Saturday, 24 December 2011

All dressed up and nowhere to go!

That's how it felt this morning, when the mayhem of the busiest shopping week of the year gave way to a complete anti-climax of a Christmas Eve! We had our big guns lined up, with me and Karl parked in the bus station with 107 and V12 ready to slot in to cover trips if Christmas shopping congestion affected the schedule, but in the event we just sat on the wall and watched while nothing much happened and the buses flowed freely in and out.

This wasn't necessarily a complete surprise - the obvious effect of many people having a complete week to prepare for the big day was that most had clearly got themselves organised by yesterday. But we couldn't be sure exactly how today would pan out so we had our reserves in place just in case!

We've certainly been stretched at times during the week. The C in particular has been hammered for timekeeping, both as a result of traffic congestion - Leigh Road, Bournemouth Road in Chandler's Ford and the car parks around Fryern Hill being hotspots - and passenger loadings, the latter particularly encouraging given the route's newly commercial status.

We have routinely been sending out spare drivers and buses all week to cover trips so that pretty much every journey has left Eastleigh on time, even though some have been taking 75 or 80 minutes to cover a 55 minute schedule once out there.

The downside of running a circular route of course is that people waiting at the other end haven't necessarily had such a good experience, and if you have been waiting for a bus in Hiltingbury, Fryern or Chandler's Ford any time after about 11.00 any day this week you will probably have been waiting 10 or 15 minutes longer than you expected. That's very unfortunate, but difficult to avoid, and at least by inserting spare drivers and buses in Eastleigh we've managed to keep things from getting out of hand. Our Greenroad vehicle tracking system has really been a huge benefit both in enabling us to be proactive in managing the service, and communicating delay information to customers.

Luckily most of our customers are extremely understanding and take the delays in their stride, knowing that the bus will come along eventually. Sadly there remain a few who seem to live in a bubble, and the one who sneered "what kind of a service do you call this" at me yesterday when I turned up at Fryern 15 minutes late having left Eastleigh spot on time, stands out as a highlight. I decided that my preferred response of "one on which you are not welcome, madam" was probably unwise. I can understand her frustration.

Yesterday was particularly strange for traffic. The C was predictably hammered in the morning and we didn't even try to maintain the normal duties, we just had three drivers going round on ninety minute cycles (ie doing the 1010, 1140, 1310 rather than 1010, 1110, 1210 etc as they normally would) and it worked. However, quite bizarrely, at around 1400 hrs the C suddenly died down and started running bang on time, whereas the A - which had been trouble-free all day - simultaneously started running into 20 minute delays - mostly around the Sainsbury's/M&S complex at Hedge End.

Hopefully, the commercial receipts will show that it was worth the effort, but a challenging week has now given way to an extremely gentle weekend. The frustrating loss of our Sunday contracts means that after we lock the gates tonight we won't turn another wheel until Wednesday 28th - the most number of consecutive days of not running buses since we started running services in February 2008.

We did look quite seriously at running on Boxing Day, and I see that the Omnibuses blog is debating that very subject today. I am wildly enthusiastic about running on Boxing Day, as I feel that in any major retail centre there is a great commercial opportunity. However, after careful consideration we decided that since we don't have a West Quay, a Gunwharf Quays or a Festival Place on our routes, it's probably still a bit of a stretch for us commercially. I wouldn't rule it for next year though!

When I introduced Boxing Day services at Bluestar (either 2004 or 2005), we were pleasantly surprised by the demand, but found with a few years' experience that it needed West Quay to be open to be a success, and then Saints playing at home would put the icing on the cake. With both ingredients in place this year, I predict a bumper Boxing Day bonanza for Bluestar this year, and First are fools for not running! (And I've told them so!) In fact we did consider running commercial services for one day only in parts of Southampton that won't otherwise have a service, but felt that without any marketing channels open to us we would struggle to raise awareness of anything we might offer.

For the period between Christmas and New Year, we are running a normal weekday service. This is probably the period that has the greatest variety of services around the patch, with Bluestar running Saturday timetables and First running special timetables (not something of which I am a great fan to be honest - I'm not convinced the effort involved in all the publicity and upsetting regular commuters etc is really worth the saving for three days of operation, but as it is not my place to comment on First's commercial strategy yet I have now done so in two consecutive paragraphs, I'd better wish them well and leave them to it!)

Our decision to run weekday services is based on previous experience of running Saturday timetables. For us, there is no huge difference in cost between running a weekday and Saturday schedule once the schools and colleges are stripped out, and yet we have many loyal, regular commuters who rely on the journeys that only run on weekdays. We have found in the past that we have caused considerable inconvenience to some of our best customers, while benefitting ourselves from only a very small saving.

Looking at New Year, we have decided to run through until the bitter end on New Year's Eve. I'm hoping that being a Saturday night more people will be going out to celebrate than normally do, and we want to enable them to do so. I suspect it will go very quiet around 2200 hrs, but for the sake of two hours it doesn't seem worth stopping the services early.

In previous years I have welcomed the new year in some slightly strange places, including between junctions 7 and 5 of the M27 while driving back from a rail replacement duty, and memorably one year on the Cowes Floating Bridge. I expect to welcome 2012 somewhere around the bottom of Wildern Lane on the 2340 A from Eastleigh. Feel free to come and join me, we'll have a party on the bus!

The final piece of the festive jigsaw is that we have decided to run a Sunday timetable (which means us running First and Xelabus times) on New Year's Day. There's no real business case, other than that for many people now New Year's Day is not particularly special, and in fact behaves like a normal bank holiday, and I don't see why people shouldn't have buses. I've got staff champing at the bit to work, so we're going to run and be damned! I won't be at the wheel however - chances are I shall head into Winchester for the Friends of King Alfred Buses' Running Day - always a great occasion.

For now though, Christmas Eve is starting to draw to a close. Apart from Pam, our part-timer who is cheerily flogging round the C1 (having made our day with the sensational cupcakes she brought to work this morning), we've let all the drivers go now. Karl the Controller is finishing one of the remaining duties and I'm off out to do the 1907 E8 and 1940 A to be the last bus back into the yard!

Happy Christmas!

Monday, 28 November 2011

Pear Shaped

That's the best way to describe tonight's traffic!

We sensed trouble at the end of this morning's peak, when they erected temporary traffic lights at the White Swan in Mansbridge (on the A27 a mile or so south of Parkway station, on Velvet A between Eastleigh and Hedge End).

However, we had no serious problems until a casual glance at GreenRoad revealed that the 1610 from Eastleigh to Hedge End was not where it should be! Due at West End at 1629, yet at 1655 it was still in Mansbridge, and ended up about 40 minutes late.

That was just the start! After that, a reported accident on the roundabout at junction 5 (thereby obstructing both main routes south of Eastleigh) and no doubt the onset of bad weather, and the south side of Eastleigh just stopped.

Luckily, the usual flexibility from our brilliant team of drivers meant that everyone disregarded their scheduled duties and covered whatever they needed to cover, with the result that every journey left its start point on time, even if it got comically late along the way!

The 1610 from Eastleigh should come back empty, to refuel and form the 1740 A. The 1640 from Eastleigh should come back as the 1714 from Hedge End (Heath House Lane). The 1710 from Eastleigh finishes at Hedge End and comes back empty to depot and the 1740 comes back as the 1814.

Today, the 1610 arrived just in time to form the 1714 back from Hedge End. This of course meant no cover for the 1740 from Eastleigh, but Controller Karl stepped in to do that.

Normally, the 1714 runs on to the 1820 C1 but that wasn't going to happen, so the 1820 fell to me.

Meanwhile, the 1640 from Eastleigh took around an hour to reach Parkway station and eventually made it through the roadworks 55 minutes late, meaning that it arrived in Hedge End just in time to make the 1814 service back - an hour later than the trip it was supposed to do! At one stage on the outbound journey it was stationary for so long in Southampton Road that GreenRoad concluded it had parked up for the night!

The 1710 is one of two buses that we can't currently track so that disappeared into a big black hole (or maybe a big orange hole) after turning left out of Eastleigh bus station and was next seen back in the yard just over two hours later, while the 1740 from Eastleigh (Karl) eventually got to Hedge End around one hour late.

Meanwhile, the normally excellent ROMANSE was being unusually coy and would only refer to traffic being "slow southbound towards M27 junction 5", which we felt rather understated the issue - although they did later admit to the accident on junction 5 roundabout.

We'll wait with interest to see what happens in tomorrow morning's peak! Extra bodies are on standby, just in case!

A more exciting feature of tomorrow's agenda is my annual trip to London to the UK Bus Awards ceremony, where once again I am delighted to be a guest of our excellent insurance brokers Belmont International.

All a bit frustrating this year though, because I had fully intended to enter in a few a categories, but the entry deadline coincided with an obscenely busy period, on the weekend of our June service change while also preparing for various special events (IW Festival, Glastonbury etc) for which we were contracted, and I just ran out of time to prepare the entries! Mind you, I suppose it's arguable that a company that can't manage to meet a deadline doesn't really deserve too many awards, but hopefully I'll have my proverbial ducks in more of an orderly row in time for next year's awards.

Whatever happens, best of luck to all those in the running for the various gongs - I'm sure all will be worthy winners.

Apart from the fact that we know we're not going to win anything, the only other disappointment is an unfortunate diary clash that means I will have to miss out on the traditional post-lunch socialising that usually lasts well into the night (and beyond) in the company of great people, as I have to be back in Eastleigh for an early evening meeting.

It's all in a good cause though, because it's the annual opportunity for Eastleigh Borough Council members to scrutinise the performance of public transport in the borough, and as part of that to question the operators on any matters they consider to be of interest.

Eastleigh has no statutory obligation to support its public transport yet in practice it is highly proactive and takes a significant interest in the transport offer, both in terms of financial support and working together with operators to promote innovation and good practice. Its members deserve our full attention to any concerns they wish to raise, and I always look forward to hearing their views.

Monday, 21 November 2011

A Mist Opportunity

A social event required my presence in Derby on Saturday night. This gave me the opportunity to sample the buses in the Peak District, something I have long meant to do but never found the right occasion.

To be honest it wasn't really on the agenda for this weekend either. My plan had been to return south on the train as soon as I woke up on Sunday morning and spend the afternoon doing domestic chores back in Southampton. But a conversation with a couple of friends on Saturday night stirred my sense of discovery and I decided to have an adventure!

My plan was not to have a plan, but insofar as I needed to end up somewhere where I could get a train south to be back in Southampton by 7ish on Sunday evening, I had the notion of setting off on trent barton's transpeak service to Matlock at 09:50 on Sunday morning, before perhaps catching TM Travel's 215 service to Sheffield. Needless to say, what actually happened was nothing like that!

Arriving at Derby Bus Station at around 09:40, the transpeak was already on the stand loading. Moreover, it had almost a full seated load with ten minutes to go to departure. It is highly creditable that it was already available for boarding, and most useful to me because it allowed me to decide not to go on it! I like my personal space, especially when I'm feeling slightly delicate after a heavy night, and really didn't fancy nearly an hour on a full bus so I aborted the plan.

In fact I almost aborted the entire plan and headed for the railway station, but just as I was about to leave the bus station my eye was drawn to a service at 10:00 to Ashbourne and Leek. The weekday equivalent between Derby and Ashbourne is trent barton's swift, which has recently been rebranded to very impressive effect, but you can always rely on a tendered Sunday equivalent to a weekday commercial service to be confusingly different, so the Sunday bus is a 108 operated by TM Travel.

This seemed more likely to offer plenty of personal space and so it proved, with a very jolly driver and three passengers on our smartly presented Solo when we left Derby. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I got to Ashbourne but it seemed likely to offer a nice ride, and if I had thought of nothing else I figured I could always carry on to Leek and try to get a connection to Stoke from there.

Two things quickly became apparent as we headed west into the countryside. Firstly, the scenery is almost certainly magnificent. Secondly, I couldn't see any of it due to the thick fog that was enveloping everything apart from a few hundred metres of the road ahead! This afforded me plenty of time to play with my phone, and I stumbled across the website for Public Transport in Derbyshire, a real mecca for a timetable geek like me!

From this I was able to deduce that I had two much more interesting options when I arrived at Ashbourne, with a choice of departures at 10:35 on either a TM Travel bus on route 110 to Matlock, or a Bowers bus on a 42A to Buxton.

The first of these options was more appealing, as it would allow me to return to Derby in a triangle and still get back to Southampton in good time. It was also a slightly shorter journey - the Buxton bus would take nearly an hour and a half to get there and that length of journey tries my patience!

So I resolved I would catch the bus to Matlock, and almost inevitably that isn't what happened!

On arrival at what grandly calls itself Ashbourne Bus Station - a layby comprising three bus shelters - both the above mentioned buses were waiting, and as expected both were Solos. However, it quickly became apparent that there was to be some swapping of buses, and in fact the bus that was supposedly en route from Derby to Leek was actually going to transfer on to the Matlock route, and the bus that was already waiting in Ashbourne - which I assumed would be the 110 - was in fact going forward to Leek.

Presumably this is to cycle buses for maintenance etc - the 108 seems a long way from TM Travel's Sheffield heartland - but since this now meant that I would be staying on the same bus I decided that would be too boring, hence I decided to go to Buxton instead.

For my first trip on a Bowers bus I was delighted to be presented with a choice of three moquettes, all entirely clashing, but the driver was friendly and cheerful. Once again, three passengers were aboard as we pulled out.

There followed one of the most surreal and enchanting bus rides I can remember. Shortly after leaving Ashbourne, we plunged off down a narrow lane and for the next hour weaved our way around woodland and dales, through picturesque villages, up steep hills to magnificent summits and down again into precipitous valleys. At least I assume we did all these things, but the dense wall of fog kept it all secret from us. Occasionally the mist would clear enough to tease us with the merest glimpse of scenic wonder, only to close in again at the next bend.

Through it all the driver made careful but steady progress, guiding us through the gloom and picking our way past cars and horse boxes when they loomed suddenly out of the murky greyness. He displayed the skill of one who knew every inch of the roads, an assuredness honed from years of experience. And yet, suddenly, as we were nearing the end of the trip he stopped and checked with us that he had to take a particular right turn. Then he revealed that he had only ever driven the route once before! Nobody could begrudge him that moment of uncertainty - all of us who drive professionally have found ourselves in that situation - but it made all the more astounding the manner with which he had guided us through the dense fog up to that point!

Shortly before our arrival in Buxton we burst out of the mist into a clear sunny day, and for the last couple of miles we called at every stop, filling up with locals for the short ride into town who would have had no idea of our adventure in the fog.

Despite the frustration of being unable to see anything this was one of the most magical bus rides I can ever recall. I loved the sense of being a long way from anywhere, in our own little cocoon remote from the outside world. And of course I have the added joy of knowing that I will have to go back to experience the route again in clear conditions, when I can properly appreciate the surroundings!

Arrival in Buxton was just before 12:00 and our bus was allowed a brief rest before disappearing out of service - here it is (the one at the front) having just been joined by one of its sisters:

It was clear that having crossed so much of the Peak District, it made much more sense to pop out the other side than to hack back across to Derby, so my thoughts turned to onward transport. The train now became an option, but my preference was for one more bus ride - you see and experience so much more of local life riding on a bus.

Stockport seemed the obvious destination, with an hourly direct train link back to Southampton. transpeak has an annoying three hour gap heading north from Buxton, so skyline 199 - also from the trent barton stable as you can tell from the absence of capital letters - was the obvious choice. 12:15 from Buxton would get me to Stockport Bus Station at 13:25, just in time for a mad scramble up the hill to the railway station for a 13.36 train. Perfect. So of course it didn't happen!

By about 12:30, with no sign of skyline anywhere to be seen, I was bored. I also knew I had missed my connection and would therefore be on the 14:36 from Stockport. Had this been the plan all along I wouldn't have minded at all, but having set my heart on the 13:36 it was something of a let down to know that I had missed it.

I figured that, to be sure of at least getting the 14:36, I could give skyline until around 13:00 and then I would have to walk to the railway station. And then, while I was idly pondering the maps and departure boards at the bus stop, Macclesfield emerged!

Listed on the bus stop timetable was a 12:40 service 58 to Macclesfield. The map suggested it went through somewhere called the Cat & Fiddle, which stirred a distant memory from radio traffic reports in times of bad weather. Consulting the Derbyshire website, I could scarcely believe that compared to the seventy minute slog to Stockport, this option would have me on the West Coast Main Line in barely half an hour! And still in time to catch the 13:36 train one stop up the line!

I consider myself to have a good grasp of the geography of Britain, so I am ashamed that I had no real idea of just how close Buxton is to Macclesfield, and the outside world in general. I had not appreciated how much I would be cutting the corner by heading to Macclesfield rather than Stockport, and until this option bopped me on the nose Macclesfield had never entered my head as somewhere on the shortlist of places to visit! It certainly was not on the list of places I had expected to see when I walked out of my Derby hotel just three hours previously! And yet Macclesfield was the answer!

But Buxton wouldn't let me go without a fight. skyline eventually turned up twenty five minutes late, but I sneered at it with disdain as I waited for the now imminent service 58. Only the 58 didn't come! 12:40 came and went, 12:45, 12:50, 12:55 and still no sign. I was now resigned to a walk to the station to catch the train, and then the 14:36 from Stockport. Such a let down after such anticipation!

And then finally, just as I was about to give up and start walking, along it came! Another Bowers Solo, I boarded along with the two other waiting passengers, and then we sat there for five minutes while the driver had a phone conversation with his controller. He rang to alert him to the delay, but this turned into a lengthy debate about how it had happened and what could be done about it. None of which was getting us any closer to Macclesfield. But eventually we set off.

It was now 13:10, and I knew that my favoured train would be in Macclesfield at 13:49. I knew also that the bus journey would take half an hour and therefore I didn't have much time and I had no idea how to find Macclesfield station once I got there. So the scene was set for a nail-biting finale, but before any of that my breath was taken from me by the stunning scenery that lay around us as we climbed out of Buxton!

Normally I know when I'm going to be in for a scenic ride, and I set my anticipation levels accordingly. By contrast, I saw nothing to look forward to in the trip to Macclesfield. It felt like a cop out, shuffling sheepishly out of the side door of the High Peak. I was not prepared for the Cat and Fiddle!

What an amazing road, what a panorama, and all condensed into less than thirty minutes! What a surprising end to my bus travels for the day, and what a climax!

Before we got to the best bit, I was able to take this photo looking back over Buxton, from which you can see the northern extremity of the fog bank that I had endured for so much of the morning:

After the unexpected excitement of the Cat and Fiddle, our descent into Macclesfield took us right past the railway station (although in the best traditions of bus-rail integration in this country, it was kept as low profile as possible). So my connection was easy, I had had a great adventure and it was barely lunchtime!

The £15 upgrade to First Class was a no brainer and I enjoyed four hours of relaxed snobbery, cruising south in spacious, luxurious accommodation, reading my book and listening to the occasional despairing announcements from the Train Manager to the sardines in Standard Class, not to block the aisles or pile their luggage in the vestibules.

The Peak District fascinates me. It has some of the most dramatic scenery you will encounter in this country, but all in close proximity to real life. Distances are short, it is easy to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, and especially for a Sunday the frequency of bus services is astonishingly good, with some really useful connections.

Although passenger numbers were modest on the buses I used, there were walkers and sightseers as well as locals. All the drivers I encountered were friendly and helpful.

All the ingredients are there for an amazing tourist product, yet the whole thing seems so much less than the sum of its parts. It seems to me to be crying out for a decently branded network, indeed the network is virtually already there, but if I wasn't a persistent transport geek I would never have worked out that stringing the 108, 42A and 58 together would get me from east to west in a morning, or that everything comes together in Ashbourne at 10:30. I still have no idea if there was a ticket that I could have bought that would have saved me buying three separate singles and given me the flexibility to go where I wanted. There certainly should be.

In my humble opinion the network cries out for some simplification, decent branding, ticketing and promotion, and surely the passenger numbers would go through the roof as they have done on Coasthopper in Norfolk or Jurassic CoastlinX53 in Dorset and Devon.

But despite that, I loved my morning bus adventure in the Peak District and I can't wait to be back!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Les is More

While the bus industry counts many entertaining characters among its staff, the same is equally true of the customers. While the vast majority are polite, unassuming and go about their business with nothing more than a "good morning", "please" or "thank you", there are those who become part of folklore.

Meet Les.

One of our less well known activities is to operate the network of free buses into Sainsbury's at Ferndown on behalf of Xelabus, a commitment that allows us to think of ourselves as a Dorset operator at least on two days of the week! As you can see from the timetable this is a fairly complex network of five interworking local routes into the store.

Les is in charge of route SA4, not that anyone ever calls it that.

It's not clear by what process Les came to be in charge of SA4, although his military credentials suggest that he probably just lined up the other customers outside the store while waiting for the bus one day, and after a bit of square bashing claimed the title by default. But no-one messes with Les.

Les knows where everyone gets on. He stands near the front of the bus and keeps a note of who is travelling and who isn't. Most of the clientele is of a certain age and - despite falling into the same bracket himself - Les helps them on and off with their trolleys. Two trolleys in particular he keeps with him at the front of the bus, as he does not feel it is safe for them to be parked with their owners.

Les keeps the drivers in order, making it his business to show new ones the route and explain the stopping arrangements. Once the passengers and their shopping are loaded ready for the return journey, he decides when it is time to leave.

I met Les for the first time around a month ago, when I deputised for the regular part-timer we were using on the route one Wednesday. Les was both helpful and engaging, making sure that everyone got the service they expected while chatting away to me about his life and times. I think I scored points for recognising that his accent was from the East Midlands, and this led to a series of anecdotes about his upbringing around Melton Mowbray and subsequent army career.

Today we introduced a new driver to the Ferndown clan, as Martin is going to split his time between wooing his regular bunch of senior devotees on the S2, and wooing a whole new bunch of senior devotees in East Dorset.

Mostly it fell to me to show Martin the way, but when we arrived at Prunus Close on the SA4 all that changed. "Can I leave you to show him the ropes?" I enquired, and was met with a stern look and an assertive "well that's what I normally do" in response. I snuck to the back of the bus with my laptop and got more work done in a 25 minute tour of the back streets of Ferndown than I sometimes achieve in a whole day in the office!

I did interrupt my work long enough to take what passes for an action shot on the Sainsbury's bus...

Here we see Les in his rightful position at the helm, while in the background the door of yet another sheltered housing block is thrown open to yield our next intake of passengers. Inside the bus, the ladies model the latest in Ferndown hair fashion, but none are as smartly presented as Les's "bag for life", immaculately folded on the luggage rack.

All was not well today however. On arrival at the store Les revealed that it had been my job to count the number of passengers getting on, but as he had not briefed me on my responsibilities and I had failed to keep a tally, he was faced with the impossible task of deciding whether everyone was present for the return journey without knowing how many he had to count back on!

Moreover, there is a faint whiff of scandal in the air. It emerges that one of the passengers doesn't talk to Les, as he once offered to help her on with her trolley and she admonished him that she was quite capable of taking care of herself. A rift was thus created which simmers on in the background.

But there is no real doubt that Les is the hero of the SA4, and the route would be much duller without him!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


At Velvet we only employ the elite of PSV drivers, a premier band of experienced driving professionals equally at home doing laps of Velmore as reversing a coach up an Alp in whiteout conditions.

Or so we'd like to believe.....!

Today I found myself discussing a possible forthcoming one-off job to the town of Haslemere with two of our drivers. It would have been three, but we know how to play to our employees' individual strengths so we'd sent Steve off to get the teas.

Sadly, mention of the name of this Surrey town - a mere 40 miles away - drew blank looks from both my colleagues.

Not to be defeated, one of them pulled out his iPad and searched for the place on the map. Unfortunately he substituted a 'z' for the 's' and declared it to be "near Oxford". Leaving aside the question of whether the 30 mile distance between the Buckinghamshire village of Hazlemere and the dreaming spires counts as "near", left to his own devices he would have set off north in his bus and presumably spent the day scouring the suburbs of High Wycombe desperate to find some passengers.

The other driver present joined me in laughter at his colleague's schoolboy error. When the chuckling had subsided he thought about it for a moment, smiled as a moment of enlightenment arrived in his brain then declared, "Haslemere... That's in Herefordshire isn't it?"

Saturday, 12 November 2011


Me: Good afternoon, Velvet, Phil speaking, how may I help you?
Customer: Hello. I've got a doctor's appointment in Fryern at 1130. What time can I get a bus from Velmore?
Me: C2 at 1047, gets you there at 1113.
Customer: Okay. Isn't there a more direct one?
Me: The direct one would be the C1 leaving at 1117, but that doesn't get you there until 1133.
Customer: Oh no, that's no good, far too late for my appointment.
Me: Okay in that case it would need to be the C2.
Customer: So there's not another direct one after the C2 then?
Me: No, nothing before the 1117.
Customer: Right, so what time does that get there?
Me: As I said, it gets there at 1133.
Customer: Oh that's fine, I'll only be three minutes late for the appointment, I'll get that one!

Go figure....!?!?!

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Sexing Up The Bus

This picture accompanies today's Daily Telegraph travel supplement:

I have probably broken all sorts of laws by copying it and reproducing it here, but as I am using it to draw your attention to the fact that the article it accompanies is superb and required reading, hopefully the Telegraph and the photographer (Christopher Jones) will decide, on balance, not to sue me!

Normally when one reads about people using buses in mainstream media travel articles, it is a story of the writer's heroism in surviving a 24 hour ride upside down on the roof of a minibus hurtling along unmade roads across some dark and distant land, squashed between a pile of threadbare suitcases tied together with string, some locals (who always babble incomprehensibly but willingly share their food) and a few live chickens.

It is rare to find an article that is actually all about the delights of riding on buses, as a way of exploring majestic scenery and experiencing part of the local lifestyle. Today's Telegraph article does that superbly well, describing a route from Sandbanks to Plymouth using eight or nine of the country's most scenic bus routes.

Starting with two of my personal favourite routes, Wilts & Dorset's Purbeck Breezers from Sandbanks to Swanage and Swanage to Wareham, the trip continues with First's Jurassic CoastlinX53 to Exeter, thence along the South Devon coast to Teignmouth, Torquay, Paignton and Kingswear, and finally the one route that I have never explored but really must - First's route 93 from Dartmouth to Plymouth.

As a side note, while extolling the virtues of these routes it is only fair to make the point that the accessibility of some of these routes owes as much to the efforts of local authority officers (notably those of Devon County Council) as to the operators themselves.

The article describes the author's delight in discovering stunning scenery and imposing views in a way that is just impossible by any other form of transport. It also subtly makes the point that while the pace of bus travel may be a deterrent to some it forces one to slow down and appreciate the surroundings, and that is exactly the right way to approach this glorious region.

It is also pleasing to note an obvious appreciation of the skills of the drivers who ply these routes daily, and even manages a passing jibe at idiotic drivers' hours rules that deem that it it less safe to drive forty miles on one direction than to drive twenty miles one way then twenty miles back, and apparently more stressful to drive thirty two miles across rolling Dorset countryside than twenty miles across London!

The writer is one Andrew Gilligan, much better known for his political journalism, not least because it was he that reported the allegation that the Blair government had "sexed up" a dossier about Iraq's weapons capability.

He is probably thoroughly bored of "sexing up" jokes by now, and in my view he deserves nothing but praise for this article so it seems churlish to dredge up this old chestnut for the title of this blog post. However it does seem remarkably apt, and in exactly the same way that I smile and try to look slightly surprised when someone remarks that I look a bit like "you know, that one from Men Behaving Badly - that's it - Doc Martin!", hopefully he would have the good grace to look the other way while I regurgitate this particular expression one more time.

Anyway, enough of me waffling about it, read the article here!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

A Beautiful Bedford

For numerous reasons, we choose to outsource our maintenance to a local commercial vehicle workshop, Brenhaul Commercial Services. The business is owned and managed by two friends, Robert and Shaun, and they sprang into life just a few months before us in mid-2007, when they bought the company out from Rob’s father.

Our relationship with them has become very close as we have grown up together and they are as much friends as they are suppliers.

Their own background is in trucks, and most of the rest of their business involves providing maintenance services to truck and van operators. As an aside they do also have a MOT testing station for light vehicles and would be delighted to MOT your car!

As a result of our relationship with them we get to mix with plenty of colleagues in the road haulage industry and it is fascinating to get to know some of these guys, to talk to them and to understand their passion for the lorries – much of which has rubbed off on me!

In a separate development, over the last three years my friend and co-founder of Velvet, Taz and I have obtained our LGV driving licences for both rigid and articulated lorries. We mostly did this as a pastime to fill some time and give us another string to our bow when we were starting Velvet, and also to help fulfil our fascination for driving big vehicles.

I have never used my LGV licence for genuine commercial purposes, but it does mean that occasionally I get to play with other people’s lorries, shunting them round the estate or taking them for road tests (usually for my benefit rather than that of the truck!)

Generally these are run of the mill tractor units that are commonplace on today’s motorways, such as the Volvo FH or the odd DAF, but I had the opportunity today to sample something really quite amazing.

Another of Brenhaul’s clients is Ringwood Brewery and their vehicles are a common sight at the Eastleigh workshop. They have recently acquired this 1951 Bedford OLB previously associated with Wychwood Brewery in Oxfordshire.

Their intention is to maintain this vehicle in roadworthy condition for promotional purpose and occasionally the odd delivery, and accordingly it was at Brenhaul today for inspection. They were kind enough to offer me a drive and I wasn’t going to refuse!

The first and most striking impression is the cramped nature of the cab. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of creature comforts, but I was expecting to be able to get in! However it was quite some time before I managed to perform enough human origami on myself to fold myself into the tiny space between the back window and the steering wheel.

I set off for a short drive round Eastleigh, turning plenty of heads among the Friday night crowds as I took an impromptu drive through the bus station, and I have to say the vehicle was a delight to drive. Delight that is, in the sense of being challenging, interesting and very rewarding. Not in the sense of being easy, comfortable or relaxing!

The brake pedal was positioned fiendishly high up so that I had to contort my knee up through the steering wheel to be able to get my foot on to it, and every time I steered right I bashed my elbow on the window sill. The crash gearbox was surprisingly easy, although I only have a 1939 Bristol K and a few 1956 Lodekkas to compare it with.

Huge fun though, and I can’t wait to drive it again. If they need a delivery driver to take it back to Ringwood, they know where to find me!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Triple Darts

Today was a very exciting day for us, even if the reality didn’t quite live up to the promise!

We have recently acquired three low-floor single deckers from Southdown PSV, these being two Dart SLFs - V392 SVV and W107 RNC – and a Super Pointer Dart, W554 JVV.

Although we did the deal early in April, and 392 and 107 entered service a couple of weeks ago, 554 was still running in Southdown’s own fleet when we agreed to buy it, so its arrival was delayed while they sourced a replacement.

554 emerged from repaint at Qualiti Conversions yesterday and today therefore marked the first day that we were able to allocate all three for service, with Velvet C having a 100% Dart allocation for the first time ever.

This photo shows all three lined up at Barton Park this morning waiting to take up service, accompanied by Solo 221 (YJ55 YGN) awaiting its duty on Velvet S2. The other Solo is having a few days’ holiday in the workshop and was therefore missing from the action.

The Darts have been acquired as a result of a commercial decision to double the frequency of Velvet A to half hourly from 6th June. Commercial service improvements are not entirely common in these doom-laden times, but there are sound reasons for making this move.

Our original intention had been to replace the Olympian/Spectra step-entrance double act currently seen on Velvet A with low-floor double deckers on a ‘one for one’ basis. We had looked at a number of examples of Dennis Tridents and Volvo B7TLs in various states of refurbishment, but it just didn’t feel right.

It is hard to find an engineer with too many good words to say about either product, and the poorer fuel consumption of both would have presented us with a hefty increase in running costs before we could even think about revenue growth, which would have been at best marginal in the absence of any actual service improvements.

Somewhere in the middle of our tour of low-floor ‘deckers I was toying with the thought that we must be able to do something more exciting. In particular I felt that if there was a way to achieve a 100% increase in headline frequency on the main Hedge End – Eastleigh section with only a 50% increase in resources overall, this would bring the revenue growth that we would need to achieve viability well within the bounds of possibility. The other significant attraction is that this enables the use of single deckers with much better fuel consumption, so the cost increase is nowhere near as great as people might imagine when one talks about doubling frequency.

Eventually I was able to come up with a draft timetable that provided for a half hourly service between Eastleigh and Hedge End, splitting into hourly loops serving Oaklands Estate and Botley respectively.

We have seen significant patronage growth across our network over the last year in particular, and soaring fuel prices have caused motorists to explore the alternatives. Our concern was that an hourly timetable would never offer enough flexibility to entice them from their vehicles, whereas with a half hourly timetable if you miss one, time passes fairly quickly until the next one.

All these factors converged to convince us that this was the right move to make and the right time to do it, and we are now up to our necks in publicity, scheduling and other tasks associated with the change, which has hurtled towards us at light speed and is now only two weeks away.

The three Darts – along with a second Optare Spectra that we recently acquired from North Somerset Coaches on a rather opportune basis – will allow us to cascade out three of the older double deckers, thus improving our age profile and image in the process. Obviously we still see the Darts as a stepping stone to a happy future time when we can buy state-of-the-art new vehicles, but realistically for a three year old start-up company we are going as fast as we dare, bearing in mind that we must live within our means and not risk the crazy expansion that has put paid to other ambitious young companies.

The next month will be especially busy for us however, with the increase in Velvet A coinciding with a number of special event commitments, so it is likely to be July before we can release the redundant double deckers.

From 6th June however, the normal plan will be for Velvet C to be a mixture of Darts and Solo, with the A being a mixture of DAFs and Darts, with one single decker spare. It is a relief to get the DAFs off the C. They are not ideal buses for that route, being quite sluggish and cumbersome, whereas the C really calls for nimbler, more manoeuvrable types to nip round the estate roads. The DAFs are far better suited to the A which was, after all, the route for which we originally bought them at the outset!

The remaining double deckers will normally be allocated for peak work only, but will obviously provide back-up for the main day services to cover maintenance requirements, as they do now.

This is therefore an incredibly exciting time for us and we really can’t wait to get stuck in to the improved A service. Today’s opportunity to allocate all three ‘new’ Darts for the first time was therefore an important milestone.

However, I did say at the start that the day did not quite live up to its promise, and just occasionally the facts spoil a good story! The last Dart out was 107 and this made it no further than Velmore on its first trip – less than ten minutes out of Eastleigh – before succumbing to an air leak.

So we will have to wait a little longer for the experience of all three Darts completing the day together, but it will take more than that little hiccup to curb our excitement!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Chris Day

I was very sad this week to learn of the death of my first ever bus industry boss, Chris Day. Back in 1991 when I was looking for a school summer holiday job before going to uni, Chris was Commercial Manager of a local bus and coach company called Buffalo Travel, and he gave me my first break.

Prior to that Chris had been Traffic Manager of an Aylesbury-based bus company, Red Rover, which operated routes within that town and into the surrounding areas and he was very proud of his time there. During his tenure at Buffalo Chris set up a new small business based in Aylesbury, in partnership with a friend. The chosen name, Red Rose Travel, and red and yellow livery clearly harked back to the days of Red Rover.

Buffalo had started life in the 1970s as a more traditional coach operation, providing school and works contracts, tours, excursions and private hire under the auspices of proprietors Tim and Ursula Cecil. Deregulation in 1986 had provided the springboard for the sudden and dramatic expansion into local services and this had prompted Chris’s arrival.

Chris threw himself wholeheartedly into developing an extensive network of bus routes at Buffalo and the company’s network spanned the counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, all operated from the one depot in Flitwick. Although most were tendered routes, many were Monday to Saturday hourly or two hourly services, thus creating quite an intensive network providing work for around twenty vehicles. This dwarfed the half dozen or so coaches still operating the traditional business.

The fleet was a very eccentric mixture of types, the company seemingly priding itself on owing at least one of every type ever made. This did not however apply to Bristols – Tim would not entertain these in the fleet. Tim did however have a strong liking for Volvos and that has rubbed off on me, remaining my first choice chassis to this day.

At the more modern end, we had two conventional Plaxton Pointer-bodied Dennis Darts for newly acquired route 311 between Watford and London Colney – at its nearest point 25 miles from the depot. My particular favourite was L133 HVS, an Alexander Strider bodied Volvo B10B bought new for route 89 between Hitchin and Henlow Camp. I remember driving it when brand new and being utterly seduced by the smoothness, power and engine note! Last year I rescued it from impending death at the back of Arriva's Luton depot, where they had robbed it of most important parts but were extremely helpful in enabling me to take it off their hands, and the vehicle is now parked in our own yard in Eastleigh as a future preservation project – if I ever get round to it!

Other favourites of mine were four Plaxton Derwent bodied Volvo B10Ms and three East Lancs EL2000 rebodied B10Ms, that scored nothing for looks, but were very enjoyable to drive. Also within the fleet we had Merc 811 minibuses, a few Iveco 49.10s, some weird and frankly dreadful Lex Maxeta Bedford minibuses, some almost equally dreadful Leyland Swifts, an AEC something-or-other, a few old Bedford coaches, several Volvo B58 coaches – most of which were to what would be called ‘dual purpose’ spec, coach bodies but fitted with a ticket machine and used almost exclusively on local services.

We also had some newer B10M coaches for coach work with Caetano Alpha and Algarve bodies, latterly a few Scania coaches, a few Fleetlines of various pedigrees for schools including a raft of ex-London DMS’s, Leyland Olympians, Dennis Dominators, a Dennis Javelin midicoach, an open-top Fleetline that would occasionally be sent out on school contracts, with an umbrella wedged above the driver’s head in the cab if it was raining……

Not bad variety for a fleet of around thirty!

To be fair to Chris he would tear his hair out at Tim’s scattergun approach to vehicle acquisition, and in particular his habit of buying cheap old coaches and spending so much doing them up that it often seemed cheaper to have bought a newer model in the first place. And to be fair to both of them, the best of the bus fleet was easily as good as anything else around at the time, and the company had made far greater strides than most other independents in establishing itself as a ‘proper’ bus company.

Much of this was down to Chris’s passion for customer service. Although the company itself seemed like a bit of a roller coaster ride sometimes, Chris was determined that no mileage should be lost unless completely unavoidable and as a result we ran a far more reliable service than many outsiders might have imagined. I always detected a certain air of superiority from our neighbouring big operators Luton & District and United Counties, which rather ignored the fact that we ran a much more reliable service than they did!

Indeed one of Chris’s stipulations, which I have carried with me to this day, is that we would always answer phone enquiries about any operators’ services, on the basis that if people felt they had received a helpful service from us – even if they were not able to use us on that occasion – they might come back to us in the future. And besides, he would argue, it was important for the image of public transport that we weren’t seen to pass the buck, if it was something we could help with. We would frequently field calls from disgruntled customers of the big operators unable to get through on their enquiry lines.

Chris was also quite clear in his expectation that our drivers should provide a helpful and friendly service at all times, and would despair if he became aware of any individual failing to come up to standard. Most drivers were very good but there was the occasional exception, and Chris was withering in his contempt for anyone not doing the job properly.

Chris’s failings included a complete lack of attention to detail. As a keen young commercial trainee, I was completely absorbed in the detail of fares, timetables, duty compilation, publicity and data analysis. This was the stuff of my dreams and I thrived on it. Our schedules were always efficient and well presented and we always had up-to-date publicity – I even designed a network map on an early equivalent of Microsoft Paint. I would spend hours on WordPerfect 5.1 tweaking our timetable designs to make them easy to read. You always had the sense with Chris that if there wasn’t someone like me there looking after the detail, it would either receive cursory attention or not get done at all. Sometimes I had the sense that this was a bit of a problem with the Red Rose operation.

Chris was also incapable of getting up early. His working day rarely started before 11, and often closer to 12, when one of my first duties of his day would be to drive to Tesco and get his lunch.

I remember one Saturday morning I was doing control – often tricky in the days before I had a PSV licence – and after a few drivers called in sick, I was left with no choice but to ring Chris at about 7am, to ask him to come in to drive a duty. It’s fair to say it was a phone call I was dreading, and to say he was unhappy would be an understatement, but of course the show must go on, so in he came for a 0900 start.

It turned out to be a momentous day. That afternoon I ventured over to Milton Keynes, where Chris was driving on the 98 route out to the Kingston Centre. I rode with him on his last trip, after which he would be returning dead to Flitwick, and in Central Milton Keynes we were approached by a lady who needed to get to one of the villages south east of the city. It was well off our route, but there were no other buses going there, so Chris insisted that we take her, so we went well out of our way to drop her off after leaving the Kingston terminus as Chris would not see her left stranded anywhere. On the way back to Flitwick Chris asked if I fancied learning to drive a bus, and my life was complete!

Indeed, I had three driving lessons with Chris before doing my formal training. First time out, we took a B10M Derwent on a round trip to Luton, and I was filled with pride when Chris asked me if I was sure I hadn’t driven a bus before. I have no idea whether he was sincere or not, but it boosted my confidence through the roof. Second trip out, I drove Leyland Olympian A698 EAU to Aylesbury and we drove round the various housing estates stopping at frequent apparently random intervals, so that Chris could dive into a block of flats, or down an alleyway, to drop off the wage packets for his Red Rose drivers. Third time out, we took Bedford coach GTM 155T – my first outing with a manual gearbox – to Hemel Hempstead, had a McDonalds then drove back. No such thing as a boring trip round the block!

Chris subsequently worked at Seamarks in Luton, although this proved to be an unhappy experience, and then left to concentrate full time on Red Rose. I did some early Red Rose timetables for him, and indeed did Motts Travel’s Fuel Duty Rebate claim one year, but never really got involved with his other activities. After I left Buffalo and moved on to Southern Vectis we lost touch, and only met up a couple of times. Needless to say, I regret this now!

The same was true of his private life – this was never really up for discussion, and was closely guarded. I knew that he was a Samaritan, but that was about it. There was always the sense that there were subjects that were best not spoken about, and I never pried.

As a mentor early in my career, I couldn’t have wished for better than Chris. He imbued me with the principles of good customer service, and running the mileage no matter what, that have helped earn Velvet such a good reputation today. If a customer had a complaint, he would leave no stone unturned to find a resolution that was acceptable to them. He was always enjoyable company and as a boss, I would have done anything for him.

If ever there was an unsung hero in my opinion it was Chris, and he is deserving of the highest tribute. May he rest in peace!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bustival and Botleyval

By kind of invitation of my alma mater Southern Vectis, we took Ophelia (L711 ALJ) to Bustival yesterday. Our driver Martin and his family collected the bus from Eastleigh and picked me up in Southampton (thus giving me an extra hour in bed, thanks Martin!) and we headed over on the 0800 ferry.

Bustival is an annual event organised by Vectis to showcase a range of buses, past and present, in the context of a family fun day, and in doing so cement their role as part of the island's community. The location at the headquarters of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway makes for an excellent setting, and around 25 vehicles were in evidence during the course of the day.

I had never been before, but I thoroughly enjoyed the day. Apart from the chance to catch up with former colleagues, which is always welcome, it was nice to see loads of families enjoying the buses.

For me, this is what bus gatherings should be all about. I'm afraid I can't get excited about more traditional bus rallies, with the buses lined up in sterile ranks and the indignant shout of "oi, you're in my shot" whenever one dares go near one of the exhibits.

What are buses about if not people, and the beauty of Bustival was that as well as the enthusiasts who are made to feel welcome, people who don't normally think too much about buses get the chance to get close to them and talk to the people at the sharp end. From my own experience of chatting to visitors aboard Ophelia (which, if I say so myself, looked stunning) and overhearing others, many were pleasantly surprised by the standard and presentation of the vehicles.

And more importantly, the next generation of bus users was able to enjoy themselves, exploring the vehicles and getting into the cab for a 'drive'. The fact that many of these kids were as enthusiastic about 'driving' the 25th vehicle as they were the first, was delightful to see.

So I take my hat off to Southern Vectis for organising a brilliant day, and I hope those involved in the organisation found it as rewarding and fulfilling as we did.

Here are a few shots...

Meanwhile, a mere 15 miles or so away as the seagull flies, Brijan Tours were doing a very similar thing at their depot in Botley. A line-up of ancient and modern buses, supplemented with family entertainment, provided what was reportedly another very enjoyable day out. Once again it's the kind of event where families are equally as at home as the enthusiasts.

We were represented by J841 TSC, taken along by Relief Controller Matt and his unofficial PA Big Kev along with various other special guests.

Their event raises funds for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance, and as far as I'm aware they haven't yet announced how much they have raised, but let's hope it's a great total!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

A rubbish repair

It is a well-known fact within the bus industry that ticket wallets are the most versatile tool in the engineer's armoury. Among many less reputable operators, and even the odd reputable one, it is amazing how many faults can apparently be repaired by the careful use of a ticket wallet. Loose panels, insecure flaps, rattling windows, protruding edges, broken handles..... the list is endless! Frankly I am amazed the humble ticket wallet has never won any awards, such is its adaptability to almost any problem.

However, now it seems that the wider world is waking up to the usefulness of this incredible device, as I discovered this morning when I spotted a rubbish bin in Eastleigh Bus Station that clearly did not want to stay shut of its own accord...

What will we see next? Ticket wallets on sale in B&Q and Homebase? TV programmes exploring how people's dream home improvement projects can be tackled with a few random screwdrivers, some blue roll, a ticket roll and a few bempak wallets? We could be on to something big here.....!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Mistaken Identity

The outside world seems to be having some trouble working out who I am and what I do! After the conference in London mentioned in my last post, where I was unexpectedly put in charge of East Yorkshire Motor Services, it has been the turn of Bus and Coach Professional magazine to take a wrong turning. In their most recent issue they ran a story on mobile phone ticketing, as part of which they reflected our own experiences in this area, having spoken to me on the telephone a few weeks ago.

They illustrated the story with a picture of me, shown here:

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed two things.

Firstly, it isn't me. It is of course my great friend Alex Hornby, Commercial Director of trent barton and erstwhile Operations Manager of bluestar, which of course lends added irony to the photo mix-up because we were at one stage on opposite sides of a so-called bus war!

Secondly - and this is the bit that caused great hilarity at Velvet HQ - Alex is actually wearing his name badge in the photo! So you might think that it would not require too much editorial diligence to spot that something was amiss!

Nevertheless, I'll let them off since it was a decent article about mobile ticketing, and there are far worse people to be confused with!

Monday, 21 March 2011

On my soapbox

An unusual event last week was the opportunity to take part in a conference in London. Entitled “The Big Bus Debate: The Future of Local Bus Service Delivery”, this was a commercial event organised by the Waterfront Conference Company, at which a number of key industry figures addressed the question of the future of bus service provision in the context of changes in public policy, with associated funding issues, and changes in market expectations.

It is not my intention to give a blow-by-blow account of the conference here – the trade magazines were well represented and I am sure the event will be well reported, but it was an enjoyable and interesting day.

My role was to take part in a panel of five speakers discussing the consequences of the government’s localism agenda, although in fact the discussion was far more wide-ranging than that. Also on the panel was one of the industry’s most respected figureheads, Peter Shipp, Chairman and Chief Executive of EYMS Group – one of the largest surviving independents. Due to a clerical error, I too was listed in the programme as Chairman and Chief Executive of EYMS Group, much to his chagrin and the cause of a great deal of banter during the day. I can assure him I am happy with my lot in life and would not wish to usurp him from his rightful and well-earned position!

The other representatives on the panel were Jonathan Bray of PTEG, Gavin Booth of Bus Users UK and Mike Cooper, Managing Director of Arriva Bus. The discussion was lively and interesting with a range of questions from the floor, but the one that seemed to me most pertinent came from the conference chairman, John Owen of UK Bus Awards and retired ex-Managing Director of Thamesdown Transport.

In response to a comment from Mike Cooper in his opening remarks that Arriva enjoys 91% satisfaction rating among its customers, John asked why it should be the case that the industry continues to see slow decline or only marginal growth and struggles so badly to attract new customers, when satisfaction ratings among existing users are so much higher than one would see in many industries.

I think this question goes to the heart of why the bus industry struggles sometimes to do itself justice, and also why we started Velvet in the first place back in 2007. My belief has always been that the industry as a whole – with honourable exceptions - fails to understand customer service, and is complacent about the level of service it provides.

Inevitably, at the strategic policy level, it is necessary to talk in terms of big numbers – we have roundly one million passenger journeys per annum on our buses, the industry as a whole has around five billion passenger journeys per annum, so just a one per cent increase or decrease is a cool fifty million journeys either way!

However what people sometimes forget is that those millions of passenger journeys are actually millions of individual human beings, all with their own individual set of values, beliefs and perceptions and all with their own individual reasons for travelling. Each will have their own triggers in terms of what will make them want to travel more, and what will make them travel less. And many of them will be regular travellers – a typical commuter might travel to work 250 days in the year, so if you upset one person you lose five hundred passenger journeys at a stroke!

On the whole, the industry does a pretty good job of getting the buses out. Collectively, we run the vast majority of the miles that we’re supposed to run, and the vast majority of them are at about the right time. But in too many places it seems that this is enough, and the attention to detail is frightening.

Yet it is that attention to detail that makes the difference between people travelling by bus or not. Will the driver be friendly, or will they be made to look a fool if they ask a simple question? How will they know what the fare will be, or when to get off? If something goes wrong how will they know about it, and what will the company do to put it right?

I see so many examples of service failing at the very detailed level. These rarely appear in statistics, but the journey to or from work can be a very stressful experience for people, and if the experience isn’t good on the ground, they may try it a few times but as soon as they can find an alternative they will.

One of my particular pet hates is buses running late, being allowed to continue to run late through the day with no intervention to put things right. Most people accept that delays can occur, but they won’t understand why a delay at 09.00 hrs should be responsible for two buses running in convoy at midday, yet these things happen all the time.

And the key issue when looking at satisfaction statistics is that existing users often have different expectations to new users. In many cases – whether we like it or not – our existing customers are travelling with us because they have no choice. They have got used to the devil they know, and very often they’ll put up with service that I would regard as being unacceptable, just because for them it’s the norm.

So if you ask them whether they are satisfied, they will almost certainly say yes, and in that sense a figure of 91% is something to be genuinely happy about. But that certainly doesn’t mean that someone who is not used to the idiosyncracies of bus travel, perhaps has higher expectations and certainly may need more help and guidance, will give you the same response.

It remains my opinion that the whole industry needs to raise its game in this area. Devolve responsibility for service delivery as close to the front line as you dare – give drivers and controllers the responsibility and initiative to deal with problems and take pride in doing so, and they will pleasantly surprise you. Give them the right support and back-up from the centre, but let them do what they’re good at.

I would never claim that Velvet is perfect – we have plenty of areas where we can improve – but the feedback from our customers time and time again is that they find our services friendly, reliable and easy to use. The reward has been very satisfying patronage growth on our key routes for two successive years, but we’re not doing anything amazing – just giving the drivers to opportunity to go out and give the customers a great service, and trying to get the attention to detail right.

As you may have noticed this is a bit of a soapbox issue for me, and in that sense I am pleased that the discussion last Thursday certainly brought the issue to the fore!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The passage of time

One of our double deckers has had a short holiday at a diesel specialist in rural East Hampshire this week, so that they could investigate its tendency to smoke heavily. They have actually done a very good job.

The garage staff were very friendly and helpful but not exactly hurried. The guy who looked after us gave us a long, detailed account of what they had done, while in the background a couple of fitters shuffled about the workshop in a fairly leisurely fashion. Eventually our man went off to write out the bill. He was gone about ten minutes. Then one of the fitters popped his head into reception and said "he says sorry to keep you waiting, he'll be back directly." A further ten minutes passed while nothing happened. Eventually he returned, we did the business and left.

While we were waiting I couldn't help noticing the calendar behind the desk in reception. It is the best possible illustration that time moves slowly in this part of the world. Here, they don't measure their time in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks or even months......

Sunday, 6 March 2011

BSOGged down

I should be getting ready for this year’s BSOG audit right now. But I’m not!

I’ve worked out that I have either been directly involved in preparing, or responsible for the BSOG claim for whichever company I’ve been in residence at, for each of the last twenty years. Apart from anything else, this makes me feel positively old! It is also one of the less inspiring accolades of which one can boast.

For those who are mystified by the initials BSOG, it is code for fuel duty rebate. Bus companies are allowed to reclaim a portion of the tax they pay on fuel for running local bus services, but given the huge sums of public money involved, it is both inevitable and right that the claim has to be carefully constructed to comply with detailed rules.

For most of those twenty years this rebate has been known as Fuel Duty Rebate. This explained clearly and concisely exactly what it was, which is presumably why it had to be renamed. A few short years ago the government of the day decided that it would be much better for all to be concerned if it were to be renamed Bus Service Operators’ Grant, even though nothing else about it changed.

Conspiracy theorists at the time suggested that the renaming was the first step along the road to abolition, on the basis that abolishing something called Bus Service Operators’ Grant was unlikely to find its way on to the public radar as being something worthy of sympathy. This theory didn’t really wash with me, as I couldn’t really see why abolishing something called Fuel Duty Rebate would be any more likely to cause the public to rush out on to the streets in our support – in fact possibly quite the opposite!

However, there have been numerous reviews and theories and discussions and debates throughout my twenty years in the industry, predicting the demise of the grant and speculating as to how it may be replaced. Much of the discussion has centred around the possibility of a “per passenger” incentive payment, although opponents have argued that this would work in favour or urban services to the detriment of rural services (and then other critics have questioned whether that would be such a bad thing, and so on…)

The upshot of it all, for the moment at least, is that nothing much is changing – for the moment at least. My own view is that this is probably because the alternatives all have so many flaws and loopholes that this particular area of public expenditure is firmly in the “too difficult” box. The government has said it will cut the rate of BSOG (currently 43p per litre) by 20% in April 2012, but given the scathing cuts to many parts of the public purse, this is arguably at the less radical end of possible outcomes!

The absence of any change means that I can look forward to a few more years of BSOG claims at least!

My first involvement was at my first ever bus industry posting, Buffalo Travel in Bedfordshire, which I joined at the tender age of eighteen in July 1991. After a few weeks of inputting the numbers from several years’ backlog of Setright waybills into a spreadsheet on one of several green screen Apricot 286 PCs in the office, I was deemed to know what I was doing with computers and before long I was doing scheduling, rota preparation (including the infamous occasion when I caused more than 50% of the drivers to resign within 24 hours), ticket machine programming and publicity, among many other tasks.

My boss at the time was the Commercial Manager, Chris Day. I learned huge amounts from him, most of it good, and to this day he remains one of the greatest influences on my career. He went off to run Red Rose Travel in Aylesbury and I haven’t spoken to him for years but he is right up there among the best of them for me.

However, my arrival suited him down to the ground because I was the ideal recipient of all the tasks he didn’t really fancy. This suited me as well because I wanted to learn, and all I had to do in exchange was toddle off to the local supermarket in his car at lunchtime and buy his sandwich and Belgian Bun!

I suspect the Fuel Duty Rebate claim had been and gone for 1991, so my first involvement was probably with the 1992 claim. It has followed my round every year since. In one of my Buffalo years, I even ended up doing the number work for Mott’s Travel’s claim, so I must have been doing something right. Of course as I graduated to more illustrious jobs in bigger companies, there were people within my team to do the actual legwork, but it was always under my auspices. Once Velvet was up and running I had to get used to doing it all again myself!

The process was the same then as it is now. Before the start of each claim year you submit an estimate predicting how many kilometres you expect to run, and the Department for Transport work out a payment based on this, divide it into four and send you money on account every three months.

After the claim year finishes, you work out how many kilometres you actually did run, then the DfT reconciles this with what it has paid you on account and depending on the result either pays you a bit more or asks for some money back!

The claim process is actually quite simple, but very intricate and involves lots and lots of detailed calculations and record-keeping.

I adore the spreadsheet work – I have an unhealthy fascination with spreadsheets – so that part of the process is no problem. However, what surprises many people is that despite my normal chaotic lack of organisation with paperwork, my BSOG files and records are always in pristine condition! To some extent it’s the fact that you have to have your claim auditted by proper accountants, to some extent it must just be professional pride, but for whatever reason my BSOG claims are always spot on!

Every year of Velvet’s existence, the audit has taken less than half a day, because the accountant has found everything to be in order.

In our first year, the DfT sent their inspector in – they reserve the right to check up on anyone’s records at any time – and as a new operator they wanted to fire a shot across our bows as well as offering any help we may need understanding the process. I was told to expect a two day visit, but he was gone within three hours and then wrote to us confirming that everything was as it should be.

This year’s audit visit is on Thursday, and as usual at this stage I’m feeling a bit behind the pace. However, it’s Sunday evening and that’s the only time I don’t have any buses on the road so I’m inclined to relax a bit. I know the work will all get done over the next couple of days, so after writing about it instead of doing it, I’m off to the pub for a bit!

I can’t find any pictures that help to illustrate a story about BSOG, so here’s a picture of a giraffe instead!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Into the wild...

We’re very excited at the moment, because we’ve just registered our new service to Marwell Wildlife, which starts on Good Friday and runs every Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday until early September.

This new route – imaginatively called route M – has been put together in partnership with Marwell themselves, and also the Three Rivers Community Rail Partnership, both of whom are providing funding and support with publicity etc, although the commercial risk lies with us.

The service is another example of the benefits of building long-term relationships, and follows a number of discussions over the last few years aimed at establishing possibilities.

My own involvement with Marwell started shortly after my arrival at Solent Blue Line in 2004, when we agreed to provide service 200 on a commercial basis. This linked Parkway Station, Eastleigh Bus Station and Marwell with three outward journeys in the morning and three afternoon returns – a very similar timetable to that of the M in fact.

This led to a novel photo-opportunity with Boomer the Ostrich, but sadly this was not enough to stimulate sufficient demand to make the service viable.

We replaced the 200 with a scaled down effort, diverting certain journeys on the F, but unsurprisingly these failed to take off and were eventually withdrawn.

Nevertheless the aspiration to serve Marwell with a sustainable route never waned and discussions continued both during my latter days at Bluestar and subsequently in the Velvet era.

The Three Rivers team subsequently also appeared on the scene, demonstrating their desire to provide useful links from local rail stations to nearby visitor attractions.

Last year One Community Transport provided a service, free of charge to the user, which carried some respectable loads. They did a good job, but perhaps they suffered from not being seen as an established bus operator and awareness of the service was not as great as it could have been.

Nevertheless they put a huge amount of effort into making the route work, for which they deserve high commendation, and this has helped paved the way for this year’s development.

Although we will be charging fares, we hope that many more people will take advantage of the service as we are able to spread the word much more widely through our established publicity network, and of course Marwell and Three Rivers will be able to open up many other promotional avenues.

On the subject of marketing I’m not sure if our contacts at Marwell were amused or bemused when I pointed out that a number of our staff like dressing up, and will be quite happy to parade the streets in animal costumes for a few days before the launch! The big excitement at Marwell this spring is the opening of their new cheetah enclosure, so we need to find Karl a cheetah costume by early April. Any suggestions gratefully received!

Obviously it would be ideal if the route could also run on weekdays, especially during school holidays, but this is a bit beyond everyone’s budget for the moment. However, the advantage of routes that appeal mostly to discretionary users is that you can quickly get into a virtuous circle of increasing patronage bringing improved service leves, which in turn generates more patronage which in turn leads to even more service improvements and so on.

The highest profile example of this must be Coasthopper – a wildly successful partnership between Norfolk Green and Norfolk County Council, and although we are working on a much smaller scale it shows what can be done. With the benefit of the funding as a safety net, we see this year’s service as a starting point from which we can move forward in future years.

My own attitude to this project is helped by the fact that I love going to meetings at Marwell. ‘Reception’ is effectively the admission desk, and the offices are at the other end of the park.

It is the only place I have ever attended a meeting where the directions to the meeting room have included the instruction, “turn left at the rhinos!”

I was hoping to conclude the story and illustrate this point with a picture of some rhinos, but sadly I couldn’t find one. So instead here’s a picture of Matt, Martin and Simon arriving at work….

Monday, 28 February 2011

Going Down The Pan

A little piece of Hampshire bus heritage passed into history today!

I first visited Gang Warily as a Southern Vectis Management Trainee in 1995. I had been despatched to the mainland for a week, to study the mainland operations of the Vectis group. I think the idea was that I would be so horrified at the squalid accommodation and cavalier working practices that I would rush back to the Island screaming for mercy and never ever leave. Instead it gave me an enduring fascination for Solent Blue Line that never left me.

I could write a book about that week, and at some point I might wheel out one or two of the more repeatable stories. But little did I realise, as I stood with Inspector Wally Pearce surveying the swamp that passed for a Hythe outstation, that one day I would be able to call the toilet block my own!

The story of how the portacabin that housed the Gang Warily staff toilets ended up in the Velvet yard is known only to a few people, and although there is nothing to hide it had probably better remain that way. Nevertheless, when the offer of a free portable building was made, we were more than happy to benefit from Go South Coast’s generosity. We had visions of gutting the inside and creating a controller’s office and our new prized possession was duly installed at the back of the yard.

Our enthusiasm waned fairly quickly once we realised the condition of the interior. We maybe hadn’t given enough thought to the previous use to which this unit had been put, but one Sunday Karl and I decided to begin the conversion process by demolishing the interior. As we hacked through the old toilets with axes and hammers, the sickening stench of raw human sewage burst forth from the exposed pipes.

We quickly came to the conclusion that our potential office accommodation would never amount to anything more than a health hazard!

But that was two years ago or more, and since then the disused toilet block has sat abandoned and forelorn, in a state of partial demolition, while we failed to get round to do anything about it. Plans for its removal were many, ranging from the civilised approach of lifting the whole thing intact on to the back of a low loader – the kind of plan I would espouse – through to the approach favoured by our erstwhile controller Ant among others, of pulverising the entire building into a thousand tiny pieces and then carting away the ruins. However, for one reason or another none of these plans ever came to fruition, and the Poobox (as it came to be affectionately known) stubbornly resisted the inevitable demise.

This picture shows the building looking sorry for itself but largely intact, as it approached its final days…

Finally however, our present-day controller Karl and his partner-in-crime Steve could bear it no longer and persuaded me that violence was the only option! Karl organised a giant skip and this finally arrived today. In this photo you can see Steve, flanked by Paul C and Simon, struggling to conceal their excitement at the imminent death of the Poobox! Or perhaps they think we’ve bought a new open-top bus….

Then it was down to business, and before long Steve and Karl were tearing the building limb from limb….

And finally, with our portacabin reduced to a pulp, it was time to contemplate loading the ruins into the waiting skip….

Tomorrow the skip will be collected, we will have more room to park buses, but a stalwart of the Hampshire bus scene will be gone, never to return. And with it go some deeply ingrained memories, and a few gallons of raw sewage!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Fine Romanse

Public authorities often have a very dry, formal, rather boring style of communication. While correct and professional, sometimes you wish they would lighten up a bit! ROMANSE is the organisation that carries out traffic control and co-ordinates travel information for Southampton and much of South Hampshire. Following a spillage of cooking oil in Southampton Road, Eastleigh, this afternoon it was fantastic to see this appear on their Twitter feed...

E'LEIGH: Cooking oil spillage on Southampton Rd jct w/ Derby Rd, road to be closed at 1730. Fry-version via Chestnut/Passfield Ave/Leigh Rd.

...followed shortly afterwards by this...

A335 Eastleigh - Road now re-opened N/B between Derby Rd and Blenheim Rd after earlier spillage. Road now Crisp 'n' Dry!

Full marks to whoever was manning their office with a sense of humour!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Two Little Ducks Turn One

We realised embarrassingly late in the day today that tomorrow, the 8th February, is the first anniversary of us taking over the operation of route 22 (now S2 of course) in Southampton.

We were never in the frame for it initially. That particular batch of tenders – which also included the 14 and 21 among others - was originally offered to operators through an e-tendering procedure. We were close to the limits of our o-licence, with finite capital to invest in vehicles, so we were looking for one or maximum two vehicles’ worth of work. The method of e-tendering in use prevented operators from proposing alternative timetables and for the route 22 timetables on offer we could not have fulfilled the peak commitments, so we largely ignored the route!

As it turned out, the City Council was able to successfully let all the other tenders, but for one reason or another did not feel they had an acceptable response from any operator for the 22, so they reverted to a more conventional paper tendering method. This invited operator suggestions for route and timetable modifications, with the strong implications that cost savings were to be welcomed, and we were able to respond positively with a raft of different timetable proposals, almost none of which required more than one peak vehicle!

Our winning bid (variation H as I recall!) applied the logic that the sections of the old 22 route between the City Centre and Royal South Hants Hospital; and between Shirley, the General Hospital, Lord’s Hill and Nursling were all covered by other routes. Therefore, best value for limited funds could be obtained by concentrating resources on the ‘unique’ section of route between the City Centre and Shirley.

This was initially controversial, as people inevitably were concerned about the loss of direct services to the hospitals in particular. Indeed, we were warned to expect demonstrations and protests. Having said that, we clearly caused surprise to a few people who telephoned this alien company, of whose existence they were previously unaware. They expected us to be belligerent and difficult and instead found us friendly and approachable, and we almost had the sense they were disappointed!

I also well recall a phone call from one lady who was very excited we had her local service, as she had previously been a regular user of our Ringwood service and thought our drivers were amazing! It was nice to know that at least someone had heard of us!

In practice, there were no demonstrations and the service started without problems on Monday 8th February 2010. The previous operators – A2B Travel – while disappointed to lose the service, were very co-operative with the TUPE arrangements and it was one of the two drivers who transferred (Tony, since moved on to pastures new) who drove the first ever Velvet 22. For the first few days our resident Commercial Assistant/Customer Service Champion/Lovable Teenage Brat Mikey rode on the service to spread some Velvet love among the passengers and make sure all their questions were answered, and everyone seemed very happy.

Having been used to Mercedes 709s, the low-floor Optare Solos played a big part in buying the affection of our customers. In the early days very many unsolicited comments lauded the quality of the vehicles and the ease of access, and these continue to perform very well on the route. Nevertheless, at some point during the first week I couldn’t resist taking a DAF out for a couple of trips, just to prove to the cynics that it could be done! It certainly isn’t advisable however, especially due to parked cars in the area of Foundry Lane and Richmond Road, and the only subsequent DAF appearance was for one trip as an emergency breakdown cover.

Meanwhile we also received favourable comments about reliability – it appeared the traffic congestion around Upper Shirley had prejudiced timekeeping on the previous timetable.

As word spread, more passengers came to appreciate the benefits of the 22 and by June-July, weekly passenger numbers were consistently running around 30% higher than in February-March – one of the steepest growth curves I have ever seen for an inherited service, particularly one where a number of through journey opportunities had been lost!

From the start Southampton City Council had an aspiration to serve the area of Bedford Place, an important local shopping centre just outside the core city centre. This was not possible initially due to long term roadworks, but during the early summer thoughts turned to a possible route amendment to coincide with the road reopening in late August. Moreover, the peak journeys were very lightly used and the City Council saw the opportunity to modify the route and timetable to incorporate an established school flow from the Northam area to Springhill School. This resulted in a package of changes designed to take effect on 31st August.

At the same time, the City Council had been under some pressure to restore a higher service frequency in the Lordswood area. They therefore tendered a new route S1, won by Bluestar, to provide local links from Shirley to the General Hospital, Lordswood and Lord’s Hill.

The eagle-eyed will have noticed that we prefer letters to numbers to identify routes. Our other two main services are the A and C and we slightly regretted the fact that the number 22 didn’t quite fit in. Upon hearing about the S1, Mikey had a moment of inspiration and suggested that we redesignate the 22 to the S2. After all, demand for the 22 was much stronger at the Shirley end than at the City Centre end, so if Shirley had a S1, why should its local network also comprise the S2? I must admit I said I would run it past the City Council with little optimism, as I felt they would prefer the traditional number. However, they have been excellent partners throughout and were very receptive to our suggestion.

Hence on 31st August 2010 Velvet 22 became Velvet S2.

Initially we had to deal with some concern from the Northam parents, who had been used to what they saw as a dedicated school bus previously (even though it wasn’t) and were concerned at the thought of their offspring being transported on a normal service bus. For the first few days of the September term passenger numbers were very low and we wondered whether we had made a spectacular mistake, but once the children and parents got to know the regular driver, their concerns eased and passenger numbers are know exactly what the City Council told us to expect.

At around the same time, we received contact from the NHS, asking us about the possibility of bus access to the newly built Adelaide Health Centre in Millbrook. This site has excellent access on foot from the eastern side of Millbrook Estate, but by all accounts many visitors come from parts of Shirley, for whom the walking distance was too great. This new facility is situated directly behind Tesco, already served by the S2, but the road layout created a circuitous walk from the bus stop to the Health Centre entrance – prohibitive to those who can’t walk distances.

We took a look at the site and it was clear there was nowhere big enough to turn a bus, so we politely spurned their advances. There was a roundabout there, and it was just possible that the Merc 709s used by A2B might have got round, but the Solos stood no chance.

However, to their credit the Health Centre representatives were persistent, and insisted that the roundabout was supposedly designed and built to allow not only Solos, but various lengths of Dart to turn round. Not for the first time, it appeared that what the builders said they had built to a certain spec, did not in fact meet the spec at all!

We took a Solo to the site and proved to them that the roundabout was hopelessly inadequate, but by the now the mood was changing and we were all keen to find a way of resolving the matter. To their huge credit, the Health Centre team got together with the builders and knocked heads together, and with the help of several subsequent site visits, the roundabout has been substantially modified so that it does now allow our Solos to turn in one sweep! At the same time, a bus stop has been created immediately outside the main entrance, ensuring great access for bus passengers.

As a result, the next chapter in the life of the S2 is due to begin on 28th February, when the route will make the short detour via the Health Centre upon leaving Tesco. So short is the distance involved that we have not needed to modify the rest of timetable – there will simply be an extra timing point for the Health Centre, and the extra minute or two it will take can easily be absorbed as the timetable is fairly well padded around Shirley.

This picture shows the entrance to Adelaide Health Centre, with the new bus stop on the left. If you look very carefully at the roundabout you might be able to see darker areas of tarmac. These are areas that used to be flower beds until a month or two ago!

Finally, a word about staff. A2B had three regular drivers on the 22. All were entitled to transfer to us under TUPE regulations. One chose that moment to bow out, and of the two who transferred one eventually moved on. The remaining transferee, Lorant, will also be celebrating his first anniversary of service with us tomorrow.

Having arrived in the country from Hungary a few years ago, he has always reaffirmed his gratitude to A2B for the chance that they gave him to continue his career as a bus driver in this country, but from day one he expressed his hope that his integration into Velvet would allow him to drive on more than one bus route, and he has become a familiar character across our network. He is a very popular member of the team among staff and customers – a gentler, more kind-hearted soul you will never meet. Even his language skills are coming on in leaps and bounds now – he can answer almost any question we choose to throw at him (provided the answer is “yes”!)

For a while he moved away from the S2 completely but such were the level of demands for his return that he now regularly covers the lunch break on the route for Martin, the regular driver.

Martin is a legend in his own waistline! When he became the regular daily driver on the route in the latter days of the 22, I briefed him that I wanted him to take ownership of the route and establish a great rapport with the customers. I didn’t need to tell him – he has taken the route by storm in a way I have hardly ever seen anyone do anywhere. I have yet to meet anyone with anything other than high praise for him, and there is no better example of the sense of community with his regular passengers than the lavish Christmas decorations applied to one of the Solos, all carried out in Martin’s own time and at his expense. You will not encounter a more conscientious team member and the customers regularly make their appreciation of his efforts clear.

So it was that I spent the eve of the route’s first birthday in our local Tesco, buying “Happy 1st Birthday” banners for the bus and boxes of chocolates for the customers of a route that it has been a huge pleasure to acquire, manage and develop!