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!


  1. Your views on special timetables and publicising variations is interesting Phil.

    Here in Coventry, there are limited Boxing Day and New Year's day routes, hourly during shopping hours, funded by Centro. They cover about half the city network with some variations. However, if you don't have internet access or are particularly savvy about where to obtain such info online, there is little publicity to be seen and general ignorance if you mention the services to anyone.

    Interestingly, although the Boxing Day Services are operated by NX Coventry, the New Years Day routes are run by Stagecoach, who don't operate anything on their own network that day. It takes their vehicles into parts of the city they don't venture into for the rest of the year.

  2. The tender process certainly throws up some interesting quirks, and that must be one of the oddest! It's a pity that it has to fall to Centro to intervene though - one would have hoped that a city the size of Coventry might have been able to support commercial Boxing Day services.

  3. Having moved here from Salisbury 6 years ago, the difference in marketing strategies was very obvious. After being used to the bold approaches by the operators "down south", there seems to be much more of a passive attitude with the main operator here. Centro may have a statutory duty to provide publicity, but that seems to create a more laissez faire approach among some of the operators.

    Centro's "Network Coventry" brand doesn't present a bold, cohesive image and isn't something the public readily identify with. The main operator isn't proactive with the way it promotes itself. As a case in point a major cross city route has just been converted to a brand new fleet of Enviro 400's, the first new deckers for 6 years which replaced the oldest batch of now shabby Mercedes artics. Despite this, there was no publicity push.

    Contrast this with my other home route, the frequent Stagecoach service to Nuneaton. When it was route branded and new buses introduced three years ago, every home near to the route received a timetable with a voucher for a free return ticket into town. With frequently cleaned vehicles, return fares, and fare stages, compared with the single fare any distance and no return tickets or change given of the major player, with buses often appearing shabby inside and out, I make my choice accordingly!

    Lessons from your marketing strategy could be very usefully applied here! Sadly, I moved away from the area before Velvet was launched, but follow your developments with interest.

  4. Apologies Keith, I've been having trouble posting comments here (on my own blog! How rude!)

    I understand what you say about the various big companies' approach to marketing, and certainly Stagecoach tend to apply themselves with enthusiasm and gusto to any product launch. That is probably why they seem to do better than many at getting organic growth and I hope it paid dividends for them in Nuneaton!

    Any idea whether the Boxing Day or New Year's Day services were well used?

    Interestingly when I worked for Stagecoach, we ran the entire Sunday network in Swindon because the municipal operator Thamesdown didn't like to venture out on Sundays. Things have changed a bit now I think, but it was a bit bizarre to be running someone else's entire network one day a week. Especially as - for a while - First's Bath depot had the contract for some workings on the Swindon - Chippenham service, so you'd have First buses working Stagecoach routes parked alongside Stagecoach buses working Thamesdown routes. Needless to say, driver route knowledge could be a real problem!