Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Time for 't'

One thing I could always do was spell. From the earliest age I can remember, I would look down my nose with all the supercilious smugness of the insufferable teacher's pet that I strove to be, as the other children put their 'e' before their 'i', allowed a silent 'k' or 'w' to slip away undetected, or were in two minds over which 'too' to resort to.

But I have finally been outwitted by the residents of Winchester. From the start of this week we have been operating a short term contract for Hampshire County Council, providing local routes 2 and 6a in Winchester until June. The 2 is easy. Oliver's Battery and Badger Farm hold no fear, but the 6a has me beaten!

It goes to Abbotts Barton, but in my mind - no matter how hard I try to train myself - it goes to Abbots Barton. Even though a simple glance at the map reveals the truth, and the tender documents and existing publicity reinforce the point, I cannot bring myself to double that 't'! Every time I write it, I write 'Abbots' and then - if I'm lucky and remember - go back and correct it.

I don't know why this should be so. It has something to do with the poor, innocent people of Abbots Langley, a Hertfordshire village that I served at the first bus company that gave me a home - the late, great Buffalo Travel. I must have read and written 'Abbots' so many times on official forms, in publicity and probably replies to complaint letters that I have that spelling firmly embedded in my mind.

(As a complete aside, in Buffalo days I once registered the evening service on route 344 through that village entirely in German - von Hemel Hempstead Busbahnhof nach Croxley Green Reptonweg ueber Watford Exchangestrasse - and the then Office of the Traffic Commissioner accepted it!)

To my shame the timetable leaflets refer to Abbots Barton, because I drafted and proof-checked them and failed to spot it. I only realised today that the website referred to Abbots Barton throughout, and even now the Bright Tech destinations on some of our Darts show '6a Abbots Barton' because I programmed them.

Luckily the Mobitec kit on the Solos that we are actually using has been programmed by our Commercial Assistant Mikey, and he has no such hang-ups. Indeed it is he - displaying the full condescension of one half my age and twice my ego - who has gleefully pointed out most of my slip-ups so far! He has also designed the roadside publicity which is equally correct and has attracted much favourable comment.

So all is not lost, but I'm getting to the age where old habits are hard to break, so I apologise in advance if the odd Abbot manages to slip through the net in the future! If it gets too bad, I might just have to Hyde!

The good news is that the new routes have started off extremely well. Timekeeping has not been the issue we were told to expect, with both routes running comfortably to schedule, and early passenger numbers are exceeding expectations.

Hopefully we are also exceeding theirs - certainly many positive comments have been received about the vehicle, the publicity and the drivers. Steve and Geoff are the regular presenters, backed up yesterday and today by Mikey doing the 'meeting and greeting'. Indeed for a while today all three were on the bus together, outnumbering the passengers at times.

During today's brief period of triple manning, Steve (or 'Scooter' as some of his former colleagues might apparently recognise him) managed to escape for long enough to take this rather nice shot of 222 pausing at Winchester Station on its way to Badger Farm.

The 6a also appears to have its own Les, which will no doubt add interest and colour, and it is already clear that the regular congregation have their own interpretation of where the bus is required to stop, which bears little resemblance to such trivial issues as where there happen to be signs on poles saying "bus stop"! But these are the kind of routes we love, and we look forward to being of service to our new Winchester clientele for some time to come.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Just when you thought Christmas was over...

Before we get too far into January and memories fade, it's probably worth reflecting on how the Christmas period went, if only as an aide memoire to myself later in the year when I'm trying to work out what to run over the 2012/13 festive period!

The first day on which services were modified was Christmas Eve, when we finished at around 8pm. From a strictly commercial point of view that was probably right, given that the evening was obviously going to be quiet, but Karl - my controller - who was driving the other late shift, agreed with my perspective that there was a reasonable number of people enquiring about services later in the evening and that in the event we would quite happily have gone through to the end of service. That's one to ponder for next year. Or possibly not, because Christmas Eve is a Monday in 2012 so unless anything changes all our buses are off the road by 8pm anyway!

Readers may recall from my last post that I was ruminating on whether we should have run service on Boxing Day. My perception is that 2011 saw a sharp increase in the number of operators around the country that did operate and I can see it becoming increasingly taken for granted over the next few years that this is a day on which bus services do run. Indeed, one or two figures I have heard from operator colleagues that will remain nameless, for commercial receipts on routes in different parts of the country are astonishingly high and if those levels are typical it should be a no brainer.

The difficulty for us is that - for the time being at least - a Sunday service is probably the most appropriate level, and of course we don't have any Sunday contracts, nor do Hampshire County Council make it a requirement for contractors to provide a service on Boxing Day. Of course on New Year's Day this year (more anon) we provided a commercial Sunday service in the absence of the two normal contractors and it is most likely that we would consider this kind of scenario again.

The period between Christmas and New Year was a normal weekday service for us, and that allows us to keep things simple. I am not a fan of operators with hugely complex arrangements with some services operating Saturdays, others weekdays, and others a special service. My experience of the travelling public is that even if you provide the most elaborate publicity in the world, as long as it's not a bank holiday they will expect Thursday buses to operate on a Thursday etc, so you risk upsetting loyal, regular customers for a tiny saving.

New Year's Eve we ran through until the end of service. It was quiet on the C1 and E8, but seems to have been about a normal level of Saturday evening patronage on the A. However, there was a great atmosphere with the customers on the buses, and many of them were regulars and very appreciative of the service - including the four who caught the 2340 A (none of whom were still on the bus at midnight, so I celebrated the arrival of 2012 on my own, as predicted, about halfway up Wildern Lane!). Definitely worth doing in my opinion, for the benefit of those regulars.

Once again it's a Monday this year so unless anything changes, there is no evening service on our routes in any event, and I'm not sure we would create one specially, but I'm definitely glad we did it this year.

I'm even more glad we ran New Year's Day. We didn't carry a huge number of people, but the reaction from those we did carry was bordering on euphoric! They were hugely grateful to have the service. Our drivers also saw huge numbers of people waiting at bus stops for other people's services, and had of course explained to them that there wouldn't be any, and the reaction from those people was disbelief that almost the entire industry had decided to take the day off on what - for them - was pretty much a normal Sunday.

On a brief visit to Eastleigh Bus Station to mid-afternoon to see how our drivers were getting on, I was ambushed by a couple who had been waiting for a Bluestar 2. Our driver Mikey had seen them from the end of the road, beckoned them down to the bus, explained the situation to them and then transported them into Eastleigh. They were just about to board for the trip home and were over the moon with joy about the fact that we were there for them.

In summary it's probably fair to say that from a strictly commercial standpoint, it remains a weak time of year. The easy option would be to pull the buses off the road at 8pm on Christmas and New Year's Eve and not come out on Boxing Day or New Year's Day.

However, we carry many loyal regulars who give us their business all through the year. They want to go out and about at Christmas just as much as anyone else does. Why does the industry think it's acceptable to abandon those people just because we fancy a day off or an evening off? We're in a service industry, and service means more than abandoning your regular customers because you won't be able to make a profit out of them for one or two days, when each of them is worth several hundred pounds to the business over the course of a year. I'm happy that we provided the service that we did over Christmas 2011/12, but with hindsight we could have done more!

And while I'm on the subject of abandoning customers, I do want to fit in a quick rant about other industries that shut down for the whole period. Our ability to provide service is dependent on having buses on the road. Why do so many parts suppliers think it is acceptable to simply stop providing service at lunchtime on Christmas Eve, and resume some time in early January? Why do their entire staff have to have a week and a half off, when their customers - who they claim to value so highly - are still slaving away. Frankly, it is a disgusting tactic and if I had the purchasing power to withdraw my business from suppliers who indulge in these long shutdowns, I would do so today.

Many industries do it, so it is unfair to single out one particular type of business. We had a similar problem where we are trying to get timetable leaflets printed for the new 2 and 6a routes in Winchester, but the design company we use - who happily didn't think that having someone on duty on 29th December was such an unreasonable expectation - couldn't even get quotes for print.

We manage our service levels, using reduced staff numbers to reflect reduced demand. They can probably cope with fewer admin staff, so there should still be plenty of scope to accommodate a desire to give staff more time off over the period. Why can they not manage the situation in this way, rather than simply locking the gates and telling their loyal customers to get stuffed?

If I put a notice out on all our buses this year saying "there will be no buses from 3pm on Friday 21st December 2012 until Wednesday 2nd January 2013, nevertheless we wish all our customers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year", I wonder what reaction we might get?

On a brighter note, I am very optimistic about 2012, so I do - genuinely - wish all readers of this blog a Happy New Year, even if I am a week late!