Monday, 18 November 2013

Bus running late? Grab a coffee!

Sometimes the simple ideas are the best, and this moment of inspiration from my Velvet colleague Mikey deserves a mention.

At this time of year rush hour traffic doesn't need much help to be a nightmare, but last Thursday was especially bad.  A combination of factors meant that it was taking buses on the A around two hours to complete the scheduled 75 minute journey from Eastleigh to Southampton, on a freezing cold night.

Mikey was in the office watching the tracker, monitoring the slow progress of buses around the network and tweeting regular updates to the world.

One trip was causing us particular concern, the 1645 A from Eastleigh to Southampton which was due to return as the 1810 from Southampton.  As this bus passed through Hedge End on its way into Southampton, some time after it should have left to come back, Mikey tweeted this...
Velvet A: Customers waiting for 1810 from Soton - H'End, get in the warm, grab a coffee, keep the receipt and driver will reimburse the cost
This was done without any prior consultation, discussion or planning, just an idea from Mikey in that moment to try to minimise people's pain.

And the best bit is, some people did exactly that.  They went and got a coffee, and our driver Martin reimbursed them.  Mikey had texted Martin when he made the decision and luckily Martin picked up the text when he was in town.  But Mikey was confident that even if he didn't, the worst that would have happened would have been Martin phoning him to try to understand why people were presenting him with coffee receipts.

As with most customer service initiatives, it is impossible to quantify the exact benefit of that decision, but at the very least it hopefully helped reassure some of our regulars that we certainly do care about them and will do our best to look after them even when things are going wrong.

I am lucky enough to be present at the UK Bus Awards tomorrow (not winning anything I might add). But for me, that kind of split-second customer focussed decision deserves an award in itself!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

When one bus company just isn't enough...

I was walking through Sheffield City Centre with a good friend of mine, when her very streetwise five year old granddaughter Ruby stopped us in our tracks.  “Oh my god, did you see what that woman was wearing?” she announced, her face a mixture of disgust and astonishment, “red and purple just do not go together!”

I hope that’s not true, because my job is to make them go together!  As if running one bus company wasn't enough, I now have two!

My latest adventure started about two months ago, when I was appointed by Wellglade (best known as the parent company of trentbarton) to run their TM Travel subsidiary.

This is a part-time mission occupying about half my week, the other half continues to be devoted to Velvet.

So what possessed me to take a second job two hundred miles away from home?

I’d been looking for a fresh challenge for a while.  I love Velvet with all my heart, I bleed purple, and have no plans for the business to do anything other than grow and prosper.

But I have a fabulous management team who take care of the day-to-day service delivery, and they need space to do their jobs and develop themselves, both individually and as a team without me micro-managing every detail.

For my own part, I love change and hate routine, and my brain needs fresh stimulus all the time.  With Velvet approaching six years old (the company that wouldn’t last six months, I remember being told repeatedly at the time), it has already more than doubled the longest period I had spent in any one job previously.

I had therefore been on the lookout for some consultancy work on the side, or something similar.  The opportunity - when it came - was rather grander than I was expecting!  Two meetings a year apart and a couple of phone calls led me to a discussion with the Wellglade board at their Heanor offices, at which I was presented with the chance to be General Manager at TM Travel.

I must admit I jumped at it.  The downside with consultancy is that you can suggest and advise, but ultimately you can’t make anything happen, you’re relying on others to share your vision.  I crave responsibility, so the opportunity to run something of my own was too good to pass up.

And it is difficult to imagine a better opportunity anywhere in the UK bus industry.  As a parent company, Wellglade’s credentials are beyond question – an unrivalled track record of innovation and sound management.  As a board of directors, it is hard to think of three greater guides and mentors than Brian King, Ian Morgan and Graham Sutton.

Meanwhile TM Travel is a compact business that has been through a tough time since coming into Wellglade’s ownership.  Small enough to be manageable alongside my existing commitments, but big enough to be a meaningful player in South Yorkshire and the East Midlands, and with the board keen to see it play to its full potential, I couldn’t ask for a better opening.

In my first two months there, the scale of the opportunity has become clear.  For a start, the company is in better shape than many people acknowledge.

In the eyes of many industry commentators and enthusiasts, the company is seen as a complete basket case.

While these opinions clearly have some basis in the reality of the turmoil the company has experienced in recent years, such perceptions are rapidly becoming outdated and the truth is that the standard of service delivery is up there with the rest.

Not just our own monitoring, but also figures supplied by South Yorkshire PTE, show that our punctuality and reliability is generally in line with the big operators in the area, and with industry norms.  While the fleet age may be higher than we’d like, the standard of maintenance belies this, with a run of clear VOSA encounters leading to a green OCRS score and a MOT pass rate approaching 100 per cent.

Also in our favour is an incredibly positive and committed workforce.  Outside of Velvet, by far the best I’ve encountered.  Virtually everyone I’ve met wants the company to succeed and is brimming with ideas and suggestions on how to get there.  Yes there is work to be done to get the best out of the people and structure, but even in my short time there I’ve seen a real sense of people wanting to work together to move the company forward.

I’m under no illusions, there is a lot to do.  There are far too many rough edges operationally.  The financial performance is not where it should be, with too many marginal routes, and this has undermined any business case for fleet investment with the result that the fleet presentation is not great, with too many different liveries and hand-me-down vehicles that haven’t been properly integrated into the fleet.

Until we sort those issues out, and prove to the board that we have a company worthy of sustained investment, we will continue to hand ammunition to those who would talk us down.  But that is the challenge I’ve been put there to address, and it is exciting beyond measure.

Of course, commuting between Southampton and Sheffield is not for the faint hearted, and I simply wouldn’t do it if I thought it would damage Velvet.

But the team here know what they’re doing, and we’ve strengthened the management structure to make sure we’ve got all the bases covered.

After eighteen months in which we’ve struggled a bit following swingeing cuts in public sector funding in November 2011 and the associated loss of the C, we’ve suddenly hit a new groove and are powering forward with a vengeance.

The extension of Velvet A into Southampton last December has been steadily building in popularity and has firmly established itself at the core of our commercial offer.  The morning peak service into Southampton will be strengthened next month – filling the only real gap in service provision – and the new wave of college students and the highly popular extension of our young person fares to 5-19 year olds has opened up another new market.

To capitalise on the growth, we’ve bought five Volvo B10BLEs from Ensign, ex-Stagecoach North East, which are being refurbished as we speak.  Apart from one line which has to remain double deck due to lunchtime capacity constraints, these will sweep away the motley collection of Darts, DAFs and Solos that make our current offer on the A look rather disjointed.

More importantly, the B10BLE has a reputation for reliability and robust mechanical performance, as well as being smooth and comfortable for drivers and passengers.

Our aim is obviously to be able to afford much newer kit for the A in time, and if we can get three or four years of solid reliable performance from these buses while the patronage continues to grow, we will be well placed to make the business case in due course.

We have won the contract to take over the S1 route from First in Southampton in October, so we have extended our shopping spree to include two further Solos.  Having established a very good reputation with the customers in the area since taking over the S2 in 2010, this new contract is a great opportunity for us to extend our presence, while leaving our bigger cousins free to concentrate on their core commercial networks.

Completing our summer shopping has been a fifth low-floor DAF double decker from Dawson Rentals – Spectra T124 AUA - complementing our existing batch and allowing the withdrawal of our infamous orange Olympian – a bargain priced purchase that has served us very well but whose condition towards the end was directly at odds with the image we wished to present.

Indeed, we now only have three step entrance double deckers remaining, and realistically these will probably be fine for the college routes they serve until rather nearer the DDA deadline.

The other notable service expansion this summer has been our re-entry to the Ringwood – Southampton market that we tried briefly in 2008.  The issues that caused us to withdraw from the route at the time were more to do with the constraints on the timetable imposed by the associated contract for route 35, and we have been looking for a way back into the market ever since.

The opportunity has arisen with the acquisition of a school contract in the area that gives us a solid revenue base, and early signs are that the new improved 300 will quickly establish itself as a solid performer.

As if all that weren’t enough, the 67 has also had its share of the excitement with an improved Saturday service, and with the route showing growth we’re hopeful of more improvements to come.  And last but not least our Marwell route has really found its feet this summer, with regular driver Jeff getting into the spirit with his game hunter’s costume and toy animals strewn throughout the bus.

To say there is a lot going on would be an understatement, but it’s all positive and that’s exactly how I like it.  I work much better under pressure, and after a year and a half in which there are times when life in Eastleigh has seemed a bit mundane, the challenge of leading all these exciting new developments while shuttling 200 miles each way between two offices has me once again fired up with enthusiasm.

And that’s without even mentioning a certain modest interest in a local night club that has arrived completely out of the blue and means that my weekend nights are as action packed as the days in between.

It’s a good job I don’t really do sleep!

Friday, 29 March 2013


In the course of planning a top secret IT project, a colleague and I met a software developer in London on Friday.  He’s a lovely guy but you couldn’t wish for a sharper contrast between the traditional world of buses and the razor-sharp cutting edge of mobile technology.  While I looked unkempt in my baggy, tired old suit, he looked like the cover of a fashion magazine – so cool he needed an ice bucket to stand in.

He took us to a free range, organic, ethically sourced coffee shop.  All the other customers looked like models waiting for their next job.  My colleague had something complicated involving peppermint and hot chocolate.  This guy had something so involved it took about two minutes just to order it.  Being of simple taste I asked for an Americano.

The drinks arrived and he stared at mine, wide eyed.

“Is that, like, a normal black coffee?” he asked, his face etched with disbelief.  I replied that it was.

He reached out to shake my hand.  "Oh man," he said, "you're hardcore!"

Homeward bound by road, rail and sea

Day two started with breakfast at Tiffany’s.  We were uninspired by the prospect of a Royal Albion fry-up, and worried about being swept up into a sea of coach parties and being whisked away for an inadvertent tour of Eastbourne - even if it would include a visit to Beachy Head, a cream tea and a nice sit down on the prom.

So we checked out of our regal accommodation and set off under Keith’s guidance in the direction of some local cafes that he had scouted earlier in the morning.

Along the way, we paused to admire Brighton & Hove’s new travel shop in North Street.  This really is an object lesson in how to present public transport in a positive, welcoming way.  Featuring a spacious, bright interior with plenty of information on display and advisors on hand, and situated right in the heart of Brighton’s shopping area, this outlet really brings public transport into a modern retail setting.

Further along the road, you might be forgiven for thinking that Brighton & Hove is not the only bus company to realise the importance of a strong retail presence…

Keith’s scouting trip had identified several possible candidates for breakfast, but the pictures of old buses hanging on the wall of Tiffany’s were clearly the clincher.  The friendly, helpful server was coping manfully despite running the whole show on his own having been let down by his business partner (“she’s still in bed, the lazy cow”).

He also had no change, and just to prove that the bus industry is not unique, several customers were sent to a shop next door to get change – although at least he didn’t refuse to cook their breakfast until they did so, or try to give them a change voucher.  In several cases, the problem was overcome simply by negotiating the price of breakfast to the nearest round number.

During breakfast we were again able to impress the locals with our ability to cover every available piece of furniture with maps and timetables and soon decided that the next stage of our adventure would be in the hands of new local independent – one of several companies to emerge following the demise of Countryliner in late 2012.

Brand names ending in .com were fashionable in the so called “dot com bubble” of the late nineties when – by coincidence – virtually all of’s fleet was manufactured.

Branding a nineties fleet with a nineties brand name is of course a genius attempt at creating a heritage fleet without anyone noticing.

If you buy a Bristol something-or-other from the fifties, paint it green with a cream stripe down the side and apply any fleetname in a suitably florid typeface, everyone can see what you’re up to straight away.  Drop words like “Tilling” and “superintendent” into the conversation and you need a drip tray for all the dribble hitting the floor as grown men are reduced to gibbering toddlers.

Replace fifties with nineties and write “.com” on the side and you’ve done exactly the same thing with Dennis Darts. And you don’t even need a drip tray.  Well you do, clearly, because they’re Dennis Darts so they will routinely leak from every orifice but at least that’s what the drip tray is designed for.

For proof that I’m on to something, look no further than the fact that is associated with a coach company called – guess what – Heritage!

The P-reg Dart that picked us up for a ride on the 40 to Haywards Heath even had period moquette – a red chequered pattern of a design commonly found on Plaxton dealer stock buses in the late  nineties.

But one thing to be said about is that they ooze enthusiasm.  The website – while doing its best to stick to the design principles of the late nineties – is packed full of useful and interesting information and they seem to have the customer very much at the heart of their thinking – an approach which of course endears me to them immediately.  Our driver lived up to the image – helpful and friendly, if slightly haphazard.

All was going superbly until we reached Burgess Hill town centre when the air system on our Dart decided that one morning’s work without a failure was too much to expect (this is an attitude shared by air systems on Darts everywhere) and the doors failed.

After much forelorn prodding of the “open” and “close” buttons, and with a short queue of nice old ladies waiting outside wondering why they couldn’t join the rest of us on board, our driver called for medical advice.

As he jumped out of the cab it became clear that what he made up for in enthusiasm he lacked in height, and when the fitter on the other end of the phone asked him to access the door controls situated in a locker above the door, we could see ourselves being there a while.

Sadly for the step ladder industry in Burgess Hill, our Keith spotted the predicament and raced to the rescue, and with the driver relaying instructions and the much taller Keith twiddling the pressure control, within seconds the doors were operational again.  As our fourth emergency service returned jubilantly to his seat (he is, after all, a very nice man), the elderly gent sat across the aisle enquired if he would be available to ride round on all their buses, all the time!

Meanwhile the heritage theme continued as I was descending into nostalgia.  The route of the 40 is almost identical to the all stations rail replacement route from Brighton to Haywards Heath – for no particular reason that I could tell you, my favourite of the many rail replacement routes upon which I have worked.

I hadn’t worked this route since 2007 so for me it was an “all my yesterdays” trip down memory lane.  At that time the newly created Go South Coast – with me in charge of the eastern front as Area Director for Solent Blue Line and Southern Vectis – was heavily involved in providing buses for Southern Railways weekend rail replacement.

When the Brighton main line was being dug up, the A23 between Crawley and the coast resembled an episode of Wacky Races, with double deckers of every shape and colour being fired off from each end every few minutes for the non-stop journey.

But for the more discerning driver, the opportunity was often available to borrow a coach from the newly acquired Marchwood Motorways, and work the slow road from Three Bridges to the English Channel, taking in Balcombe, Haywards Heath, Wivelsfield, Burgess Hill, Hassocks, Preston Park and Brighton.

A certain amount of smugness was called for as most drivers from our neck of the woods didn’t know the all stations route and it was nice to have one up on them.  It must be said my smugness diminished slightly the day a gentleman decided to count to two in his trousers on a particularly hot day with the heating stuck on in my coach.  And then after getting the coach cleaned out and virtually fumigated, he did the same on the way back.  But that’s a story for another day.

Back to the present day, and our arrival in Haywards Heath was enlivened by the sight of an Ikarus DAF SB220 still in full Wilts & Dorset livery and apparently recently acquired by

This turned out to be the only memorable thing about our visit to Haywards Heath and within minutes we were on a First Capital Connect train bound for Gatwick Airport and our first busway of the day.

We emerged from the railway station into the South Terminal at Gatwick jostling with business people and leisure travels, bound for far flung cities on distant continents.  Our destination was Crawley.

For an international airport, the bus experience starts so well.  On all the signs within the terminal building are prominent directions to Metrobus local bus services – even incorporating the Metrobus logo, a rare feat on what are normally dull, neutral signs.  Metrobus have elevated themselves to the same status as the top level hotel brands and certainly have greater prominence than the car hire companies, and all credit to them.

Sadly the experience unravels slightly when you discover that the route pointed out by the signs takes you out through a fire exit, down several flights of stairs, along the side of a busy dual carriageway, through a dark, dingy underpass and back up the other side again.

Once you get there, the bus stop is superb.  A huge shelter, first class electronic information and a wide supply of timetable leaflets to pick up.

I have no idea whether the route from the terminal to the stop is an airport or highway authority issue, or indeed whether any improvements are planned, but it is desperately sad when compared with the first class infrastructure before and after, to have to endure this dismal hike through the back of beyond to connect the two.

I am a huge fan of Metrobus, can only dream of building a fleet and network as impressive as theirs and have particular admiration for the way they have transformed the image of public transport in an area where once it had been run into the ground.

It saddens me therefore to report that our short trip on Fastway 10 was an anti-climax.   I have never liked the Scania OmniCity, finding them to be claustrophobic, and this example seemed to have more bars and railings than a children’s playpen, giving the impression that we were incarcerated in a blue and orange prison.

Our prison warder, ensconced behind the steering wheel, did little to dispel this impression with his spartan approach to customer service.  Not actually rude, but no welcome, pleases or thank yous and the distinct impression that we passengers were merely an inconvenience to be endured for the eight hours between coming to work and going home from work.

We knew that we wouldn’t see much actual busway on this trip – most of the guided track is out to the south of the town centre so we had to make do with a short stretch across a roundabout.  But we stoked ourselves with anticipation nevertheless, enjoyed the moment when it came and it qualified as our first busway ride of the day.

Alighting in Crawley Bus Station, we briefly debated finding somewhere for lunch, but then remembered that we were in Crawley and that the best strategy was therefore to leave quickly.

Ideally, we would have liked to have wended our way gradually westwards in a mirror of the previous day’s trip, but Alex and Keith had to catch a train home from Southampton early that evening so we were constrained for time.  The next planned move was therefore a hefty jump by rail through the scenic Arun Valley to Portsmouth to sample our second busway of the day.

One of many things that Metrobus take seriously is timetables, and their bus station travel shop was festooned with interesting publicity.  I got quite excited about a possible option involving a quick trip to Horsham on the 23 to see the newest part of the Metrobus empire and a new bus station to boot.  We could have continued our rail journey from there, but a quick check of the National Rail website revealed that Southern Railway were having a bad day, and the train we would have needed to catch had been cancelled.

We therefore reverted to plan A and crossed the road to Crawley Station.  After settling ourselves into the relaxing surroundings of an almost empty Southern train and wallpapering the carriage with bus timetables to while away the journey, we were able to pass a very agreeable hour chilling out after a frenetic morning.

Our train was actually headed for Southampton and we were required to change in Cosham to reach Portsmouth, so somewhere along the way we realized it would be much more fun to leave the railway at Cosham and work our way into the city centre on the bus – particularly as it was not long since the network had been completely overhauled.

We soon found ourselves at the tiny little bus station just south of Cosham railway station, pondering our options.  The level of service available from here is excellent, with several high frequency services available.  We worked out that we had a choice of three routes for a direct journey into Portsmouth city centre, with a combined frequency of 16 buses per hour.

However, it seems a pity that despite all the fanfare surrounding the launch of the new network, First don’t seem to have found a way to present this kind of headline information drawing attention to the frequencies available.

The only way we could work out the offer was by wandering round to each individual stop and checking the timetable displays on the stops – and even then it helped to have a reasonable knowledge of the area to be able to filter out the options that were less direct.  So I got to the right answer by comparing four different timetables on two different stops, and I wonder how many potential casual users would have that level of patience and determination.

When the bus did arrive – after only a few moments of waiting - it was a pretty standard corporate First Group Dart, tidy and cleanly presented and gratifyingly busy.   The driver helpfully guided us to tickets that would cover us for all our planned journeys across the First Hampshire network and we sat down.

Immediately on so doing, I was propelled about seven years back in time.  This bus had clearly been based at Southampton depot at some time in its history and since moving east, it appeared to have evaded any efforts to update its internal adverts.

Among the usual depressing selection of posters highlighting the perils of sexual diseases, domestic abuse and drug addiction was a particularly aggressive message apparently produced by Southampton City Council and partners, telling us in no uncertain terms that we WOULD be prosecuted (What for?  Riding on a bus in Portsmouth?)

The poster attracted my attention only because it featured the Solent Blue Line logo from the mid-2000s, and one which disappeared from use in 2007 shortly after I too disappeared from use at Go South Coast!.  An unexpected reminder of my past in an unexpected place!

It was of course superseded by the Bluestar identity, so if nothing else it gave me another excuse to remind the award-winning Alex Hornby that the award-winning Bluestar brand was invented by me!  To be fair he has never been slow to acknowledge this, but I still enjoy gently winding him up about it from time to time.

Finding ourselves at the Hard Interchange some half an hour later, flanked by the ultra-modern Gunwharf Quays development on one side and the immaculately restored HMSVictory on the other, the next stage of our adventure was to take to the high seas aboard the Gosport Ferry.

This delightfully municipal affair shuttles backwards and forwards all day on its five hundred metre voyage across the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour (and that’s not as simple as it sounds – in 2005 during the preparations for Trafalgar 200 I was present when the US Navy lost a boatload of cadets for around half an hour somewhere between the two).

The slogan of the Gosport Ferry – “it’s shorter by water” – was clearly inspired by the same advertising genius who coined such memorable phrases as “a lot less fuss by bus”.  It lives up to its billing though, and in no time at all we were marching up the gangway filled with excitement at the prospect of our long-awaited ride on Eclipse.

Even more excitement was generated by the presence of no fewer than two information offices in Gosport Bus Station.  Most towns this size would be lucky to retain one such outlet these days, but as you enter the terminal you find yourself torn by the attractions of the tourist information office on your right or the First enquiry office on your left.  A quick check of both revealed a virtually identical stock of transport publicity so we were soon in possession of yet more timetables for our collections.

Eclipse is a superb project.  Many years in the gestation, the heart of it is an arrow-straight dedicated busway built on the trackbed of an old railway line.  Buses using the busway can escape the chronic traffic congestion of the parallel A32 to provide a fast, comfortable journey along the Gosport – Fareham peninsula.

It seems a pity therefore that the start of the Eclipse experience is very low-key.  I had imagined the departure bays would be decorated in the brand identity, with welcoming messages to make potential customers feel that they were going to experience something different.

Instead, while there is an information panel in the bus station concourse, the bays themselves only identify themselves with small standard corporate signs referring to “First E1 E2”.  It is left to the potential user to work out for themselves that this is the gateway to the region’s most exciting, state of the art transport link.

Once aboard the bus, everything is different.  With a fleet of new vehicles boasting a very high-spec interior, it is clear that no effort has been spared to consider how to make the service as attractive as possible.  And despite a slow journey out of Gosport, once on to the busway we could really appreciate the quality of the infrastructure.

The vehicles, the “track” itself and the bus stop amenities are all very impressive and it is clear why this project will attract people for whom public transport would never previously have been an option.

Fareham Bus Station seems to have benefitted from a little more effort to promote the new link, with prominent welcoming messages at the entrance, but still with those dreaded “First E1 E2” signs in the bus station itself.

I suppose the conclusion is, fantastic product, shame about the terminals!

The last leg of our trip – simply to get Alex and Keith back to Southampton to catch their homeward train – consisted of an hour-long ride aboard Solent Ranger X4.

This is a new First route that emerged from last year’s network changes across the region, all part of an impressive effort to tidy up the historically messy service offer in the semi-urban sprawl west of Fareham.  The route runs all the way from Southampton to Portsmouth, meeting myriad requests for a through service between the two, albeit with a long journey time.  And whatever one thinks of the First livery, the brand looks impressive in the flesh and certainly gives a big lift to the S-reg Darts to which it is applied.

Sadly all this excitement hadn’t quite succeeded in energizing our driver.  Arriving early at 1551 for a 1555 departure, but with a crew change required, the new driver emerged from the office at 1558 and it was around 1602 before we were underway.  The full seated load however was impressive all the same, and it’s just a pity that the road network in the area frustrates any attempt to provide a journey time that lives up to the “X” in the service number.

Back in Southampton at the end of an intense two days roaming the public transport network of the south of England, we managed to summon up just enough energy to drag ourselves to a restaurant for food and beer before my travelling colleagues set off for home.

Before we started, we had been afraid that we might have found this trip boring.  Compared to our previous European adventures where we had new places to explore and different cultures to experience, on this occasion we were relying solely on the transport to provide the excitement.  We had wondered whether there was enough entertainment to be found in sitting on buses all day.

But to our pleasant surprise we had found that on each leg of our journey there had been something of interest – whether it be the staff, the vehicles, the infrastructure, our fellow travellers, or a combination of all of them – we had never been bored and never been short of things to talk about.

All we have to decide now is where to go next!