,” Coyne said.

“Bus drivers don’t interact with customers on a bus. They are in a cab that is effectively enclosed,” Coyne said. Dublin Bus has long had safety screens, but the holes in these have now been filled in.

“Our employees are in a safe environment,” Coyne said. “Cab areas are cleaned a minimum of twice a day.”

Dublin Bus, he said, knew that for the public to start using buses again they would need to be confident that they were clean. “Restoring confidence is important in all the cities we have engaged with overseas,” he said. “We need to let people know buses are a safe environment.”

“Customer confidence needs to be restored in public transport to get the economy back. Our passenger numbers have increased by 100 per cent in the last two weeks to close to 100,000 a day. We have more capacity to add which we will in the next two weeks.

“There has been a lot of discussion around face masks. The vast majority of cities with public transport systems now have them for customers.”

Coyne said the wearing of masks on public transport was a complex issue. “What will you do if someone can’t get on the bus because they have left their mask at home? Or say it is a vulnerable adult or a vulnerable child?” he said. “There needs to be a clear consistent message.”

Does Coyne believe masks should be mandatory on buses? “My own view is for anyone in a close confined space be it in business, the community, or on a bus… I think they should use face coverings.”

Should it be the law? “There are lots of considerations around it in terms of policing and the expectations of customers if you don’t have one. It is a government decision,” Coyne said. “If we want to really suppress this virus we need to continue to be vigilant. On public transport for our customers, masks would be of additional benefit as it would allow us to get more customers on our buses, which we will need to do to get the economy going.”

Coyne said it was not a decision for Dublin Bus to make alone. He said many customers could use multiple operators, like hopping from the bus on to say the Luas. “There has to be one message for all on public transport use,” he said.

“The government has done a good job on communication to date but I think that has to be kept going. Face masks are one of those things.”

In normal times a full bus, with customers standing pressed up against each other on the ground floor, can hold 90 people. With nobody standing, a bus holds 70 people. As it stands under 2-metre social distancing rules the maximum number of people that can sit on a double-decker bus is 17 people.

“It is effectively 25 per cent of capacity,” Coyne said. “If you go to 1 metre or 0.8 metre social distancing you can double capacity to 31 people.”

At the moment, he said, Dublin Bus was working off a 2-metre social distancing plan but he warned capacity would soon be strained.

“This is a government decision, but if we stick with the current social distancing – and with our full fleet on – you might get to 130,000 customers a day,” Coyne said. “Dublin city was working off 440,000 customers a day!”

“You won’t get your economy back without your public transport working”

Ray Coyne

Coyne said not everybody would be able to work from home forever. He said he feared huge traffic jams if many people who had used buses switched to cars, and that people who could not afford cars would struggle to return to work without using buses.

“Public transport is the mass mode of movement. We need to introduce more capacity,” he said. “One way is to add fleet and the other is a better utilisation of what we have.”

Dublin Bus he said had some additional fleet capacity. He said employers could offer more flexible working hours to allow people to use buses at less busy times. Dublin Bus could respond in kind by increasing bus frequencies off-peak, but all these actions would still not be enough.

“At the current two-metre guidelines we are capping ourselves to around at most 30 per cent of previous numbers.” 

“Other cities moved in a graduated approach to 80 per cent occupancy levels,” he added.

“You won’t get your economy back without your public transport working,” Coyne said. “There is no single solution but we are probably going to have to move down to 1 metre, increased capacity, and introduce flexible working hours.”

“Some people will have to work from home, some days. There is a whole ecosystem to get the economy back and public transport will be front and centre in doing that.”

Going green

In May 2019 Dublin Bus took delivery of its first hybrid double-decker buses. The buses reduce carbon emissions when in electric mode, but can also use diesel so they do not need to be recharged using plug-in connections. At the time the government said it hoped to introduce 1,200 electric buses by 2030 in Ireland, with the largest portion in Dublin.

Can we still afford to invest in cleaner buses? “Right now Covid-19 is the concern, next is the recession but the environment hasn’t gone away,” Coyne said. “To me, the crisis has heightened the requirement to invest in sustainable zero emission vehicles.”

“Money will be tight but targeted investment will be needed too,” he added. Coyne said European funding may be available to support greener public transport and that Dublin Bus would be pursuing this.

“Covid-19 is a respiratory issue so we need cleaner air,” he said. “There are a higher number of cases in polluted areas. What do we want the future to be like? That has not changed, we still all want a nice clean urban environment.”

Coyne said in the last recession Ireland missed out on a decade of investment in making public transport greener. “It would be terrible to miss out again,” he said. “It is a false economy to keep old buses churning around. Public transport is such an important part of the economy we have to keep investing in it.”