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....!


  1. It was great fun being a passenger. Took my son a couple of times, and the wife once. When it came to being close to the edge, near the ocean terminal, she had her eyes closed!

    It's a shame it stopped, but you can understand why. Cutting it back to Mayflower Park was definitely the nail in the coffin. Without the visibility in the city centre, it was never going to work in the second year.

    But it was good fun while it lasted.

  2. Interesting to read about that - I hadn't been aware that Blue Line had operated a Docks tour. I have long since left Southampton, to be only a very occasional visitor, but I do recall the Docks Tours operated (I think jointly with SCT) by Hants & Dorset in the 1960s and '70s. Those used to run on weekday afternoons, and often required duplication if one of the 'Queens' or similar was in port.

    I don't know when that operation came to an end - probably later in the '70s, but full marks for reviving an old idea in a manner that might be said to be commercially worthwhile, if not directly profitable. Sometimes the old ideas are worth revisiting!