Exciting news today was the announcement that Peak Line 218 is a finalist for the Making Buses A Better Choice Award at the UK Bus Awards.
The rejuvenation of the 218 has been one of the most rewarding projects of my bus industry career so its shortlisting gives me a lot of personal satisfaction.
When I arrived at TM Travel, the 218 was a major problem - undoubtedly the biggest single problem that the company was facing, and it had plenty to be going on with! Old, inaccessible double deckers and an over-ambitious timetable were just two of the factors combining to give the route a well-deserved bad reputation.
My own first experience of bus services on this corridor had come some time back in 2012 when I was travelling in the area for pleasure, little knowing that I would one day be in charge. I caught what was actually a 215 from Matlock to Sheffield one wet afternoon. It was a L-reg Leyland Olympian with a different moquette on virtually every seat squab. I went upstairs, sat down on the front nearside seat and the seat squab split in two and collapsed straight through the seat frame.
By the time of my appointment the company had made one really good decision - which really paved the way for the future success - and that was to concentrate the daytime service on the 218 corridor at the expense of the 215, taking a more urban route into Sheffield along Abbeydale Road. As well as allowing for a simpler timetable, this put the resources where the people were and made the commercial performance of the route much stronger.
Although the scenery of the 215 route from Fox House through Grindleford to Calver is superb, it is very thin bus territory. While part of the corridor's strength is its tourist appeal, the value of this market on its own is nowhere near enough to support an hourly commercial service. And in any case in my view the scenery from Owler Bar down to Baslow on the 218 route is arguably even nicer - certainly more dramatic and offering more contrasts within a short distance.
The new hourly 218 timetable had been registered before I got there but started operating shortly after my arrival. Relying on a three hour cycle time, almost an hour of which spent on the A6 corridor around Matlock and Bakwell and with only five minutes at one end and seven at the other, the reality soon became apparent that on busy days it just couldn't keep time.
As careful readers of the "comments" section on previous blog posts will know, TM had all sorts of reputational issues at the time anyway, with no shortage of people holding negative views of the company and wasting no opportunity to express them. Although some of these views were exaggerated, some outdated and some just simply not true, many did in fact highlight perfectly valid criticisms and those targeted at the 215/218 were foremost among these.
In my desk drawer shortly after my arrival I found a folder stuffed full of letters complaining about the timekeeping and vehicle standards on the route, and although there were already some signs of improvement, the issues did not sufficiently ease with the new timetable.
For one thing, the vehicle quality did not improve and although Leyland Olympians are generally reliable, they were getting a bit long in the tooth for fourteen hour operating days so in some cases were proving quite problematic. Moreover they were showing their age inside and the passenger environment in some instances was terrible.
Through the summer of 2013, the timetable often struggled in the face of terrible Peak District traffic congestion - especially along the A6 - and those correspondents who had resorted to taking logs of the poor punctuality were continuing to write in with detailed observations.
However, the improving commercial performance brought about by the route change gave us hope that the route had a long term future. The only issues were what to do, and when to do it.
We knew the route would need vehicle investment and over the winter of 2013/14 investigated various opportunities for fleet updating. But nothing we saw really appealed to us. All that was available in quantity was ex-London Dennis Tridents, and I just wasn't convinced that they would be man enough for the very arduous terrain.
Meanwhile we had made two changes to mitigate the operating issues. Firstly, we had altered the bus graph so that the buses all dropped back an hour in Sheffield. This didn't require any extra vehicles at peak times so there was no real vehicle cost, and as the drivers had to change over each trip there was no staff cost either. The big advantage was that any delays would be contained on the round trip on which they occurred, and would not knock on to successive trips as it would have an hour to recover.
We had also put in place a Customer Assistant in Sheffield Interchange. We had identified that one of the big issues with the 218 was that even if the driver and bus were on stand in good time, it would take far longer than the time available to load a full bus. Inevitably on a route of this nature, many customers are unfamiliar with the area, the bus route and sometimes with bus travel generally, so many people had questions and ticketing took a long time.
The Customer Assistant was able to speak to waiting customers and resolve queries and give advice on tickets before the bus appeared on stand, ensuring that when it did the customers would be lined up with their money ready, their questions already answered and knowing which tickets to request.
Coupled with the withdrawal of some of the very worst of the 'deckers due to other service changes, we were confident that these measures would contribute to a meaningful improvement in performance. And as we didn't want to contemplate a major relaunch until we were certain we had the right product with the right vehicle, we decided that we would go through 2014 without any further changes. After all, assuming commercial performance remained strong it would strengthen the case for investment in time for 2015.
By and large, it worked. Timekeeping during 2014 was noticeably more reliable. Complaints dropped like a stone - the numbers received were a tiny fraction of previous experience. And the positive results were reflected in excellent revenue and passenger numbers.
Nevertheless, a 20-year old Leyland Olympian doesn't get any younger, and accessibility was becoming a big issue - not just for ourselves as a commercial proposition, but for the Chatsworth Estate - one of the major destinations on the route. We had always maintained a good relationship with them but they were making it clear that the buses were letting us down.
So as the summer season of 2014 drew to a close we were fully absorbed in planning for a major overhaul of the 218, to be ready for implementation early in 2015.
The first stage in the process was to take the staff to the pub. Not while on duty of course, but one evening in autumn 2014 we sat down with all the regular drivers on the route along with representatives of controllers and the engineering team. We thrashed out all the issues that they perceived, discussed some ideas that we had had, invited suggestions from them and started to build a picture of what might and might not work.
This might seem like a really basic step, and yet it is still the exception rather than the norm around the industry in my experience. Nobody understands operational issues better than the team who drive, clean, control and maintain the buses every day, and many are more switched on commercially than managers are sometimes willing to acknowledge. Of course they will not have all the answers and the management team will have to make the final decisions but to make such decisions without being aware of as many day-to-day issues as possible would seem foolhardy to me.
Apart from the factual content discussed, this was a great evening because it really underlined the commitment of the drivers on that rota. Every single one attended - unprecedented for such an event in my experience - and it was clear that they were desperate to put on a better service for the customer and were full of ideas and determination to make it happen.
The planning process itself was marked by two brave decisions.
The first of these was to dispense with double deckers and go for an enhanced frequency with single deckers. For a scenic route, my heart - and that of many of the team - was that double deckers were the right answer. However, low floor double deckers generally have lower capacity than the Olympians, and key journeys were often full - sometimes to the point of needing duplicates but not always. Running smaller vehicles on a 'one for one' basis just didn't feel right.
The second decision was to split the route at Bakewell. Careful analysis of patronage data showed that around 80% of passenger movements were between Sheffield and Bakewell but a third of the resource was tied up with the extension to Matlock - the section of route that in any event was the most problematic for traffic congestion.
I felt strongly that we could achieve more growth on the core section if we were simply promoting a simple Sheffield - Bakewell service and dealt with the Matlock route separately. In the event our Deputy General Manager Paul Hopkinson, who also does the scheduling, came up with an ingenious plan which worked the Matlock section into the Matlock town network, and credit must go to Derbyshire County Council for their willing agreement.
Of course this meant that we would forego any end-to-end traffic. But part of good commercial thinking is to recognise what you are good at and concentrate on that, and not try to be all things to all people. Stagecoach offer an excellent service between Sheffield and Matlock in the form of their X17 and I had no qualms about our small remaining number of end-to-end passengers drift over to them as an alternative, on the basis that this should be more than offset by growth on Sheffield - Bakewell.
We looked all around the market for suitable single deckers - the decentralised Wellglade management style means that we were under no obligation to buy from within the group and could investigate any options that suited our purpose. We also briefly considered the new versus second hand debate, but for a scheme in a part of the group that had been struggling, the capital costs would have imposed a massive burden in terms of unrealistic amounts of growth that would be needed.
Instead, we found the answer right under our noses in the form of 2003-04 registered Scanias from trentbarton. Although some people raised an eyebrow at our enthusiasm for 12 year old buses, they are totally fit for purpose, being solid heavyweight vehicles perfectly suited for the challenging topography and with excellent comfort and reliability. And so they have proved.
But we were able to justify an extensive top to bottom refurbishment involving work on the body behind the scenes, as well as the more obvious work of retrimming seats, repairing the floors and fitting the all-important free wifi and USB charging sockets that we believed our customers would find invaluable. We also went to Hanover Displays for their excellent next stop audio visual system as we felt that this would give a great deal of comfort, reassurance and information for those unfamiliar with the area, as well as the obvious benefits for those with sight impairments.
We equipped the drivers with a dedicated uniform and delivered additional training to give them more awareness of the Peak District as a destination.
As a really nice additional touch, we knew that the route attracted many international customers due to the popularity of Chatsworth, and chief among those the Chinese. With the help of the University of Sheffield, we were able to use the next stop AV to record a welcome message in Mandarin.
As well as agreeing discounted admission for bus passengers at Chatsworth, we also made contact with Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet - another important visitor attraction in the area - and negotiated a similar agreement there.
The icing on the cake was a superb livery and brand design by Alive With Ideas - an outstanding design agency (they actually call themselves an ideas agency because their creativity extends far beyond simple design) with whom we have worked on our other rebranding exercises in TM, and prior to that I had used at Velvet.
The rejuvenated Peak Line 218 was ready for launch, and the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop kindly obliged with 218 free Bakewell Puddings, which we gave away to hungry passers by at a launch event at Hallam Square in Sheffield on a snowy day in late January.
The improvements haven't stopped there though. Another excellent piece of co-operation with Derbyshire resulted in the Sunday timetable increasing to half hourly for the summer season, right through until late October when the hourly winter Sunday service will resume - so that during the main part of the day the timetable has been consistent seven days a week.
A further improvement still to come will result in the remaining evening journeys which operate along route 215 becoming 218s from 25th October, giving much more attractive options for people returning home from work.
In a few weeks we will begin a formal review to see what changes - if any - are needed for 2016.
However, customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive since the launch, and reflected in very strong patronage growth.
Earlier in the season we faced a Public Inquiry in connection with past service unreliability, much of which stemmed from past complaints, but we were able to demonstrate to the Deputy Traffic Commissioner our commitment to the route and the improvements we had made, and as such were delighted that she decided to take no further action against us.
Of course things aren't perfect. I find it deeply frustrating when we are unable to field all four branded vehicles on a given day. Delays still occur so timekeeping isn't perfect. We have had to schedule in additional vehicle workings (which by definition can't be branded vehicles) on Bank Holidays for example to reflect the major traffic issues evident on such days. I would never claim that there is not more that we can do.
However, this route has undergone a step change in quality and reliability in the last two years. It bears no resemblance now to the product that customers encountered back in 2013. Of course we hope it will clinch the award but there is stiff competition with some excellent shortlisted projects from elsewhere in the country. But if you had told me on the day I fell through the seat that one day under my watch it would be shortlisted for an award, I would have taken that gladly.
I am immensely proud of the vast efforts made by the whole team to get the brand to where it is today. It is important to mention in particular the role of Ben Mansfield, erstwhile Service Performance Manager who has now gone on to bigger and better things with Transdev Blazefield, as it was his drive and energy that pulled the whole project together.
But whether it be the drivers who take the successful operation of the route and the needs of their customers so seriously and indeed so personally, or those behind the scenes in the workshop, control room and management team, it has been a whole team effort to get the brand to where it is now and in my eyes they are all winners whatever happens on 24th November.