Thursday, 30 December 2010

Doing the Docks

The dominant physical feature of Southampton's landscape and economy is its port. One of the largest in the UK, I think I read somewhere that it accounts for around 7% of all the UK's seaborne trade - that's 42 million tonnes of cargo annually! (Figures from ABP)

The port has always fascinated me - from long before I ever became a Southampton resident. When I was a half-hearted student of Transport Management at Aston University in the early '90s, the one and only field trip I actually bothered with was a day trip to Southampton Docks (in a Flight's double deck Volvo Coach - one of the ones with the small lounge at the back downstairs, for those that remember these things and care!)

Being a transport geek, I could spend hours just sitting watching the ships coming and going and the hustle and bustle on the dockside. Indeed, I can easily while a way an hour or two sat on the marina at Hythe, looking across Southampton Water at around (I think) seven miles of waterfront shared by vast container ships (some of which now able to carry over 5,000 forty foot containers), huge vehicle carrying ships sailing for America and the Far East, cruise ships, ferries and local shipping. With the added bonus of planes landing at Southampton coming in directly overhead!

While the port is a massive asset to the city, the downside is that it provides a physical barrier between the people and the water. Such is the extent of the port's activities that Southampton has almost no public waterfront, apart from a small area around Royal Pier and Mayflower Park; and Ocean Village which should be glamorous, trendy and bustling with activity but which is actually a desolate, windswept building site with some yachts in the middle!

This means that not only does the city punch below its weight as a waterfront destination, but many of the city's residents never have reason or opportunity to enter the port and therefore have little idea of the workings of this vast expanse covering around 750 acres.

Back in 2006, in one of the most enjoyable projects of my career to date, I found myself in pole position to satisfy my own personal desire to become acquainted with the workings of the port, while also helping the owner Associated British Ports (ABP) to open itself up to city residents.

In my then capacity as MD of Solent Blue Line, I was approached about the possibility of running some tours of the port, as ABP was said to be keen to give the public the opportunity to see how the port operated from the inside. As luck would have it, we had two Bristol VR open-toppers becoming redundant from the New Forest Tour as they were being replaced by newer Volvo B7s, and the timing coincided perfectly with this initiative!

With the help of ABP staff, we assembled a rough script for a commentary and devised a route round the city centre and port which would take just over an hour, and came up with a timetable with a choice of pick-ups - starting from Central Station, then heading through the city centre before entering the port.

In that first season, we had a ball! We had a small team of very enthusiastic staff working on the tour, led by yours truly taking every possible opportunity to get round the docks! The operational port staff were very permissive (probably because they didn't quite understand who we were or what we were doing!) and let us roam freely. We varied the route to accommodate the ships that were in port, and would always try to bring the tour to a climax by bringing the tour passengers almost to within touching distance of one of the vast cruise ships that could be found in port most days.

Visitor feedback was superb. They loved the opportunity to get behind the scenes in the port, and almost always commented on how much they had learned about the activities of the port, of which they had been unaware despite living within touching distance of the port all their lives.

The tour was fairly challenging to deliver however. The buses were supposed to be fitted with sound systems that would enable the driver to deliver the commentary, keeping the costs down and enabling passengers seated anywhere on the bus to get the same experience. However, the sound systems were dreadfully unreliable and inevitably therefore the commentary had to be delivered without any amplification. This basically meant standing in the middle of the top deck and bellowing the commentary at the top of one's voice to overcome any wind noise and try to be audible to all passengers.

This meant wherever possible having a driver and a guide on the bus - which had never been part of the original cost model - but the only alternative way of delivering the tour with one person was to drive the bus a short distance, stop, run upstairs, deliver an extract of the commentary, run back downstairs, drive a short distance further on, stop, run back upstairs, provide a bit more commentary and so on. You could get away with this on a quiet day when traffic was light but it wasn't much fun!

We therefore tried to put two people on the tour as often as possible, which made the whole thing much more enjoyable, especially as some of the staff preferred driving the bus while others preferred delivering the commentary, although even that could be hard work because with passengers sat upstairs and down, you would have to run up and down between the two decks delivering the commentary twice! I actually found this quite fun and the passengers certainly appreciated the effort!

My own personal highlight was one Sunday morning. The first tour of the day was at 10:00, but this was a bit early for people to be out and about on a Sunday so would usually be very quiet - indeed, there were occasions when it didn't run at all. And one fairly cold, grey Sunday morning, the driver and I arrived to do the 10:00 tour with little expectation of having to do the trip.

However, unbeknown to us the Cunard ship Queen Mary 2 was in port, and had deposited a load of Germans ashore to amuse themselves for a few hours. There isn't a lot to do in Southampton on a cold, grey Sunday morning, and as they happened to stroll up to the Bargate just as we arrived, the open top bus attracted their attention!

Quite unexpectedly therefore we had an almost full load for the 10:00 tour, but many of them spoke no English! I spent the next hour of my life careering up and down the stairs delivering the commentary four times - English and A-Level German upstairs, and English and A-Level German downstairs!!!

As I recall they tipped quite well, but the rest of the day was a bit of an anti-climax!

Another memorable occasion came when a friend of mine, a senior industry manager with whom I had worked previously, had offered to provide vintage bus rides for some well-to-do friends holding a lavish birthday party in the upscale Bassett area of Southampton. Not being a local he rang me the night before - he had the bus, but didn't know where to take people and was looking for ideas. I suggested I join him for the day and we take people round the docks. This was a huge success and proved very popular!

The second season - 2007 - was less auspicious. In a bid to save money, we cut the route back to miss out the city centre, and the tour started from Mayflower Park (named after the Mayflower which transported the Pilgrim Fathers to America, leaving from approximately that spot in Southampton in 1620. See, I haven't forgotten it all yet!). This made it shorter and easier and cheaper to operate but less visible.

Port security staff had by now worked out who we were and what we were doing, and felt we needed a dose of health and safety. So instead of roaming free, we were restricted to agreed routes within the port which - crucially - didn't include some of the best vantage points (notably Dock Head) because the security staff were convinced we'd drive over the edge!

This made the tour less fun to operate as well as less commercial, and relying as it did on a small band of enthusiastic staff, when two of us left in the summer of 2007 it was no real surprise to see the tour come to an end soon afterwards.

Overall the tour lost money. The cost of double staffing was never envisaged, but even with single staffing it is debatable whether the Port of Southampton is really enough of a visitor attraction to sustain a commercial number of tour passengers. The tour was only really busy on a nice day with two or three cruise ships in port and there were not enough of these in a season.

However, the losses that the tour sustained were tiny compared to the turnover of the company, and this commercial initiative dramatically improved the profile and image of Bluestar with the key opinion formers and 'movers and shakers' within the city. This in turn led to a seat at the table on a number of key events and ongoing committees, and relationships that the company continues to benefit from to this day. Would I do the same thing if I had my time again? For this reason, I definitely would!

I do certainly believe that there is still a market for this type of activity. It maybe needs to be more formally linked to the Port itself, maybe with some kind of "Visitor Centre", rather than just being a third party commercial enterprise that happens to use the Port infrastructure. I'd certainly love to do it again!

The reason for all this reminiscence is that we at Velvet have recently been active in the Port again, providing a shuttle for crew members on the Independence of the Seas, one of the world's largest cruise ships, and it's great to be back!

Southampton styles itself as the cruise capital of Northern Europe, being the busiest port for cruise ship arrivals and departures. Almost a million cruise passengers a year pass through the port, boarding some of the word's largest and most prestigious vessels.

This has always provided a good line of work for the coach operators in the area, both in providing transfers for passengers as well as shuttle services for crew visiting the city centre, but the bus operators have never traditionally been involved.

Based indirectly on relationships forged when doing the Docks Tour, we were asked to provide a quote for a shuttle service for crew from the Independence. Many of the crew love Southampton for its shopping facilities, and the ability to get in and out of the centre quickly and easily on a short cruise turnaround (in which the ship will be in port for just a few hours, during which time it has to say goodbye to one load of passengers, completely restock and then load up to 4,000 new passengers) is something they value.

So it is great fun being back in the docks again, and has inevitably got me thinking to what a new generation of docks tour might look like....!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

You couldn't fabricate it!

This afternoon we received the following email...

While exploring on internet we found your good company engaged in the manufacturing of velvet fabric materials.

At present we are looking to import velvet materials mainly in Red, Maroon, Black and Green colors, hope you would be able to meet our requirements.

You are requested to please let us have your catalogue for above materials, by post to the following address. If the prices and quality will be up to the expectations, we assure potential repeated orders.

Pity they don't want purple really...

Monday, 20 December 2010

Lost Property

A member of the public (a regular bus user, known to us) walks into the cafe in Eastleigh Bus Station, where I'm sitting with our Controller Steve....

Member of Public: Perhaps you can help me! If I left my bag on a Southampton bus, where would it end up?

Steve: Southampton

Saturday, 18 December 2010

By popular vote...

Among the many phone calls received today from customers enquiring about the buses, one of our regulars phoned just after 0830 to ask about the A between Swaythling and West End.

I explained that the 0915 from Eastleigh would be operating normally and she asked who would be driving.

At that stage none of the drivers were on their normal duties because they were all happy to do whatever was required of them in the conditions.

So I told her that I didn't know who would be driving as there were three possibilities and we hadn't actually decided yet. She asked who they were, assuring me that she knew all our drivers by name, so I told her who they were. Then - as it was a good-humoured conversation anyway - I suggested we could try some X-Factor style voting and invited her to vote for the driver she wanted!

She chose Nick, who was duly allocated to the trip.

My reward arrived about half an hour ago, when Nick arrived back in the bus station after his second round trip. He handed me a jar of alcoholic jam, which she had asked to be passed on to me in thanks for granting her wish!

So now I'm wondering if we should do all our allocations in this way, allowing passengers to choose their own drivers, in the same way that we picked teams for football at school! I wonder if we could make that work.....?

There's no business like snow business 2 - the sequel

By now you will have probably noticed that most of my blog posts have corny titles. There's no particular reason for this, it's just the first thing I can think of! Perhaps if it all goes wrong on the buses, I have an alternative career as an advertising copywriter or newspaper headline writer!

We have snow again! Only this time it's a Saturday, so not as many people are affected, and with each spell of snow we are getting better at what we are doing, so I don't feel anywhere near as depressed by the prospect of snow this time as I usually would!

The worst point was between 0630 and 0700 this morning. It started snowing around 0600 and road conditions deteriorated very very rapidly indeed. We sent the first C1/C3 of the day out, but the driver had great difficulty in Hiltingbury and Valley Park, and that was before the traffic started compacting the snow into ice. (I spent ten minutes sat in my car in Hiltingbury Road at about 0730, dealing with Facebook, Twitter and phone calls, and it got perceptibly worse while I was sat there!)

Cutting a long story short, as I write this, the situation is stable with the C1 running between Eastleigh and Fryern Hill via the main roads only, and the A is running full route but not serving Boorley Green. This is the same plan as we implemented on the last snow day and seems to work quite well. We are also running a bonus C1 just serving Oakmount Road, with the driver briefed to interview any prospective passengers to try to get them to where they need to go!

Steve the Controller went out in the van a short while ago to test Hiltingbury, Valley Park and Velmore, and got briefly stuck in Velmore to our great amusement. Some parts are nearly ok, others a long way from being viable, bhe snow is melting quite rapidly now, and the Met Office and BBC are both predicting no further snow today, so we're hopeful that we can improve the offer this afternoon.

We could do with a quieter afternoon, because it's the Velvet Christmas Party tonight and excitement is at fever pitch! No snow disruption after 7pm tonight please!

Finally, here's a picture of some snow and a bus, just in case you needed reminding...

Monday, 13 December 2010

Knowing where they are

It's 0812 on a winter Monday morning and it's a bad morning for traffic. Not the worst, by any means, but enough to cause some late running. But I'm happy because I'm in the office and I have superpowers, so I know where everyone is!

Since I've mostly worked in provincial bus companies that have never been at the head of the queue for technological innovation, and of course when setting up our own company we had to be careful about making any kind of investment at all, I have gone through the nineteen years of my career to date not knowing where my buses are.

This is something the public find incredible, that most bus companies actually have no idea where there buses are most of the time. They know where they should be, but that doesn't necessarily bear much relation to reality.

Back in the summer, we invested in a system called DriveGreen, from a company called GreenRoad. This is primarily a system intended to monitor driver performance in areas such as braking, lane handling etc. The main conclusion so far has been that actually our drivers are pretty good - no surprise there. But the really exciting part for me is that the system gives us vehicle tracking, which makes the management of service disruption so much easier!

In the morning peak, the 0820 C1 from Eastleigh to Hiltingbury runs off the 612 service from Weston to Barton Peveril College, due at the College at 0805. The following C - the C2 at 0835 from the Bus Station, is scheduled to be operated by the bus that arrived at Barton Peveril College at 0815 on an inbound C1 that passed through the Bus Station at 0810.

However, I have been watching the 612 for a little while now. It was running about 20 minutes late at Bitterne - sure enough, a quick check of the Romanse cameras revealed that Bitterne Road West was a solid queue.

Various buses are converging on Eastleigh at this time of the morning, and as I look at the map I can see Matt (on the 612) has snuck round the back roads and has made some time back, but is looking doubtful for the 0820. He's the bottom icon on this map (also shown are J843 TSC on the inbound 603 and F303 MYJ on the inbound 618, but you'll have to take my word for that!)

Meanwhile, the inbound C1 that makes the outbound 0835 C2 is through the Bus Station on time and steaming down Southampton Road towards the college. It is quite likely that he will drop off and be back in the bus station before the bus off the 612 gets there. If this is the case, I'll attempt to use that bus for the 0820 and let Matt run off the 612 on to the 0835 C2. After all, there's nothing worse for the waiting customers in the bus station than seeing a bus parked doing nothing on the layby while their's is nowhere to be seen. Besides, the 0820 carries several Toynbee School students and we don't want to make them late (although they never normally seem quite so bothered, but that's another story!)

So I'm watching the 'blips' moving along on the map, and sure enough the C1 is unloading at the college at 0814 while Matt (with the 612) is still in Stoneham Lane, though he's doing better than he thought he would - I'm going to hedge my bets for a minute or two more.

Fast forward to 0818 and as you can see from this map, the bus that was the C1 (NX55 FFO) is now making good progress back along Derby Road to the Bus Station, while the 612 (F309 MYJ) is still at the college.

So that's settled then. A quick text to both drivers, which they should see when they get to the bus station, and their two scheduled journeys have been swapped. The Solo is back in the bus station actually at 0821, still a couple of minutes late for the 0820 by the time it leaves, but still better than waiting for 309 to come in. This one rolls in at 0824, with plenty of time to spare to get the C2 out on time.

Ok, not the most catastrophic late running and it probably wouldn't have mattered too much in this case if we'd left them as they were. But you can doubtless imagine that there are other times when late running gets more pronounced and we can save our customers a lot more than four minutes by judiciously swapping the workings around. And the nice thing for me is that I've micromanaged the service to this level just because I can - and in doing so saved an unnecessary 3-4 minute delay for the 0820 passengers, without them ever realising what has happened behind the scenes to get those few minutes of improvement for them.

A far cry from the days when any enquiry about whether a bus was on time could only be met with a vague wave of the arm and the response, "we've no idea, but all the buses are out there somewhere!"

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A journey through webspace

Over the last few weeks I have been working on a makeover of the company website, and the new site went live earlier today. It is not actually a new site at all - just the previous site with a new 'skin'. For the geeks, apart from the home page which was fairly substantially rewritten, for all the other pages the content is the same and only the style sheet has changed.

But hopefully the outcome is a crisper, clearer look, which better fits in with the corporate style that has evolved over the last year. In the early part of 2009 we were concerned that our corporate identity was a bit of a mess. Our starting point was a livery and logo designed for us in the early days by Ray Stenning of Best Impressions, a well-known industry figurehead.

I have worked with Ray on a variety of projects over the last ten years or so and he has always been inspirational to work with, and his design contribution to getting us off the ground will never be forgotten. Thanks to Ray, we started life with a quality of design and livery of which most small start-up companies hardly dream!

However, circumstances dictated that we could not work with Ray on an ongoing basis, and we sourced our publicity, stationery, internal communications and other corporate paraphernalia without any real co-ordination from a variety of sources - some internal, some external (including our friends at PB Bus Marketing)

The result was that nothing looked quite the same. Some stuff looked very professional, others less so. The logo appeared with subtle variations all over the place, including the "smooth operator" strapline in some instances but not in others, and in a variety of positions and typefaces where it was used.

However, this kind of approach is anathema to me. I am a firm believer in a very strong and well-managed brand and corporate identity. One's brand communicates so much about the values and professionalism of the company, and a good brand has to be both reassuring to existing users and also enticing and attractive to potential new users.

There are miserable people out there who think it doesn't matter what colour the bus may be, or whether the fleet name or logo are the correct colour or typeface, as long as the bus turns up, because apparently they think that's all people care about. Well, at the point of wanting to get home from work that may well be all they care about. But when they made the decision that they wanted to use the bus in the first place, that decision will have been influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the company's brand. You haven't a hope of growing your business if no-one knows what you look like!

Imagine walking into a supermarket and seeing all the products in identical white boxes, with the name of the product written in black block capitals on the side. Apart from being very boring, it would be a very tedious and time consuming business trying to find all the products you wanted to buy, and you certainly wouldn't be encouraged to try anything new. From a functional point of view, you could achieve shopping ("it doesn't matter what colour the bus is....") but you wouldn't be in any hurry to go back!

Our position at that time was driven by necessity rather than desire, with the priority being on setting up a viable company with minimal cash outlay. Once we reached a point in spring 2009 - eighteen months after we were born - where we found some time to stop and reflect, and a small amount of cash to set aside, we decided to bring the situation under control.

Acting on a recommendation we turned to a London agency, Martyn Cornwall Design, and gave them the brief to develop a proper corporate identity. Having reviewed all the various manifestations of our identity, they quickly developed a style that we liked. They tweaked the logo very slightly, making it a little bit sharper and crisper, and developed a 'house style' for corporate stationery, publicity and such like. When the Solos arrived in the fleet in early 2010 they updated the livery and also applied this style to the recently acquired Dart SLF, and this has been very well received.

The one area where we had never really got to grips with the corporate identity was on our website. In order to save money at the outset, I decided that I would do the website myself! After all, I could do great things in BBC Basic on my Mum's BBC 'B' Microcomputer (32K, don't you know) back in the early '80s - I just needed to brush up my programming skills a bit!

So I bought some books and taught myself to programme some HTML, and coded our first ever website using the skills I'd taught myself. And here it is! In actual fact, I've kept our entire archive of websites in our very own web 'museum', so you can actually go and see it for real here if you want!

As you can see, that was a pretty basic attempt at a website, just announcing that we would soon exist! Then I managed to progress a few more chapters through the book and decided to try my hand at animation! The next iteration therefore involved both sound and animation, with a little picture of 309 trundling across the page! It looked fairly naff at the time, absolutely horrific with hindsight, but if you want to see 309 moving for real (and if you have the correct plug-in you might even hear some music), here it is!

At that time things were hotting up and we weren't far from starting our services, so I turned my attention to developing a 'real' website with actual information that would be useful to people. My first attempt is shown below. At that stage we were still using our full name, Black Velvet Travel, and felt that a black background would suit the image. This was also evident from our early timetable leaflets. Anyway, I abandoned this design of website pretty quickly because I just thought it looked rubbish, so it has never been seen in public before, but if you want to see how far I got, help yourself!

Finally we hit upon a design we liked, and by this stage I was romping through the html textbook, and was even playing with a bit of Javascript (mainly on the 'meet the team' page) and I think there's even some PHP in there somewhere! With various tweaks along the way, this website survived over a year so will be familiar to anyone who was following us in the early days. But if you want a reminder, here it is!

By spring 2009, I'd gone off that design in a big way. In addition, Mikey - our annoying teenage brat commercial assistant - is as much a fan of good branding and corporate identity as I am - and was pushing me towards a cleaner, friendlier look. Indeed, he has been behind much of the work we have done with Martyn Cornwall, including producing publicity material such as posters in the new style and it has been a very enjoyable joint effort to get where we are now.

Also by spring 2009 we'd abandoned the Black Velvet Travel name in the public eye - referring to ourselves simply as Velvet - and therefore the black background not only looked bad but was also pointless! So I set about redesigning the site on a white background, which we felt was a marked improvement on the previous version. Indeed, this design served us well for well over eighteen months, and only took retirement this morning! If you can't remember back that far, or you wish to have a play with it for old time's sake, here it is!

However, it is now over a year since we started imposing the Martyn Cornwall-inspired 'look and feel' to our various corporate manifestations, and the website badly needed bringing into line. The trouble is that with lots of competing priorities for time and money, a good website remains as having the potential to be a big ticket cost item.

I can't hope to carry on producing 'home made' websites forever. After all, the business now punches at a much higher weight (I hope) in all other areas of our branding so it is important that it looks right and functions well and my knowledge of html, Javascript and PHP remains at a fairly low level. I certainly cannot even begin to compare myself with professional web developers. Moreover, we have high hopes for a website that has a really classy look and superb functionality, and that is certainly in the melting pot for 2011, working with new design partners to take us to the next level!

However this may take months to develop and in the meantime the website we had until today was starting to fall badly out of step with the corporate image being applied with increasing consistency across the rest of our world. So, in what I am sure will be my final fling, I decided to 'take the bull by the horns' and bring the site up to date. The consensus so far is that the new look is a further improvement. Obviously it matters to us that it now has a style more in keeping with our other publicity, but generally we feel it looks better and sharper.

There are still some improvements to be made, but this is hopefully a makeover that will last us until we are ready to take the next step. Any comments, insights or suggestions are of course welcome, but I hope you would agree that it's not bad for a website still entirely hard coded, by me, in Notepad on my computer. Apart from a few graphics images bought from royalty-free internet sites, all the graphical elements are produced with nothing more sophisticated than Microsoft Paint!

So if you haven't seen our latest home made website, feel free to take a look!

But as always, reality intervenes, and now I'm off to the yard to park up some buses!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

You can't please all the people...

Yesterday a lady rang up to find the time of a bus from Asda to Hiltingbury this morning. I told her there was a bus at 0800. She asked if it would definitely be running, and I said yes.

The phone rang today at 0755, it was the same lady.

Customer: Is there definitely a bus from Asda to Hiltingbury at 0800 this morning?
Me: Yes indeed madam, it will be at 0800.
Customer: Is it definitely running?
Me: Yes it is
Customer: So it will definitely come at 0800?
Me: Yes madam, that's right
Customer: OK, only I've been stood here for half an hour already and it hasn't come yet!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Cleaning up the act

Amid all the excitement, one still has to do the household chores!

After a few hours in the office today, I came home and spent the afternoon cleaning and tidying the kitchen and living room. Not my favourite job but it has to be done!

The phone rang, it was Taz (friend, driver, part-owner of the company) calling for a general chat about the day. He asked what I was doing so I told him I was cleaning and tidying the flat.

"Blog about that then", he laughed.

So I have!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Fangs for the information

A few hours ago I was down at Eastleigh Ice Rink (it's brilliant and its got an amazing bus service, so good it needs six separate bus stops to handle them all!) keeping the public informed.

A well-spoken gentleman strolled up, and asked a few perfectly sensible questions about which estates were being served and which weren't. It happened to be Bluestar routes he was enquiring about, but no matter, he explained that he needed the info for his wife who needed to catch a bus later, and we had a very pleasant chat.

The only slightly disconcerting thing was that for the entire duration of our perfectly normal conversation, his dog - I'm no expert but some kind of pit bull thing by the look of it - was growling at me continuously and straining at the leash!

Not once did the gentleman acknowledge the existence of the dog, nor pass any comment about its behaviour. For all the world he behaved as though it simply wasn't there, chatting away happily while the canine made clear its desire to tear me limb from limb!

While I maintained my composure, I have to say it was a very odd experience and really quite surreal! Eventually he wandered off leaving me a nervous wreck!

I only hope I gave him the right answers to his questions....

Thursday, 2 December 2010

There's no business like snow business...

Oh dear, snow!

We thought maybe, just maybe, we'd escaped! But after days of watching our colleagues around the country having to cope with tons of the white stuff, our helping arrived from around 9pm last night.

We have undoubtedly got away with it lightly compared to many, and I have been filled with admiration over the last few days by the obvious unstinting efforts of the many thousands of staff involved in controlling, driving, maintaining and managing buses, as they struggle to keep services running.

Our own experience pales into insignificance by comparison.

The striking thing though was how quickly conditions deteriorated. The late shift driver on C1 texted me at 2154 to say the first flakes of snow were falling, and within half an hour we were having to pull the service out of some of the side roads. The last couple of trips operated only to drop the few people waiting in Eastleigh, somewhere close to where they needed to be!

So I set the alarm for 0330, with the intention of driving round all the routes in my car before 0600 to see what was viable and what wasn't, but realised pretty quickly after I woke up that there wasn't much point! With snow laying to a depth of around six inches around my flat, and even main roads in the city centre having nothing more than tyre tracks, there was no hope for the back roads!

So I drove into Eastleigh, met those staff who had been able to make it to work, and straight away we decided not to run any school or college buses. Conventional wisdom is that you wait until the schools decide what they are going to do and respond accordingly. But on this occasion, I knew that we wouldn't be able to serve large parts of the routes, and frankly didn't want to be in a position where we took them all to school and then had the responsibility of getting them home again if the situation worsened.

Most of our morning peak run out is involved with school and college commitments, so with those trips cut, frankly there wasn't a lot left to run. In the event, all the relevant schools and colleges closed anyway.

There was still the matter of the public routes to consider however, and one of the drivers volunteered to go and test the A route and I went out on the C.

The A largely sticks to main roads so we have been able to run the vast majority of it for most of this morning.

The C on the other hand winds round all the back streets of Chandler's Ford and Hiltingbury. As I drove up Leigh Road, I could see that Oakmount Road and Falkland Road (both normal haunts of the C) were a mess of abandoned cars and the ones that were moving were sliding around. So I decided on a much simplified route sticking to main routes only, on a half hourly schedule.

We agonised a bit over the S2 route in Southampton, but that route is allergic to main routes - everyone time it gets near one it turns away. I was tempted to go and have a look but then I bumped into a Bluestar driver who lives near one of the key parts of the route. From his description of the road conditions in that area, I knew there was no chance of it being viable!

Although it has stopped snowing as I write this, there is no sign of a thaw and a 'pitch inspection' by a controller and one of our drivers within the last hour has revealed that the side roads are still unsafe so I suspect the service pattern we have now will remain in place for the rest of the day.

I hate snow with a passion. I am a complete curmudgeonly killjoy when it comes to snow. In my world, it only ever causes problems (and slashes the revenue in the process). But it has its lighter moments, and if you'd asked me this morning what I would be doing today, the last thing I would have said was that I would be playing Super Mario Kart with the 5-year old son of one of the staff in the bus station cafe, to keep him occupied for a few minutes as he obviously wasn't at school.

As I say, we've got away with it lightly compared to many this time round, but I shall be very pleased when it's over!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

A tale of three bus stops

Most people would think of bus stops as being fairly static items, happy to stay in one place and make their contribution to society in a steady, predictable way from one year to the next, without any great desire to travel or see the world.

However just lately one or two of ours have had a certain amount of wanderlust and today has been a day for rounding them up and bringing them back to heel!

Shortly after we rerouted the A along Passfield Avenue in Eastleigh, back in 2008, we agreed with the Borough Council to put up a new bus stop either side of the road near the junction with Nightingale Avenue. Two bus stop flags were secured to suitable poles and that was the end of that! However, just recently we noticed that one of the flags had escaped, destination unknown, leaving the public without guidance as to where to stand to wait for the bus.

We thought we had seen the last of it, but this morning a colleague at Eastleigh Borough Council reported that our errant bus flag had been rounded up in Fleming Park, and was now sitting by her desk. So we have retrieved it and (after a strong lecture about not getting any more big ideas), returned it firmly to its rightful pole.

You'd think that might be enough bus stop excitement for one day, but not in the heady world of Velvet!

We have a 'temporary bus stop' - a flag on a short pole imaginatively grounded in a painted old wheel hub, that we can move from place to place, for example when roadworks hinder access to a normal stop.

Our temporary stop has already made one previous bid for freedom, when it escaped from Henstead Road in Southampton, before mysteriously reappearing a few days later - we still don't know where it went.

However, more recently it was posted in Leigh Road, Eastleigh to stand guard over the never-ending hole-digging activities of Southern Gas Networks, while the real stop at the Good Companions pub was marooned in the middle of a long section of single line traffic.

Bored with this assignment, the temporary stop vanished within a few days of being sent there and - until today - had been missing for several weeks. We imagined that by now it was probably sunning itself on a South American beach, but not so! A tip-off earlier this afternoon from a member of the public led us to a private car park underneath a block of flats on the outskirts of Eastleigh town centre, where our temporary stop was standing in all its proud glory, nowhere near a road never mind anywhere a bus might go!

How amazing that by sheer chance, on the same day, we have managed to round up both our errant bus stops!

Indeed, we have been rather more successful at relocating bus stops that we never expected to see again, than we have at relocating one that we actually meant to move!

Today's third and final outbreak of bus stop action was meant to involve moving the outbound flag on the S2 route in Handel Road in Southampton, from its current pole (no longer served since the route changed in September), round the corner to a new pole recently erected by the City Council for our benefit.

Mikey and Simon duly set off in Vanessa, our Rapid Response International Rescue N-reg Ford Transit, armed with all the necessary tools for the job, drove all the way into Southampton City Centre, pulled up at the appropriate spot, switched on the flashing orange lights to make themselves feel important, threw open the back of the van and.... realised they'd left the ladder behind so they couldn't actually get to the flag!!!

Unplanned bus stop moves - 2, planned bus stop moves - nil, and a job for another day!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Isn't technology wonderful?

I am writing my new blog sitting in Costa Coffee in Eastleigh, enjoying wireless internet courtesy of them. Normally I'm in the office on a Sunday catching up on paperwork, but the office is too cold (the heating controls are in the next door office, which is currently unoccupied and we don't have a key). So I've come here instead and it's brilliant.

I still can't get my head round the concept of wireless internet. I can deal with conventional electricity - I have a firm belief that all electric wires and cables contain long rows of tiny little people who pass lumps of electrical charge very quickly along the line (a kind of human chain), until eventually it ends up in the device you are trying to power. I always worry about unplugging things in case the electricity falls out (or even worse, some of the tiny people might plunge six inches to their certain death), but so far my fears on this point seem to have proved unfounded.

But how does wireless work? The only way I can picture it is to imagine that the last tiny person in the line that goes from the telephone socket to the hub, has a very good throw, and simply has to hurl the little chunks of internet across the void to a waiting tiny person in my computer.

This would explain why the internet signal gets weaker as you get further from the hub, because obviously they can only throw so far and some chunks of internet will fall short!

Anyway, freaking me out to a whole new level is the fact that we can now offer you the chance to buy your bus ticket on your mobile phone, and simply show your phone to the driver when you board the bus! From registering at, you can buy your ticket, pay for it, download it to your phone and use it to travel on the bus, without any physical money ever changing hands, or any paper being produced or printed out.

On a related issue, we pioneered the use of QR Codes on a small number of our bus stop timetables a year or two back. Fairly clunky at the time and far too big, but nevertheless effective, they are now making a comeback on the mobile tickets and hopefully will soon reappear on our roadside timetables (we are working on this). If you don't know what a QR Code is, look it up (this blog encourages readers to think for themselves!).

Indeed, I was delighted to see one in Tesco Express last night inviting you to download content promoting a particular brand of razor blade. I think QR Codes are one of the next big things, and when you start to see them all around you over the next few years, remember you read about them here first!

It's all a far cry from my first ever job in the bus industry, rekeying endless serial numbers from Setright waybills into a pirate copy of a Lotus 123 spreadsheet on a green screen Apricot PC, while sitting underneath a shelf weighed down with box files containing reams of fanfold printer paper (offering little information of any use), that would occasionally collapse under the weight and rain down on my head! Ah, the memories...

It's a new blog!

Regular readers of my old Velvet Bus Blog cannot fail to have noticed long periods of inactivity, and in several cases have passed comment on this.

To be honest, I got quite disillusioned with life on the old blog. Although it was never meant to be an official Velvet production, many people saw it as such. For me, it was only ever meant to be an occasional pastime, offering whimsical comment on things that I thought people might find interesting.

I always enjoyed blogging but to be honest life is incredibly busy for quite a lot of the time, and after spending 14-15 hours at work immersed in bus issues, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was get the computer out and spend more time writing about buses!

More seriously, it is very hard to find things to write about that do not breach commercial confidence, and in one case I pulled what I thought was quite an entertaining post shortly after publication, because the organisation about whom it was written revealed itself to have no sense of humour and chose to make ominous comments about our future business relationship if it remained on view. Given that I said nothing that would actually cause any damage to the organisation in question other than some gentle leg-pulling, I now think I should have left the post there - "publish and be damned"!

In short, the fact that people saw the old blog as an official publication meant that (a) some people took it too seriously and (b) my failure to post with sufficient regularity was seen as evidence of some kind of corporate failure. Given that the purpose was only ever to entertain (and occasionally enlighten), I pretty much gave up! But I still liked the idea of blogging and often thought of interesting things to post, just didn't feel sufficiently motivated to do anything about it!

A chance meeting with the inspirational Leon Daniels of First Group at the Euro Bus Expo in Birmingham got me to thinking again! If you don't already read his blog by the way, go and have a look now - it's excellent!

I realise that my biggest mistake was to call my old blog the Velvet Bus Blog because that clearly makes it sound official even though it was never meant to be, so that blog has officially breathed its last breath! Although it can stay there for now for historical purposes, nothing more will be added, and it will be frozen in time as at last April!

I am going to have another go at this blogging lark. Many of the issues described above still remain, so I am not promising success! However, I am going to make it clear from the outset that even though I will often be talking about Velvet and bus issues generally, this blog is my own personal ramblings and is not in any way an official publication of Velvet! That means that if I fail to post, or I fail to keep people's interest, and everyone gets bored and goes away (or starts writing sarcastic comments), that's entirely down to me and no reflection on my bus company! Hopefully that won't happen though and I'll be able to keep a sufficiently engaging blog going for a little longer!

Anyway, welcome to my new blog and let's see how it goes!