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!