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….